Less is More in Sustainable Design

 This week I guided a design workshop at the College of Management School of Design in Israel. Twenty-five interior design students were asked to leave their comfort zone and computers for a week, and focus on materials and hands-on construction. Their assignment was to design a real structure within the campus, using at least 50% recycled and reclaimed materials.
The timeframe was very tight. On the first day, they formed work groups, chose a site, and produced ideas and sketches. The next morning we discussed their proposals, fine-tuned their design, and went looking for materials. By mid-day designs were finalized and work begun. On Wednesday, as their projects were being erected on the site, they were briefed on safety issues by the campus security expert. By Thursday afternoon, the projects were completed.
The groups chose six sites around the campus, where they created different types of outdoor seating installations. They used salvaged wood collected from local businesses, wooden pallets, construction blocks, used tires, old fabric, plastic bottles, and old mattresses. The limitation in freely purchasing materials obliged them to become more creative with what there was available. Their initial hesitation to explore new ground, turned into a feeling of empowerment, once the old materials were tamed into new life and new uses.

On Thursday afternoon, at the summarizing meeting, one after the other the students expressed their satisfaction in the experience and their fulfillment in dealing with something they never did before. They not only managed to meet the tight deadline and successfully overcome problems along the way – including personality clashes inside the team, but they had overcome their own limitations, learning to work as a team and acquiring new skills in a very short time as well.

Unlike many of my peers, I believe the building design professions have a social and environmental mission to fulfil. It is not only because architects I respect, like Le Corbusier and Hassan Fathy, addressed social issues through their architecture. It is also because buildings have a considerable ecological footprint as well. They are responsible for consuming 40% of produced energy, about 25% of wood and minerals and 18% of water resources. Building design professionals can really make a difference in developing sustainable design practices in buildings: from passive solar design in building orientation and planning, to specifying sustainable materials and construction methods.
In school, young professionals learn the basics in building design and technologies, but not always get enough exposure to sustainable practices. It is often through design workshops – like the one I headed this week, and the ones my NGO ECOWEEK organizes around the world – that students and young professionals also consider the environmental impact of their work. Further, they are exposed to reusing existing materials – instead of treating them as waste – training their creativity in limited resources, learning new skills in sustainable practices, and becoming more environmentally aware and empowered as citizens.
The new global trend set by the Trump administration, purposefully underplays the challenges the Earth is facing today. Human activity and the impact on the climate is a global challenge, especially as it affects resources depletion, and production of waste.
The Earth Overshoot Day is a concept that marks the date on which annual consumption of Earth’s resources exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources and thus humanity enters an ecological deficit. Last year, the Earth Overshoot Day, was August 8. Back in 1987 it was December 19, and since then it has been taking place earlier each year. The deficit means that humanity is consuming the natural capital - instead of the natural interest - that supports life on Earth, meaning that each year there is less capital and less interest, while humanity’s thirst for development and natural resources is increasing. This deficit manifests itself, among others, in shrinking forests, loss of species and biodiversity, collapse of fisheries, and higher commodity prices.
Teaching young professionals how to make more with less, and to reuse materials, instead of turning them into waste and consuming new resources instead, is a very important lesson for the new generation of building professionals. It not only allows them to be more creative and empowered, but it also makes more sense in terms of using natural resources within the Earth’s capacity.
Limiting today’s excessive consumption and aiming to live within the Earth’s capacity is not a new concept. About half a century ago, a group of scientists published ‘Limits to Growth’, a book presenting the interactions between the Earth's and human systems, based on a computer simulation of exponential economic and population growth. The study concluded that in order for humanity to live sustainably, three conditions are necessary: limiting population growth, applying renewable energy sources, and setting a limit on how much is ‘enough’ for everyone on Earth to enjoy equally the resources of the planet.
With new materials coming out in abundance, and design magazines raising expectations about excessive design in private and public projects – from private villas with aquarium walls to extravagantly furbished private offices – Mies Van der Rohe’s famous ‘less is more’ is as relevant today, as it was seventy years ago. Especially, in an ecological context, it urges exploring quality and meaning in buildings while using less resources.
The next generation of building design professionals has great challenges ahead. We can teach them to develop their design abilities and skills through academic curricula and design workshops. However, it is their decision to make: choose ‘business as usual’ and be part of the problem; or choose to make a difference and be part of the (sustainable) solution.