Design Education for a Sustainable Future, a book by Rob Fleming

Sustainability is a powerful force that is fundamentally reshaping humanity’s relationship to the natural world and is ushering in the Age of Integration. The move from well-intentioned environmental friendliness to the higher bar of integral sustainability and regenerative design demands a new type of design professional, one that is deeply collaborative, ethically grounded, empathically connected and technologically empowered.

As a response, this book argues for a great leap forward in design education: from an individualistic and competitive model casually focused on greening; to a new approach defined by an integral consciousness, shaped by the values of inclusivity and cooperation, and implemented by a series of integrative behaviors including:

  • an ethically infused design brief
  • a co-creative design process
  • on-going value engineering
  • pre-emptive engineering
  • design validation through simulation
  • on-line enabled integrated learning
  • the use of well vetted rating systems.

This book contains the integral frameworks, whole system change methodologies and intrinsic values that will assist professors and their students in an authentic and effective pursuit of design education for a sustainable future.

Design Education for a Sustainable Future, a book by Rob Fleming

Design Education for a Sustainable Future, a book by Rob Fleming

Design Education for a Sustainable Future


 form follows world view


The premise of this book is remarkably simple. It is based on a series of
straightforward questions that seek to uncover the context, values and
behaviors necessary for effective twenty-first century design education. Is
society moving towards a new sustainable or integral world view, a new
set of cultural values that are reshaping the very fabric of human
existence? If so, how are such profound shifts in consciousness
impacting the design and construction industries? And how can design
educators better reflect the zeitgeist of the new century by moving from
well-intentioned but lightweight “greening” to the deeper and more
impactful ideals of sustainability and resilience?

The process of answering these questions begins with the requisite
historical narrative which explores cultural evolution not as a slow and
gradual rise to new levels of complexity but rather through a series of
hyper-accelerated jumps in human consciousness. The jump from
dispersed Hunter Gatherer cultures to centralized agrarian societies and
then to industrialized nations correlates well to the convergence of new
energy sources and the invention of new communication technologies.

Jeremy Rifkin argues in his book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to
Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis
 that “The convergence of
energy and communications revolutions not only reconfigures society
and social roles and relationships but also human consciousness itself.”1
The early twenty-first century, as characterized by unprecedented sharing
of information via wireless networks and by the emergence of renewable
energy technologies, demarcates a threshold from one world view to
another, a jump from an industrialized conception of nature as
immutable and infinite to a Gaia inspired view of nature as alive,
intelligent and, most of all, fragile in the hands of man.

The principles of sustainability, which emphasize ecological regeneration
and co-creative processes, comprise a new and powerful ideal that is
reshaping technologically driven initiatives, especially those associated
with the design and construction of the built environment. Societal
conceptions of money and profit, consumerism, design and technology
are radically shifting to address the superficial but useful demands of
“greening,” and are leading to finding deeper and more impactful
processes to meet the much higher bar of sustainability.

The unpacking of such lofty but important aspirations must include the
painful but necessary establishment of the territory and domain of
sustainability and sustainable design as a means of laying the groundwork
for a more in-depth look at design education. For many designers, the
word “sustainability” is taboo. Some refrain from using it at all due to a
high level of confusion (thanks, in part, to “green washing”) surrounding
both the word itself and its connotations. Others use the word naively, as
a catch-all for all things good and progressive. In addition, the meaning
of the word shifts when understood in the context of different parts the
world, different economies and differing cultural expectations of quality of
life. Despite such complexities, the actual meaning of sustainability and its
connotations comprise the epicenter of a vast paradigmatic jump from an
industrialized design approach dominated by materialism, technological
expression and what Thomas Friedman called situational values2 to a
design approach supported by virtual simplicity, environmental
regeneration and an adoption of sustainable values. In short, the
developed world is moving from a focus on raising the standard of living
via technological progress, as defined by comfort and convenience, to a
focus on a higher quality of life as defined by meaningful embodied
experiences and through relationships with each other and with nature.

