Teaching Sustainability to Tomorrow’s Interior Designers

For the last three years, I have taught a course entitled “DEA 422: Ecological Literacy and Design” at Cornell University; the class falls within the interior design program in the school’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis. This course was developed in recognition of the major role designers play in contributing to the rapidly degrading state of the world’s natural systems, from species extinctions and topsoil loss to carbon dioxide emissions and light pollution. It has been estimated that up to 50% of the world’s energy and materials are utilized in the creation, operation, and disposal of the built environment. However, learning about these issues from a technical point of view is not enough. Designers must learn to love things natural before they will care for things natural; they must care before they will conserve and protect. DEA 422 was created to give the next generation of designers the tools they need to respect the earth.

The course’s prime objective is to help students develop a broader sensitivity for living things and an accompanying set of environmental ethics. To this end, the class introduces the concepts of systems thinking, risk assessment, life-cycle analysis, and moral reasoning—tools that allow students how to think more critically about sustainability issues. In the curriculum, I also include various sustainability models, including Natural Step, which uses a science-based framework to help large organizations such as IKEA understand and adopt green practices, and William McDonough’s Hannover principles, issued by the City of Hannover, Germany to ensure that the design and construction related to the city’s EXPO 2000 World’s Fair represented a sustainable development for the city, region, and world.

In addition, DEA 422 aims to demonstrate how ecological knowledge can be applied to design. For example, students learn of the connection between aluminum production and coral reef die-off in Jamaica. They consider the positions of those involved, including the mining interests, the regional government, the local inhabitants, and researchers. They develop design strategies to help solve this issue, such as specifying non-Caribbean aluminum, boycotting the companies involved in the mining, and/or ensuring that they use only 100% recycled aluminum in their projects. By being guided through expanded decision-making processes like this, students begin to understand how they can make an environmental difference through design.

Academically, DEA422 is unique for two reasons. First, it is a required course for all design majors in the program. This may not appear to be ground-breaking, but a 2001 survey conducted by the Foundation of Interior Design Education Research found only five of 115 accredited, four-year interior design programs required coursework pertaining to ecological issues. Metropolis’s own 2003 school survey on design education in North America further confirmed the rarity of similar courses.

Second, DEA422 is characterized by service-based learning: students work in interdisciplinary teams to address real-world projects. There is a new project each academic year. In 2001, students worked with Eco-Village at Ithaca to help the organization develop a second neighborhood; in 2002, the students collaborated with Cornell’s own Environmental Compliance Office to create a headquarters that would earn LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. However, it was the 2003 project—assisting the National Park Service in its quest to have a new maintenance facility in the Grand Canyon National Park earn LEED certification—that really brought the experience to a new level.

There is a need and demand for courses like DEA 422: courses that combine theoretical and practical advice on environmental design. Although in recent years, the issue of sustainability has been seeping into design curricula, single classes like DEA 422 are not enough. As an educator, part of my responsibility is to ensure that my students are prepared for the demands of their profession. As more and more firms compete for government contracts specifying LEED certification, and as more and more clients ask for greener buildings, I find that knowledge of LEED and ecological design is no longer just a fringe benefit, but a professional necessity.

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