Architects vs Designers

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Chris Sherwin got a glimpse during a panel discussion at Ecobuild 2013 and to his surprise, saw designers come off better than expected
Google the term ‘sustainable design’, or search a jobs website, and I’ll bet most of the hits are for architecture, not design or engineering.

It’s a truism that sustainable design was practiced in the architectural profession way before terms like ‘design for disassembly’ even existed, and its practice seems more mainstream and high profile in building, rather than in product design.

Think Kevin McCloud versus Oliver Heath, and you’ll see that designers always seem to come out as a sustainability second best.

I’ve always felt sustainable building design is about 20 years ahead of us product guys. They have well defined standards for ‘green’ building design like BREEAM or LEED, well established industry ‘green’ groups like UK Green Building Council, mature tools like BRE’s Green Guide or BIM software tools for building’s full lifecycle impacts.

Not to mention that award-winning or high-profile architecture tends also to be flagship sustainability projects too — just look at The Gherkin or the 2012 Olympic park development. The same can’t really be said for design and engineering.

This tension was brought home to me recently when asked to join a (largely architectural) panel at Ecobuild 2013 for a session titled ‘New Creative Horizons — the materials and technologies of tomorrow’.

If you haven’t been to Ecobuild it’s well worth a look, not least for its scale (the size of four football pitches) and the optimism you leave with at all this great green technology under one roof. This certainly doesn’t exist in the sustainable product design world either.


Following my nattily titled ‘Designing our way out of trouble’ presentation, my biggest take away from our fascinating session was when a fellow panel member and esteemed architect turned to me during our Q&A saying, “I think we architects could learn something about sustainable design from you designers.”

After pointing out to him that I found it rather hard to believe anyone could be envious of how fabulously unambitious our clients can be, it got me thinking that the proverbial grass might not be so much greener on the architectural side.

I’ll confess to previously being rather intimidated, and a little bit nervous around architects, who’ve always felt like ‘real’ designers, so this certainly got me questioning my preconceptions about sustainability in our respective fields, and about the different ways we both do sustainable design and innovation.

Here are the three areas of similarities and differences between architecture-driven, and product design-driven sustainability, I thought I’d share with you:

Budgets and R&D investment

Investment in innovation plays the first major role. R&D and innovation spending, one driven of design activity, is pitifully low in the construction sector (0.6% of sales spent on R&D) in comparison to more product design-based sectors (aerospace = 8%; electronics 4%, automotive = 3.5%; FMCG = circa 2%; pharma = 34%!).

Take away from our session was when fellow panel member turned to me saying, “I think we architects could learn something about sustainble design from you designers”

As design projects can be significantly influenced by R&D activity, this puts sustainable product designers at a distinctive, even luxurious advantage of more regularly seeing funding heading in our direction.

Sustainability analysts Verdantix estimate that spending on sustainable product innovation rose by 17% in 2011 and remained among the top three growth areas in 2012 too. I doubt the same happened in green architecture.

Exacerbating this is the global economic crisis, which hit building and construction especially hard, whereas many of our consumer products or fast moving consumer products continue to invest in R&D (NOTE TO CLIENTS: its still not enough!).

Innovation cycles

Innovation and ‘product’ lifecycles are obviously much shorter in products than in buildings, though this is a double-edged sword for sustainable product designers.

Obviously, the shorter the product lifecycle; the quicker the redesign; the more work for designer.

Cars are refreshed every two to three years, with a major redesign every four to five years, our FMCG clients work on breakthrough innovations on a three to four year cycle, while mobile phones now last (i.e. are redesigned) as little as every 18 months.

Many modern buildings are designed for 20 to 40 year lifespans, meaning the turn around simply isn’t as fast, so designers will inevitably do more work on sustainable products than on sustainable buildings.

The sustainability up-side to this, for architects at least, is that building design is usually more in-depth, more long-term, with more technical considerations and more regulation, allowing for more future-proofing – all things more likely to point us towards a sustainable future than our mayfly-like FMCG projects.

It’s the system stupid

One sustainability advantage architects may have over product designers is in having more of a systems-focus. It’s true that designers and engineers also focus on systems, but buildings are often simply bigger and more complex systems, meaning architects have to balance an even more complicated interplay of factors.

In my opinion sustainable design issues, such as energy consumption, waste, water use, toxicity, lifecycle costs, etc, fit into this design context more neatly and comfortably than in product design processes – hence my preconception that sustainable architecture was miles ahead.

So, sustainability in architecture vs design is not as clear-cut as I’d first thought, and there seem many pluses in applying sustainable design to products.

Both can peer over the others’ garden fences with equal amounts of green envy. With luck though, we’ll start talking, learning, and changing our ideas and preconceptions, and ultimately our practices, in just the way I did at Ecobuild.

Who would win a sustainability contest?

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