Ecological design

Ecological design or ecodesign is an approach to designing products with special consideration for the environmental impacts of the product during its whole lifecycle. It was defined by Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan as "any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes."[1] Ecological design is an integrative ecologically responsible design discipline.

It helps connect scattered efforts in green architecture, sustainable agriculture, ecological engineering, ecological restoration and other fields. The “eco” prefix was used to ninety sciences including eco-city, eco-management, eco-technique, eco-tecture. It was first used by John Button in 1998. The inchoate developing nature of ecological design was referred to the “adding in “of environmental factor to the design process, but later it was focused on the details of eco-design practice such as product system or individual product or industry as a whole.[2] By including life cycle models through energy and materials flow, ecological design was related to the new interdisciplinary subject of industrial ecology. Industrial ecology meant a conceptual tool emulating models derived from natural ecosystem and a frame work for conceptualizing environmental and technical issues.

Living organisms exist in various systems of balanced symbiotic relationships. The ecological movement of the late twentieth-century is based on understanding that disruptions in these relationships has led to serious breakdown of natural ecosystems. In human history, technological means have resulted in growth of human populations through fire, implements and weapons. This dramatic increase in explosive population contributed the introduction of mechanical energies in machine production and there have been improvements in mechanized agriculture, manufactured chemical fertilizers and general health measures. Although the earlier invention inclined energy adjusting the ecological balance, population growth following the industrial revolution led to abnormal ecological change.[3]

Ecodesign is a growing responsibility and understanding of our ecological footprint on the planet. Green awareness, overpopulation, industrialization and an increased environmental population have led to the questioning of consumer values. It is imperative to search for new building solutions that are environmentally friendly and lead to a reduction in the consumption of materials and energy.


As the whole product's life cycle should be regarded in an integrated perspective, representatives from advance development, design, production, marketing, purchasing, and project management should work together on the Ecodesign of a further developed or new product. Together, they have the best chance to predict the holistic effects of changes of the product and their environmental impact.

An eco-design product has a cradle-to-cradle life cycle ensuring zero waste is created in the whole process. By mimicking life cycles in nature, eco-design is a fundamental concept in achieving a truly circular economy.

Environmental aspects which ought to be analysed for every stage of the life cycle are:

  • Consumption of resources (energy, materials, water or land area)
  • Emissions to air, water, and the ground (our Earth) as being relevant for the environment and human health
  • Miscellaneous (e.g. noise and vibration)

Waste (hazardous waste and other waste defined in environmental legislation) is only an intermediate step and the final emissions to the environment (e.g. methane and leaching from landfills) are inventoried. All consumables, materials and parts used in the life cycle phases are accounted for, and all indirect environmental aspects linked to their production.

The environmental aspects of the phases of the life cycle are evaluated according to their environmental impact on the basis of a number of parameters, such as extent of environmental impact, potential for improvement, or potential of change.

According to this ranking the recommended changes are carried out and reviewed after a certain time.

Ecological design issues and the role of designers

Since the Industrial Revolution, many propositions in the design field were raised with unsustainable design principles. The architect-designer Victor Papanek suggested that industrial design has murdered by creating new species of permanent garbage and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air.[4] For these issues, R. Buckminster Fuller, who was invited as University Professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 1960s, demonstrated how design could play a central role in identifying major world problems between 1965 and 1975. That included following contents:[5]

  • Review and analysis of world energy resources
  • Defining more efficient uses of natural resources such as metals
  • Integrating machine tools into efficient systems of industrial production

In the 1992 conference, ‘The Agenda 21: The Earth Summit Strategy to Save Our Planet”, a proposition was put forward that our world is on a path of energy production and consumption that cannot be sustained. The report drew attention to Individuals and groups around the world who have a set of principles to develop strategies for change that might be effective in world economics and trade policies, and the design professions will play a role in it. Namely, those meant that design profession becomes not what new products to make, but how to reinvent design culture likely to be realized. He noted designers firstly have to realize that design has historically been a dependent, contingent practice rather than one based on necessity. The design theorist, Clive Dilnot noted design becomes once again a means of ordering the world rather than merely of shaping products.[6] As a broader approach, the conference of ‘Agenda 21: The Earth Summit Strategy to Save Our Planet’ 1992, emphasized that designers should challenge for facing human problems. These problems were mentioned to six themes: quality of life, efficient use of natural resources, protecting the global commons, managing human settlements, the use of chemicals and the management of human industrial waste, and fostering sustainable economic growth on a global scale.[7]

Another area of ecological design is through designing around the interactions with wildlife, similar to conservation biology, but designers take the natural world into account when designing landscapes, buildings. or anything that could impact the interactions with wildlife. A such example in architecture is that of green roofs, where these are spaces that nature can interact with the man made environment but also where humans benefit from these design technologies. Another area is with landscape architecture in the creation of natural gardens, and natural landscapes, these allow for natural wildlife to thrive in urban centres.