The amorphous nature of sustainability is both its great strength and its
weakness. As such, it allows for multiple entry points: from biophilic and
emergent design expressions to tectonically inspired energy efficient
designs to socially responsible activism. While John Elkington’s Triple
Bottom Line of People, Profit and Planet is now well established in the
world of commerce and government, the simple yet compelling
collection of words has yet to become part of the designer’s mental
matrix. Opportunities such as economic viability and environmental
regeneration are slowly and awkwardly finding their way into the
mainstream of design education thinking, while the inclusion of socially
responsible design varies from school to school and from studio to
studio. Susan Szenasy, editor in chief of Metropolis magazine, argues in
the Journal of Interior Design that “after all, social equity is one leg of a
three-legged sustainability stool; the other two legs are ecology and
economy.”3 While the three-legged stool of sustainability is on one level
a powerful icon of the new sense of integration, on another level it is
deeply troubling for the designer. The absence of the experience of
sustainability is problematic not just for designers but for society as a
whole. Are we to be left with blocks and blocks of highly performing
built projects that leave little, if any, nourishment for the soul? Lance
Hosey argues in his new book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology
and Design
, “If it’s not beautiful, it’s not sustainable. Aesthetic attraction
is not a superficial concern – it’s an environmental imperative.”4 Indeed,
the idea that buildings, landscapes and interiors must be both highly
performing and also beautiful helps to form the nucleus of the proposed
“Quadruple Bottom Line,” a term developed in collaboration with
Sustainable Design student Anne Sherman to add the experiential or
aesthetic component to the existing triple bottom line tenets of
environment, economics and equity. The addition of experience into the
now well established collection of equity, enterprise and ecology
prompts the discarding of the utilitarian three-legged stool of the triple
bottom line in favor of the more comfortable and inviting four-legged
chair of sustainability. In this way, the entry point for designers is wide
open, offering an avenue of exploration that is more familiar and
therefore more accessible to the typical designer and, by default, the
typical design educator.

But the need for the aesthetic pathway speaks volumes to the inability of
design professionals and educators to embrace sustainability in all of its
phases and meanings. The fixation on aesthetics, formalism, tectonics
and space making at the expense of directly addressing larger societal
issues partially explains the slow movement towards more integrated
and sustainable practices in both practice and the academies.
Ultimately, LEED rated green buildings need not be ugly, while highly
evocative and beguiling design expressions need not be devoid of an
ethical foundation. Evolving the design professions to higher states of
consciousness does not demand a paradigm shift so much as it does
the transcendence to a new more integrated world view, and the
inclusion of all preceding world views. The approach of “both and” or
“transcend and include” recognizes the continuing value of all previous
world views and plays an essential role in the establishment of new
design consciousness not as a choice between the past and present, but
rather as an additional motivation to pursue sustainability. The emerging
integral world view is best described in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory,
while Mark DeKay’s Integral Sustainable Design serves as a powerful
framework to organize, unite and catalyze the various forces that shape
the sustainable built environment.

The implications of the new world view for design educators are
staggering. Current educational models can be characterized as
exclusive, competitive, formalistic and isolated and do not reflect the
emerging sensibilities of the spirit of the age. As far back as 1968,
Whitney M. Young, Jr., head of the Urban League, challenged the AIA
on issues relating to social responsibility and diversity within the
profession.5 In 1991, Kathryn Anthony, in her book Design Juries on
, offered the first whispers of a need for changing the way projects
are reviewed.6 In 1996, Boyer and Mitgang in their publication Building
Community recommended that architects and architectural educators
assume a leadership role preserving the environment and the planet’s
resources.7 In 2001, the AIAS Studio Culture document cited “hazing”
as one of the attributes of design education.8 An exhaustive 2006 AIA
sponsored report, Ecological Literacy in Architecture Education by Lance
Hosey and Kira Gould, suggests that design educators are only just
beginning to nudge at the opportunities presented by sustainability.9 But
the emergence of a new design consciousness asks: if form follows
world view, and if integration is the new consciousness, then how will
that impact design education?

