How Piecemeal Design Approaches Hurt Us

This talk was delivered by Metropolis editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy to an audience of architecture, design, and journalism students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, on February 23, 2005. The presentation was followed by a lively Q&A about sustainable architecture and design.

On the morning of February 9th, I am looking into Central Park from the west side of Columbus Circle, at hundreds of orange colored gates. These industrial-looking frames are the first signs of what’s coming: the biggest site-specific art installation most of us have ever seen. We’re gathered on the 7th floor of this Manhattan high-rise, about to start a conference called Verdopolis—a four day discussion of the green metropolis.

But on this particular morning, before we begin talking about greening our cities, the question of spending $21 million for a dubious art installation hangs in the air. Various derogatory comments have been making the rounds: from cab drivers to suburban housewives, everybody’s asking, why spend millions on orange shower curtains or, as other locals call them, shmatas—rags.

I like the gates. I am glad they were installed. And mostly I am glad that the artists found a way to install them without tearing up the miles of walkways that snake through Manhattan’s patch of green. I say that Christo and Jean-Claude were responsible in the actions they took to safeguard the park land. And I’m glad they brought a flutter of excitement (and apparently lots of tourist dollars) to our gray, winter city. If they had millions to spend on this happening, I’m fine with it.

Back to Verdopolis. The orange gates stand solidly behind me as I face a room filled with designers, planners, city officials, students, business owners, artists, and others, all here to talk about greening my beloved metropolis—and others like it. We learn, for instance, that a large construction company, Turner Construction, now has an executive advocating for sustainable building methods and materials, making sure the company is at the forefront of everything from geothermal heating to recycled content to volatile-organic-compound (VOC) free materials. This is good news; especially so since the man from Turner Construction sees his company getting an edge in the marketplace because of its green practices.

The engineer on the panel talks about the possibility of recycling the heat produced by computers in densely occupied offices. He mentions work being done at the World Trade Center site, specifically on the Freedom Tower, and how his firm is trying to make sure the windmills at the top of this 1776-foot skyscraper will live up to their energy-producing potential. The engineer also worries about the wind turbines massacring thousands of birds and the blades becoming lethal weapons if, by some freakish chance, they get detached. I’m glad to hear he’s worried about such things, so am I, and so should we all be.

But let’s get back to those heat-producing computers for now. All of the sudden these computers have become my prototypical example of how one design profession ends up mopping up the mistakes or carelessness of another design profession, thereby wasting more energy, time, and money than necessary.

The obvious question to ask is: “Why are industrial designers and the manufacturers they work for not designing computers that produce less heat?” This question has overtaken my brain; it now has such urgency for me that I am not even trying to tackle such problems as the waste produced by the computer industry—and its designers. I won’t even mention the heavy metals and plastics that end up in some recycling dump in China and in our water supply. I’m now focused on the heat produced by computers. And so I ask: Is it possible that industrial designers are unaware of the unintended consequences of their work even after they’ve had time to assess their designs?

Furthermore, do they take time to assess their designs? Does anyone? And another thing, do industrial designers ever talk to mechanical engineers, architects, or interior designers? If they did, they would hear about heat gain from the computers and the light fixtures they design for offices. What if industrial designers began to understand what their design counterparts do? What if they consulted other design professionals before they set out to design our everyday products? Would our environments and products work better, waste less, and delight more? I’d say, “Yes,” but I have yet to see this kind of collaborative action.

Later that morning, another panel at Verdopolis is discussing fuel cells and how these are the wave of the future, producing clean, exhaust-free energy for cars and buildings. One fuel cell manufacturer enthuses that China, just coming on line as a massive consumer society, will bypass the internal combustion engine altogether. He says millions of cars in China will run on clean, efficient fuel cells. But how will the world produce all the new energy needed to run these millions of new cars? The man has the answer: We will need to build many new atomic energy plants. Well, if that wasn’t scary enough, imagine the amount of land that would have to be paved over to make roads for those millions of personal transportation units, however clean the fuel cells are that make them run. And now imagine the run-off from all these roads seeping into the water supply.

