This story about how a NASA research team has come up with a way of making an aeroplane 'hybrid wing' that could cut in half the fuel use from flying got me reviewing design principles and processes which benefit the environment. This wing design still has a long way to go to fully prove itself and be put into commercial practice but truly smart designs can help to make a difference environmentally.

Environmentally beneficial design processes at best adopt a broad, wide-ranging outlook, dealing with all stages or aspects in the life of a product or system (see Dartford FCs Princes Park stadium lauded for its green design, pictured left). This means considering: the raw materials; material processing; producing parts, products and services; distributing products and putting services into action; use, repair and maintenance; any reuse of products and parts; recycling or composting of any materials; and finally the disposal of wastes that cannot be eliminated. Best practice means auditing energy and material inputs and emissions to air, water and land for each stage or aspect in the product or system life cycle as far as is practicable. Design to benefit the environment means where possible materials, processes, designs or systems that are high impact in terms of: energy; water; materials; environmental emissions; distance travelled from source; toxicity; or health and safety risks such as noise.

 
Also to be avoided, ideally, are anything: non-recyclable; non-renewable; likely to generate direct or indirect waste in large amounts; of low durability or hard to reuse, repair and maintain; hindering meeting independently verified, well regarded environmental standards, such as ISO 14001; difficult to establish and maintain traceability for; difficult to establish and maintain high and consistent quality standards for.

Measurement of the aforementioned aspects and/or categorisation into low, medium and high impact is often not straightforward. Common units for carbon emissions and toxicity don’t exist for instance (though one might attempt convert many of the impacts into a money value or land area or to energy).

It’s not possible to meet all the design for the environment criteria simultaneously eg a high durability product or system may use a lot of water in production or use.There is very often a balancing act with trade-offs likely to be involved.

 
A broad outlook on the environment means going beyond the biophysical aspects to their interrelationships with social and economic ones. Many kinds of partnership to promote best environmental – and socio-economic – practices can be formed. There are wide benefits in such partnerships as they can offer good employment opportunities to local people and/or produce socio-economic and environmental benefits to communities that are not local.
 
A broad approach to  design is more likely to achieve lasting, appropriate solutions to problems. Ideally it tries to account for behavioural, ecological and other responses to designs instead of assuming a technofix. It tries to account for the network of  relationships between all the relevant factors: technical; economic; social; psychological; environmental… Akin to crystal ball gazing it may sometimes be - but its well worth the effort.


A purely technical ‘solution’ may result in changes in other key factors which reduce, undermine or reverse any progress made eg increasing areoplane fuel efficiency (perhaps via a 'hybrid wing' design) means less fuel used, saving airlines money, which helps the keep the price of flying lower, meaning people may then fly further and more often, perhaps even consuming more fuel than was saved through efficiency; low energy lighting designs may result in people leaving them on for longer; cars with many safety features may be driven faster. Anticipating the impacts of designs may facilitate a better, more complete design and/or result in other compensatory changes eg in taxation, regulation, education, govt policies...to keep change going in the desired direction and on the scale needed.    

 

One Planet Living is basically applying best practice environmentally beneficical design to cities, towns and neighbourhoods. The ten principles chime with much of the aforementioned thinking. Zero Carbon: making buildings more energy efficient and delivering all energy with renewable technologies (eg see Lighthouse zero carbon building at Building Research Establishment, pictured left). Zero Waste: reducing waste arisings, reusing where possible, and ultimately sending zero waste to landfill. Sustainable Transport: encouraging low carbon modes of transport to reduce emissions, reducing the need to travel. Sustainable Materials: using sustainable products that have a low embodied energy. Local and Sustainable Food: choosing low impact, local, seasonal and organic diets and reducing food waste. Sustainable Water: using water more efficiently in buildings and in the products we buy; tackling local flooding and water course pollution. Natural Habitats and Wildlife: protecting and expanding old habitats and creating new space for wildlife. Culture and Heritage:
reviving local identity and wisdom; support for, and participation in, the arts. Equity, Fair Trade and Local Economy: inclusive, empowering workplaces with equitable pay; support for local communities and fair trade. Health and Happiness: encouraging active, sociable, meaningful lives to promote good health and well being.

More details on the above, including an expansion on what the 10 principles are all about here. Several practical examples of projects, at various levels, such as: BedZed UK; One Brighton; One Gallions, Thames Gateway; One Planet Sutton; RuralZED, can be found here.