Responsible Design

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

What's my greatest skill? Design genius? World's most responsible designer? Maybe some day, but my greatest skill today is something many times less pretentious and many times more valuable: my ability to learn. Below I elaborate on my design philosophy.


Before I go further though, how does learning relate to the concept of responsible design?

The origin of the word responsible means "to respond", and the word evolved to mean "to be accountable for actions".

The origin of the word design means "to make, to shape", and the word came to mean "to contrive for a purpose".

A responsible designer must therefore devise something - a building, in the case of an architect - which responds and is accountable. Unless the architect knows to WHAT the building must respond, to WHOM the building must be accountable, and HOW it will do so, the design is incomplete. Design is more than style or aesthetic; it is more purposeful than philosophy. Design is functional in its own right and must serve the owner, the users, and the community. Responsible design as a process marries the goals of function, resource efficiency, and timeless appearance.


Function


I've worked for clients with disparate objectives and priorities. A typical homeowner usually wants comfort and a visually pleasant home environment comprised of spaces that enable the homeowner's day-to-day activities. A private land developer typically wants to maximize the leasable or saleable building at the expense of pretty much everything else. A government department usually will continue to own and maintain the building and therefore must ensure it last as long as possible with minimal maintenance, given the available budget.

Intelligent design causes a product to play a role naturally. Let us consider a few examples from the world of industrial design.

Have you noticed that a car key (at least one which is still a physical, metal stub which one inserts into the ignition slot) has a symmetrical profile? The longitudinal grooves also are the same on both sides. Traditionally, to start most cars, the driver had to insert the key into the steering column, from the side, near waist height, often in low light or even the dark. To compensate for this reduced visibility, the system was designed so that the key could be inserted either way, and a sloped flange helped guide the key into the keyhole. It seems almost trivial and obvious, but consider how annoying a the lock on a door can be since its design is less accommodating of inaccurate insertion.

Some coffee cups are very successful. They are made of plastic or ceramic which transfer less heat to the handle. The handle itself is large enough to accommodate average fingers without causing them to touch the body of the cup. The base has a standoff with notches; when the cup is washed and turned over to dry, excess water drains through the notches.


Resource Efficiency


Resource efficiency applies not only to how much energy or water a building consumes while it operates, but resources include also the land itself upon which the building sits, the rain that falls on the land, the sunshine the building receives, the materials used to construct and maintain the building, and the impact of acquiring those construction materials.


Before a piece of land becomes urban property or even a parcel used for agriculture, it serves several purposes. As most of us have been taught in school, plant life (e.g. lichen, moss, grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees) uses the available sunlight to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and to create oxygen; it prevents localized heat buildup from solar gain; it removes contaminants and particulates from the air; it tempers extreme weather by slowing down winds near the earth's surface; it prevents flooding by detaining and storing rainfall and by allowing the water to percolate down; it provides habitat for pollinating insects and for other creatures in the food chain; it produces food for humans in some cases; and it produces natural compounds extracted for use in pharmaceuticals, commercial chemicals, or industrial chemicals. Any development of a piece of land reduces the preceding functionality, so a responsible design minimizes the loss of function. One method I insist on employing is a vegetated (green) roof whether it's flat or pitched (sloped).


The production of some building materials destroys natural habitat elsewhere either by way of surface extraction or by polluting the environment over the course of their manufacture. This material production consumes the resource of land and eliminates the functions noted above. The well-known mantra 'Reduce Re-use Recycle' comes into play here.

  • Responsible design employs as much as possible materials that are recycled from existing materials or from waste by-products. Great examples are öko skin exterior wall panels (recycled from off-cuts of the manufacturer's other panel products), Rockwool mineral fibre insulation (created from the waste scum byproduct of steel fabrication), and Interface's carpets (100% recyclable carpets created from 100% recycled carpet and carpet manufacturing byproducts ).

  • Responsible design incorporates where possible materials reclaimed (re-used) from demolished buildings. Commonly-used materials reclaimed from old buildings and used in new projects are brick, large timber frames, and solid wood flooring.

  • Responsible design also configures a solution to minimize (reduce) the amount of material required. Clever selection and revision of a building's form can substantially reduce the amount of required structural material, and advanced structural design can further reduce the amount of framing material.


The term 'embodied energy' in a construction context refers to the amount of energy required to produce and install a given material. This applies obviously to new materials but also to reclaimed and recycled ones. Petroleum-based products use a finite resource whose production contaminates the land at the point of extraction and along the path to final product. Some materials such as aluminum require large amounts of energy to refine or generate large amounts of waste byproducts that pollute the land.


A building requires materials at the time of its construction, but if these materials are not durable, they will require replacement with more material sooner rather than later.


Timeless Appearance


When you think of a building's appearance, you may think of the style - also known as 'vernacular' - in which it is done. Some examples of vernaculars are Georgian, Victorian, Gothic, renaissance, classical, and Roman. Many buildings have been maintained and protected as culturally and historically significant. The designs of these buildings generally are well-executed and follow strong vernaculars. Many other buildings have either no distinctive style or try to have too much style or multiple styles at the same time. I strongly believe that any building should and can be made to last at least 50-100 years and that 50 years down the road, the building should not appear cliché or outdated.


Learning


Each client has his/her own needs, wants, and priorities; and each project has its own purpose, requirements, and limitations. An architect must know to what a building must respond, to whom the building must be accountable, and how the building will do so. It is my duty to learn from the site and to learn from the client.