The fuel-cell moment, like the heat-producing-computer moment, are simply reminders of our piecemeal way of doing things and how one design profession doesn’t talk to another. Have you ever met a car designer, for instance, who talked about transportation—the need to get people to and from work, school, and play? What they do talk about is cars. Do car designers even think about smart growth; the movement to plan and design communities where several modes of transportation might be available, the car being just one of them? Or am I asking an oxymoronic question? Apparently, the answer to that question today, in 2005, is “Yes.” But can we afford to let that answer stand? I say we cannot, given the news about the toxins already in our soft tissues and now entering the bodies of the next generation through their mothers’ milk.

The New York Times ran a comprehensive story on flame retardants called PBDEs, a relative of PCBs, which were banned from production in the 1970s, though they’re still in our environment. The report, written by a young mother, says:

“The milk of American women has the highest levels [of PBDE] in the world…What these levels tell us is that the world is full of unhappy and improbable surprises, like the fact that the plastic in our computers and TVs somehow ends up inside us. Our collective levels tell us that the chemicals are increasing over time, that someone should be paying attention and that it would be helpful to know what havoc may be wreaked in our cells if present trends continue.”

The key phrase for us here and now is “that someone should be paying attention.” And one important someone that needs to pay attention to our materials is the design community.

We know from history that many breakthroughs in design happen when new materials are introduced, or when old materials are re-thought and re-evaluated. We are now entering a serious re-evaluation phase of our material world. And the design professions must be at the forefront of this re-evaluation process, or risk losing their relevance to society.

But how can designers be part of this new interest in materials? They’re too busy working with existing materials to worry about their toxic outputs. And research in design offices, as well as in design schools, is rare and for the most part non-existent. Does this mean, then, that we walk away in defeat? I say we cannot afford to do that.

The least designers can do today is to be aware that the materials they specify can contribute to the degradation of the environment and human health. The evidence is mounting and cannot be ignored. It’s there for everyone to read. But if I interpret the signs correctly, design students, as well as a large number of design professionals, rarely, if ever, pick up a newspaper or even go online to read one. If they did, they would learn that “we live in a flame retardant world,” as the New York Times story continues:

“The reason is polyurethane. Originally used by the German Army in World War II, by the mid-50s the polymer was transforming everything from refrigeration insulation to car bumpers. It was an industrial miracle: cheap, soft, and malleable. As one industry website puts it, ‘Today, polyurethanes can be found in virtually everything we touch—our desks, chairs, clothes, footwear, appliances, beds, the insulation in our walls, roof and moldings in our homes.’” And all these items, from desks to building insulation, are designed by one of the design professions or put to use by another, specified by designers in enormous volumes.

Just think of the thousands of PBDE-laced desks an interior designer will specify for just one large office. Or think of the miles of PBDE-fortified insulation an architect will spec for one large condo. Or think of the children’s clothing designer’s contribution to kids’ PBDE intake from millions of bunny pajamas.

Are any of these design professionals taking time to learn about the environmental and health effects of the materials they specify? It does not appear so at this moment in 2005.

But I have faith in the design community’s humanist leanings, as these are codified by most trade associations. Health, safety, and welfare are at the core of the design professions’ ethics. What makes me believe that this is truly so, and not just PR? The news that comes over my computer screen and lands on my desktop gives me hope.

Here are a few recent reasons for being hopeful about design’s positive contributions to a sustainable society: The American Institute of Architects is calling for papers on “Ecological Literacy in Architectural Education.” Here is how the call reads, in part:

“Humans are part of nature. Borrowing the term from the book by David Orr of the same name, ‘ecological literacy’ implies a broad understanding of the relationship between humans, societies, and the natural world. The Committee on the Environment (COTE) of the American Institute of Architects seeks to improve the training of future architects by emphasizing such connections. It is COTE’s belief that architecture needs to be understood as part of a sustaining world view based on an educational foundation that places the natural environment in the center of learning…The range of acceptable submissions includes lecture, seminar, and studio coursework, as well as community-based projects and design charrettes.”

COTE offers awards of $3,000 to schools in three categories: environmental foundations in architecture, integrated systems design, and sustainable community design.

