By Sherif Goubran ’14
Unlike green or ecological design, sustainable design is a broader paradigm that encompasses the social, environmental, economic and cultural dimensions. A good definition of sustainable design combines the meanings of both design and sustainability. Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman define design as a process for identifying and creating the “what can be” and “what should be” of a situation, where the designer would explore how to better a situation. John Ehrenfeld defines sustainability as the condition where the environment, people and other beings can flourish. So, in a sense, sustainable design is about attempting to create the ideal conditions for this flourishing to occur.
It is dangerous to think that sustainability is simply an idealistic concept. We have the common environmental, social and economic challenges, such as energy consumption, waste, carbon emissions, improving health and well-being, and inequality. One can try to find technological solutions for those. However, with population and economic growth and the exponential increase in products and services, it is unlikely that technology alone will catch up. We need behavioral changes — a shift in our mindsets.
Part of sustainable design is helping people internalize these problems, making them realize that the environmental and social crises we face are the accumulation of individual behaviors. When people are aware, they make better choices. You can choose not to buy a product that is over packaged; to use your own water bottle, collective transport options and local products; to prioritize materials that are natural and locally sourced; or even not to buy property built on intact natural environments. But you need to be aware to make these choices.
Design and designing thinking are critical for us to get out of the current vicious circles of unsustainability. As designers, we have to think not only of reducing impact but rethink the processes and systems where objects are embedded and used. In Cairo, we see a lot of unsustainable behavior: consumption, commuting and urban sprawl, to name a few. Sustainable design and architecture can help by proposing new models of sustainable living. There is good progress through the adoption of new technologies, and increased costs of energy and resources are making people reconsider their consumption. However, we still have a long way to go.
If you take AUC as an example, students constantly consume snacks, bottled water and canned soft drinks. This affects our University’s carbon footprint. But the issue here is not simply asking them to reduce their consumption; it is to provide alternatives. We should encourage more sustainable food options and create bring-your-own items programs on campus.
Architecturally, we have a campus that has been recognized internationally for its sustainability features and practices. Our buildings use local materials and have efficient systems for water and waste management as well as heating, ventilation and air conditioning. We have sustainable design features that are unique and help further reduce energy consumption and increase comfort, such as the outdoor courts, wind towers and landscaping. We should continue to use these features as educational tools for our students — helping them work toward a more sustainable campus. Recently, at the architecture department, we started a collaborative project with other departments in the School of Sciences and Engineering (SSE) to study the wind towers at the SSE building. These are large chimneys positioned on top of the atriums to help in natural ventilation. We actively involve students and staff, learning and sharing new knowledge about these sustainable architectural solutions. These types of living-lab projects should be a core part of our campus culture.
Sustainable design is good design: enhancing the quality of life and achieving harmony with our surrounding environment. We can think of it as having short-term benefits — such as energy savings, health improvements and increased access to services — and long-term outcomes, ultimately helping us restore balance to our planet and society.
Sherif Goubran ’14 is assistant professor in the Department of Architecture. He holds a Bachelor of Science in architectural engineering from AUC. He earned both his Master of Science in building engineering and PhD in sustainable design from Concordia University.