The process begins with understanding some core values – inclusion
and cooperation – and by pursuing a set of integral core behaviors:
beginning with inclusion, the question of “who designs” has new
meaning in the age of collaboration, cooperation and integration.
Those students marginalized due to the color of their skin, their gender
or any other difference comprise generations of lost design talent for the
industry and perpetuates the perception and reality of design as an
exclusive club. Those without design training – clients, neighbors,
engineering consultants and builders – have limited entry points in the
typical design process and even less so in academic projects, despite
the fact that their contributions clearly shape the overall design product.
The drive towards inclusion raises many questions, including: How will
the largely Caucasian dominated design academies overcome years of
privilege to build more diverse and inclusive learning communities?
How will the design professions let go of their tight control over
discipline territory to open opportunities for meaningful collaboration?

If inclusivity sets the cast of characters for effective collaborations, the
rules of engagement that govern design education must evolve to
feature the intention to create highly cooperative learning environments.
The shift from teaching design as a solitary creative pursuit bereft of
contingencies to teaching designers to become facilitators of diverse
groups, integrators of ethical content, and generators of highly
evocative and beautiful places is reflected by Jeremy Till in his 2009
book Architecture Depends: “This in turn suggests a move from architect
as expert problem solver to that of architect as citizen sense maker; a
move from a reliance on the impulsive imagination of the
lone genius to that of the collaborative ethical imagination;
from clinging to notions of total control to a relaxed
acceptance of letting go.”10

The integrated design process as applied to design education can allow
for the horizontal and equitable participation of all students regardless
of discipline, skill level or personality. Such leveling of the playing field is
supported by Rifkin, who writes: “The traditional assumption that “knowledge is power” and is used for personal gain is being subsumed by the notion that knowledge is an expression of the shared responsibilities for the collective well-being of humanity and the planet as a whole.”11

Ultimately, the question must be asked: how will studio professors
overcome the years of heredity that drive the physically punishing and
emotionally draining competitive design studio for one that is uplifting,
optimistic and life enriching? Inclusivity and cooperation demand new
behaviors from academics such as the realignment of studio curricula to
account for the rise of flatter, more contingent, more interdisciplinary
work. Pre-emptive engineering, for example, as enabled by early collaborative design charrettes, allows technically proficient domain experts to participate
early in the process of design, leading to higher and more legitimate
forms of integration. Value engineering through the entire process
connects students to the cost contingencies of design and forces a dose
of reality that is so rare in most design studios. Lastly, clients and
community members can provide meaningful service to the studio
project, but better at the beginning when key decisions are made and
design directions are established. Jeremy Till argues in Architecture
, “The most important, and most creative, part of the process
[design] is the formulation of the brief. The creative brief is about
negotiating a new set of social relations.”12 Indeed, the design brief
expresses the consciousness of the project, develops the necessary
diverse stakeholders, determines the rules for the co-creative design
process, sets the schedule of interactions and clearly illuminates the
integrative goals of the project.

Finally, the conscious pursuit of higher levels of integration forms the
behavior that propels the emergence of new design education practices.
The gap between the intention of integration, however, and its actual
operation in educational settings is as wide as it is deep and fraught with
numerous structural and psychological challenges. The academically
reinforced disciplinary silos serve to prevent collaboration. The makeup
of disciplines necessary to pursue higher levels of collaboration not only
exist in separate schools and colleges within universities, but also possess
deeply territorial impulses that work against such efforts. The
psychological chasms and structural barriers in place are so deep that
the possibility of a more integrated and sustainable curriculum crumbles
at the feet of hundreds of years of academic tradition. But the meme of
sustainability persists, first gnawing at the heels of an otherwise inattentive
academic community, then beginning to force the construction of bridges
between the silos, and finally to the pitching of large pedagogic tents.

