Guiding Principles of Sustainable Design

The term “guiding principle” has entered the contracting lexicon. Though vague, it means a benchmark for proper business practice. The term has established roots in environmental design. In fact, when talking about sustainable design, environmental design, green initiatives and the like, guiding principles are discussed quite often.

What is sustainable design?

“Sustainable design is the practice of designing buildings so that they exist in harmony with natural systems,” said Sharlyn Underwood, American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Virginia Chapter president and interior designer with SmithLewis Architecture, Roanoke, Va. “Ideally, the resulting buildings contribute to human and ecosystem health while minimizing harm from their construction and operation. I actually prefer the terms ‘green building’ and ‘high-performance design.’”

Sustainable design is an overall philosophy that embodies lower consumption, thus protecting the environment. Though the theory seems to be rooted in common sense, it is one that has struggled to become a common practice, which is why initiatives such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has become so progressive and pervasive.

Sustainable design also has goals of creating healthier environments. Although more expensive than traditional design mechanisms, many are beginning to justify the additional costs associated based solely on the future energy savings.

Guiding principles may not be an industry-wide accepted moniker because it may cause confusion.

“At this moment in time, there is no one set of guiding principles,” said Underwood. “There are several frameworks from which to base sustainable design and gauge one’s success at achieving it. The ultimate sustainable design principles are found in the cradle-to-cradle concept. It is a protocol developed by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry that establishes guidelines for design to balance ecology, economy and environment.

“All products must be designed to be either infinitely recyclable in the technical product stream or be able to return to the natural environment with no harmful side effects,” Underwood continued. “There are many other guidelines and principles available to individuals in the building industry including, but not limited to, USGBC’s LEED Earthcraft house, Energy Star homes, and the National Association of Home Builders green guidelines.”

Systems take the stage

A building’s systems are prime candidates to benefit most from sustainable design. Lighting is perhaps the most discussed, as it has the ability to be environmental and energy efficient. Though the green aspects of lighting may seem to be counterintuitive to what electrical contractors sell, there is a place for harmony between the two elements.

“One of my charges lately has been to minimize exterior lighting and thus protect the dark sky. Protecting the dark sky is key when designing for exterior lighting in our parks. Emphasis is placed in lighting solutions that control glare, embrace appropriate lighting levels, are energy-efficient, minimize obtrusive light, display a good nighttime ambience, and have a minimal impact on artificial sky glow,” said Ed Nieto, architect and illumination specialist, National Park Service, Denver. “These solutions and design techniques integrate full-shielded lighting that puts light where it is needed and minimizes glare and energy waste. Our goal is to provide excellent integration of lighting into overall design and promote versatile and distinctive dark-sky lighting solutions that enrich the park environment.”

Nieto explains that within the National Park Service, current lighting schemes are almost reminiscent of those used at commercial venues. There has been a push through sustainable design to move toward a holistic lighting approach.

“Exterior lighting in our National Parks primarily focuses on lighting for safety and security purposes,” said Nieto.

This is a welcome change that is in line with the goal of protecting the night sky and stressing the importance of daylighting, two key components of green design relating to lighting systems. Nieto explained that projects are underway to move toward sustainability.

“A current lighting project that embraces responsible and sustainable practices is the lighting retrofit at Carlsbad Caverns. Our goal is to replace the existing lighting system with LED technology,” he said. “This technology is very energy-efficient, addresses minimal resource impact with reduced relamping and provides excellent natural color rendering of the resource.”

Generally speaking, most opt for using LEED as a guide for sustainable design. LEED has become a well-known design practice, and even though some may argue the true benefits, the majority agrees that most aspects are beneficial to energy conservation.

Getting on board

On first glance, contractors may feel that sustainable design is out of their realm. But as Underwood explains, that is not the case. Since so many systems are elemental to a building’s overall functionality, contractors are right up there at the top of the list of those that need to be in the know.

She said of the relationship between the various building systems are key to ensuring the building is running at maximum energy efficiency. In the LEED for new construction guidelines, controllability of lighting systems (both for individuals and overall building system), reduction of light pollution, and efficiency of light fixtures to optimize overall building energy performance all can help to achieve LEED credits,” she said.

The best place for a contractor to start is to become more familiar with sustainable design.

“My number one resource of green building is the USGBC. ASID has been a member of the USGBC since their founding year and has greatly benefited from this exchange of information in leading the interior design industry in sustainable design,” Underwood said.

Approach with open eyes

Sustainable design appears to have some solid roots. Due to mounting energy costs throughout the United States, many businesses and facilities have begun to look toward increased energy consumption. Though almost a double-edged sword, the rise in energy costs has helped bring sustainable design back to the forefront. Underwood believes that the future looks bright for going green, no pun intended.

“There is more and more documentation supporting green design. Research continues to be conducted on the cost savings, health benefits and environmental benefits of green design,” she said. “As the documentation finds its way from the hands of designers and industry to the hands of the decision makers, it becomes difficult to challenge the benefits of green design and why one should not build green.”

Underwood also describes how things have progressed.

“When I jumped into green design about eight years ago, there were resources available and products emerging, but not as prevalent as they are today. It is challenging to pick up a building industry trade journal and not find a reference to green. In the last two to three years, I have seen a huge emergence of green as a topic in shelter magazines as well. Green products are becoming more readily available, but industry still needs a huge push to change,” she said. “It can be challenging, but the benefits of going green are immense—the cost savings of health benefits and energy costs alone are enough to argue this case, not to mention the social benefits of designing, producing and building in a manner that will not inflict harm on our future generations. Those that are not leading the way in the industry today will be challenged to meet consumer demand as the consumer becomes more green savvy.”

Between advances in products and technology, coupled with rising costs of building operation, going green continues to be a viable option for many entities. In fact, just the way the world has changed in general has helped make the case for sustainable design even stronger.

“In locations where governing bodies are not requiring or encouraging green building, the informed consumer will drive the demand for green buildings. This will impact the entire building community—it already has,” she said. “As global warming continues to impact us—Hurricane Katrina, recent tornadoes in the Midwest, deluge of rain in California—our reliance on fossil fuels, practice of building within flood plains, and negligence of responsibility of design and products for their full life cycle will become more pronounced. Now is the time to think of future generations and our global environment. Green building is here is to stay and requires teamwork from the entire building industry.”

Because of the nature of sustainable design, contractors should be aware and educated in its design practices and also the importance of the initiative. Other aspects of sustainability include water conservation, waste management, eco-friendly material usage, etc. Even though not all of the components of green are relevant to electrical contractors, there are enough critical elements that are. Especially with the trend toward integrated building systems will the lighting, energy and electricity portions become more important and instrumental that all contractors need be aware of what role they can and should play in this niche market.

Perhaps some other lessons may be learned along the way. Who knows, you may find yourself making your own offices and homes a little greener just because it does make sense. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at



About the Author

Jennifer Leah Stong-Michas

Freelance Writer
Jennifer Leah Stong-Michas is a freelance writer who lives in central Pennsylvania.

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