(This week's post comes from Krista Nutter, LEED AP, MS Arch is a college design educator and administrator at a CIDA-accredited program, a sustainable building consultant, and designer/owner of an award-winning, Energy-Star 5+, passive solar, solar electric, high-performance green home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her home was on the USGBC Cincinnati Green Home tour in 2015. Learn more about at the house blog.)
As an educator of design and architecture, I’m required to look to practicing professionals to get a pulse on industry trends in the design world. Trade publications, conferences, and conventions are also good sources of information, along with accrediting bodies like the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA) which provide educators with academic standards extrapolated from industry professionals. However, sometimes to get a sense of where we can improve in the classroom, it’s best to consult students directly. On the topic of sustainable or green home design, there appears to be a wide range of exposure to specific green design concepts, but design students as a whole seem to have an overall understanding of the importance of sustainable design in the built environment. The intent of the interviews was not to collect quantitative data or specific statistics, but rather to get a sense of how a variety of students perceive sustainable design and its importance. I was more interested in students’ qualitative, narrative answers and the impressions that could be drawn from them.
I was able to interview twenty-nine design students from all over the United States – three freshmen, six sophomores, five juniors, eleven seniors, and four graduate students. Twenty-four of the students were Interior Design majors while five were Residential Planning majors. Respondents taking part in the interviews were residents of California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington.
Questions and Analysis:
I asked the students a series of questions through a digital survey that required written responses (not multiple-choice). This format was somewhat limiting, obviously because I could not ask follow up questions or ask students to expand on their answers.
I received a wide variety of responses to some questions, most likely based on a variety in exposure to the topics due to varying levels of students or possibly geographic location. For example, students earlier in their studies understandably might be more unfamiliar with some of the more complex concepts in sustainable design, but were at least aware of green design features that are considered “mainstream.” The questions and some of the most notable responses appear below.
With what sustainable or green design techniques or materials are you most familiar?
Nearly every student interviewed responded that he/she was familiar with solar panels – and one would assume they meant solar photovoltaic panels for distributed electricity generation. The other most popular response included various rapidly renewable and recycled materials such as cork, bamboo, denim insulation, recycled material counter tops (glass, paper), and so on. Some of the seemingly more sophisticated or advanced answers included technologies such as rainwater catchment systems, grey water systems, passive solar design, triple-glazed or low-E windows, and “living walls.”
How prominent would you say green or sustainable design is in your area or community?
Respondents’ answers ranged from “not at all” to “huge” and “very important.” Most of the answers indicated that there was some awareness in their area, but more recognition was needed and/or that awareness is growing. Students who indicated that green design was not very prominent in their area were from places such as South Carolina, Illinois, and Florida. Another Florida resident and perceptive student responded that the study of sustainable design theory is very prominent, but the real-world application still lags behind. Students who responded that sustainable design was very prominent in their area resided mostly in places such as California, Colorado, and one student in South Carolina who noted that Charleston specifically is known for “being green.” One North Carolina student noted that sustainable design is becoming very prominent in the “Research Triangle,” and a student from Texas feels that we should be looking to greener cities such as Austin and San Francisco to guide sustainable design.
What new green design technologies would you like to see developed or existing technologies used more frequently?
Answers to this question clearly showed that students are concerned with energy and water conservation, and also that they expect more from new products and technologies. Some students mentioned dual purpose materials such as energy-generating solar paving and building materials (specifically solar roadways and sidewalks), as well as biodegradable materials. Indoor air quality was also mentioned several times – specifically the use of low VOC materials to provide improved indoor air quality to reduce breathing problems such as asthma. Using local materials and renewable energy sources were also frequent responses.
Do you feel sustainable design is more applicable to residential or commercial design, neither, or both? Why?
Almost all students indicated that sustainable design is important in both commercial and residential design projects, however a large number of students also felt that because of upfront costs, sustainable design was more frequently applied in commercial projects. Several students noted that until sustainable design features can be made affordable to homeowners, designers would likely not “push” their clients to use them. One student noted that there needs to be a sensible “cost-to-benefit ratio.”
One student noted that because commercial projects tend to be much larger and more wasteful that residential ones, it is more important and more impactful to utilize sustainable design in commercial projects. “It would take a lot of residential spaces to equal the resources used [in one] commercial space.”
What else would you like to say about green / sustainable design?
While the level of enthusiasm and support for sustainable design varied among the students, every single student who responded noted that sustainable design is important to their career because it’s a growing industry. Each person noted that green design is a trend that is likely to continue well into the future and will likely only grow in importance. “It needs to be the STANDARD by which we set our principles, not the exception to the rule.” “It’s crucial that as young designers, we learn as much as we can.” “I think green and sustainable design is only going to continue to grow, and it is critical for designers and architects to be conscious of sustainable practices.” “Green and sustainable design is being taken seriously nowadays. In the future, green design will become more well-known and become part of [the] building condition.”
The interview responses here show that students clearly understand the role sustainable design may likely play in their careers. Perhaps some are still experiencing a disconnect between what they are learning in school and what they are seeing in their communities, but it’s likely that as time goes on and renewable energy and energy conservation technologies improve, (and climate change data becomes even more concrete), more architectural designs will feature and even focus on sustainable techniques.
The cost of sustainable techniques, materials and features still concern some students (and clients as well, of course) so the green design industry needs to work to make these items more affordable and provide information that outlines clear and quantitative long-term financial benefits – especially in the residential market. Websites like the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) need to be more frequently cited and provided to homeowners and business owners so that they can research financial incentives for sustainable strategies.
Perhaps most interestingly, some students appear to feel that the sustainable design industry is being driven by product manufacturers: “If they came out with more designs and colors, more people would use it.” However some students clearly feel as if the role of advancing the sustainable design industry falls to green service professionals: “More contractors, designers and builders should be making this their center focus with our rapidly evolving climate changes. We have the tools and the resources to make a difference; unfortunately what we don't have is time.”
Krista Nutter, LEED AP, MS Arch is a college design educator and administrator at a CIDA-accredited program, a sustainable building consultant, and designer/owner of an award-winning, Energy-Star 5+, passive solar, solar electric, high-performance green home in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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