The use of the word tent in favor of silo is not an arbitrary metaphor
because it underscores the porosity and horizontality of sustainability.
Nevertheless, the move towards the operational, while daunting, must
begin. On one level, design education, especially the studio, is one of
the most powerfully effective vehicles for learning across the entire
spectrum of higher education. On another level, such otherwise
excellent approaches often lack the inclusiveness, cooperation and
alignment necessary to drive the ethical content of projects and to reach
higher levels of integration. Design students already possess an
extremely high visual literacy; ecological literacy, however, is essential if
an overall movement towards integration is to occur. The use of online
teaching and “flipped classrooms” present a method to free up lecture
courses to become additional centers of innovation. They can serve as
portals for technology courses to enable mini integrative design studios
or offer avenues of participation from students who are marginalized
due to distance or financial or family constraints. The use of integrated
sustainable design charrettes early and often in studio, especially in the
collaborative development of the design brief, and especially prior to
the generation of formal responses, can be an excellent tool in the
expression of ethical and functional foundations of sustainable projects.
The addition of vetting (collaborative feedback loops as part of the
charrettes) can provide structured and useful direction for design
students from a variety of stakeholder views. The immense potential of
design/build projects possesses by default, the inclusivity, cooperation
and alignment necessary for design integration. Lastly, the design
educator, with the benefit of specialized training, can evolve from
designers who teach, to educators who teach design.

The rise of integrated project delivery, integrated design processes,
inclusive design teams and participatory design processes all reflect the
changing tides in the processes and products that comprise the
formation of the built environment, and by default, demand an answer
to a simple question: can design educators heed the call for change
and begin the process of jumping into the compelling but difficult age
of integration? The simple answer is yes, but. Yes, design educators are
already excellent synthesizers and integrators and some have already
begun to innovate through such programs as Illinois Institute of
Technology’s MS in Integrated Project Delivery, The Columbia
(University) Building Intelligence Project and Philadelphia University’s
MS in Sustainable Design. But, such early efforts must be matched
by a clear intention to pursue higher levels of integration, and the
persistence must be present to place such intentions into operation.

Design faculty need not carry such a burden alone. Program
administrators must also advocate for change, accreditors must
continue to evolve their requirements, licensing agencies must continue
to clarify their definitions of practice, the professional associations need
to push towards higher levels of sustainability, senior practitioners can
shake away the pressures of financial survival to adopt new design
processes and young practitioners can participate in thousands of tiny
revolutions through the writing of green specs and the completion of
drawings that express higher levels of integration.
Ultimately, the jump to a new world view is beginning to impact our
collective consciousness, spurring a societal transition to more
sophisticated economic models, to deeper levels of social responsibility,
to higher levels of ecological regeneration and to a clear positioning of
aesthetics as an integral part of sustainability. Design educators stand
poised to meaningfully participate in the transition from the intuitive
impulses of green design to the more holistic Integral Sustainable Design.
Design educators hold the promise of a sustainable future in the hands
of the students they teach.


1 Rifkin, Jeremy (2009) The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global
Consciousness in a World in Crisis, Penguin, New York, p34
2 Green, B., “Tom Friedman and Steve Jobs: Situational Versus Sustainable
Values,” Huffington Post, August 9, 2012, www.huffi
tom-friedman-and-steve-jo_b_1010112.html, Accessed 8/9/2012 5:56PM
3 Szenasy S. (2012) “Reflections on Sustainable Design,” Journal of Interior
Design, 37 (1): px
4 Hosey, L., (2012) The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology and Design, Island
Press, Washington, p7
5 American Institute of Architects, AIA Diversity / Then+Now+NEXT, https://, Accessed 8/6/2012 9:15AM
6 Anthony, K. (1991) Design Juries on Trial, The Renaissance of the Design
Studio, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York
7 Boyer, E. L., Mitgang L. D. (1996) Building Community: A New Future for
Architecture Education and Practice, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement
of Teaching, Princeton, NJ p43
4883 DESIGN EDUCATION BOOK.indb 8 22/11/2012 10:34:27
8 Koch, A., Schwennsen, K., Dutton, T., Smith, D. (2002) The Redesign of Studio
Culture: A Report of the AIAS Studio Culture Task Force, American Institute of
Architects Students, Washington, D.C., p21
9 Hosey, L., Gould K., Ecological Literacy in Architecture Education Report and
Proposal, American Institute of Architects and the Tides foundation, 2006, p44
10 Till, J. (2009) Architecture Depends, MIT
11 Rifkin, Jeremy (1) p15
12 Till, J. (10) p 169