The Royal Architecture Institute of Canada, in response to that country’s commitment to environmental remediation and protection as put forth by the Kyoto Protocol (which, by the way, the U.S. refuses to sign), is asking for architects to be advocates for humanity. The Canadian announcement says, in part:

“Architects serve as advisors during the building process. As designers of buildings and communities, architects negotiate between human participants—users, developers, regulators, decision-makers, and the environment. They stand in for the natural world, ensuring it is not something distinct and outside of architectural and urban design processes, but ‘heard’ and thoughtfully considered in every aspect, from planning and design to construction and maintenance…With [up to] 40 percent of all energy being consumed by buildings, it is natural that architects are in the position to help ensure that Canada meets its commitments in the Kyoto Protocol.” Thus society’s expectations of architecture and design have been kicked up several notches.

Examples that the schools, themselves, are raising their own expectations are also coming in. A most recent missive came via e-mail, from the UCLA department of architecture and urban design. It says, in part, that an urban research project conducted by architecture and planning students lead by UCLA professor and architect Thom Mayne has just won the Progressive Architecture (P/A) Award. The students, who also published their findings, investigated a neglected site in downtown L.A. and proposed real-world remediations.

But the most important part of this news flash from UCLA is that the project brought students together with private individuals and public officials, “putting them at the front line of the city’s public policy decision-making process…The UCLA Architecture Research Studios are an intensive, year-long studio” where students “gather information, document the site, attempt to understand ‘the problem’ in the context of the larger city, and formulate design proposals.”

Also from Los Angeles comes news from the local chapter of the Industrial Designers’ Society of America (IDSA-LA) about the first annual Scientistic Invitational, a juried interdisciplinary exhibition of experimental projects that attempt to discover groundbreaking ideas at “their crucial early stages, engaging the design community at large in a conversation with an eye toward the future.”

This IDSA-LA competition is reminiscent of our own breakthrough program, the Metropolis Next Generation Design Competition, now in its second year. It invites all design disciplines to send in their Big Ideas, things they’re currently developing. The winner, or several winners, gets a total of $10,000 seed money to develop his or her idea to its next stage. At the core of our idea of a Big Idea are sustainability, access for all, material and technical innovation, teamwork, entrepreneurial thinking, and beauty. We assume that any design that meets real needs, shows innovative uses of materials, and has been conceived by a rigorously trained designer, will be beautiful. So we don’t dwell on style and beauty, we just show it. But we do like to tell the story behind the beauty.

We see some of the most lasting design contributions as the result of collaboration between people in many specialties, working together for the common good. Such collaborations thrive on brilliant and strategic systems thinking, trust and respect between all parties, and keenly developed negotiating skills. And, no, it is not design-by-committee that I’m advocating.

What I am after, what we should all be after, is getting the best minds from many different areas of expertise to focus on a design problem, which more often than not, has environmental and human health consequences.

In order for designers to do the serious work of the 21st century, we need to recover from “silo-itis,” the all-too-familiar thinking about only your design field and the jeering across professional lines. We need to learn from our past mistakes and never repeat them again.

An interior designer was asked recently by the trade newsletter officeinsight to describe the relationship between architects and interior designers when he entered the profession some 30 years ago. He said: “Architects often looked at interior designers as ‘rag pickers’ and interiors people felt architects did not understand what made a project work.

“Unfortunately, many architects looked at interiors as an afterthought. As a result, a space often didn’t function correctly or didn’t accommodate the furniture that was required. Designers would then have to go back and make all sorts of adjustments.”

The lessons of those early days are being learned, analyzed, and incorporated into teaching and practice, but not nearly fast enough. I’m still waiting for the first great successes. In the meantime, let us remember that we spend 90 percent of our days and nights inside one room or another. These rooms may, and often do, contain a chemical soup put there by the furnishings and finishes, as well as by poor and faulty ventilation systems, and by the exhalents of computers, phones, iPods, and a multiplying array of plastic-encased communication devices.

And so you have a lot of good and rewarding work ahead of you. If you always remember your humanist impulses, apply the excellent skills you are learning now, and accept that life-long learning will be part of what you do and how you live, you will become an indispensable contributor to a society that needs designers, and design thinking, more than ever before.

The first time I heard of Kent State was in 1970 when the National Guard opened fire on protesting students. Kent State, for my generation, became the byword for political awareness and courage under fire. Study your traditions of discourse, debate, and dialogue. And make architecture that is life affirming, full of ideas, and worthy of public discourse.

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