Environmental effect analysis

One instrument to identify the factors that are important for the reduction of the environmental impact during all lifecycle stages is the environmental effect analysis (EEA).

For an EEA the following are taken into account:

  • Customers' wishes
  • Legal requirements, market requirements (competitors)
  • Data concerning the product and the manufacturing process

Applications in design

Ecodesign concepts currently have a great influence on many aspects of design; the impact of global warming and an increase in CO₂ emissions have led companies to consider a more environmentally conscious approach to their design thinking and process. In building design and construction, designers are taking on the concept of Ecodesign throughout the design process, from the choice of materials to the type of energy that is being consumed and the disposal of waste.

With respect to these concepts, online platforms dealing in only Ecodesign products are emerging, with the additional sustainable purpose of eliminating all unnecessary distribution steps between the designer and the final customer.

EcoMaterials, such as the use of local raw materials, are less costly and reduce the environmental costs of shipping, fuel consumption, and CO₂ emissions generated from transportation. Certified green building materials, such as wood from sustainably managed forest plantations, with accreditations from companies such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), or the Pan-European Forest Certification Council (PEFCC), can be used.

Several other types of components and materials can be used in sustainable buildings. Recyclable and recycled materials are commonly used in construction, but it is important that they don't generate any waste during manufacture or after their life cycle ends. Reclaimed materials such as timber at a construction site or junkyard can be given a second life by reusing them as support beams in a new building or as furniture. Stones from an excavation can be used in a retaining wall. The reuse of these items means that less energy is consumed in making new products and a new natural aesthetic quality is achieved.

Water recycling systems such as rainwater tanks that harvest water for multiple purposes. Reusing grey water generated by households are a useful way of not wasting drinking water.

Off-grid homes only use clean electric power. They are completely separated and disconnected from the conventional electricity grid and receive their power supply by harnessing active or passive energy systems.

Active system

These systems use the principle of harnessing the power generated from renewable and inexhaustible sources of energy, for example; solar, wind, thermal, biomass, and geothermal energy.

Solar power is a widely known and used renewable energy source. An increase in technology has allowed solar power to be used in a wide variety of applications. Two types of solar panels generate heat into electricity. Thermal solar panels reduce or eliminate the consumption of gas and diesel, and reduce CO₂ emissions. Photovoltaic panels convert solar radiation into an electric current which can power any appliance. This is a more complex technology and is generally more expensive to manufacture than thermal panels.

Biomass is the energy source created from organic materials generated through a forced or spontaneous biological process.

Geothermal energy is obtained by harnessing heat from the ground. This type of energy can be used to heat and cool homes. It eliminates dependence on external energy and generates minimum waste. It is also hidden from view as it is placed underground, making it more aesthetically pleasing and easier to incorporate in a design.

Wind turbines are a useful application for areas without immediate conventional power sources, e.g., rural areas with schools and hospitals that need more power. Wind turbines can provide up to 30% of the energy consumed by a household but they are subject to regulations and technical specifications, such as the maximum distance at which the facility is located from the place of consumption and the power required and permitted for each property.

Passive systems

Buildings that integrate passive energy systems (bioclimatic buildings) are heated using non-mechanical methods, thereby optimizing natural resources. The use of optimal daylight plays an integral role in passive energy systems. This involves the positioning and location of a building to allow and make use of sunlight throughout the whole year. By using the sun's rays, thermal mass is stored into the building materials such as concrete and can generate enough heat for a room.

A green roof is a roof partially or completely covered with plants or other vegetation. This creates insulation that helps regulate the building's temperature. It also retains water, providing a water recycling system. It also provides soundproofing.


  • 1971 Ian McHarg, in his book "Design with Nature", popularized a system of analyzing the layers of a site in order to compile a complete understanding of the qualitative attributes of a place. McHarg gave every qualitative aspect of the site a layer, such as the history, hydrology, topography, vegetation, etc. This system became the foundation of today's Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a ubiquitous tool used in the practice of ecological landscape design.
  • 1978 Permaculture. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coin the phrase for a system of designing regenerative human ecosystems. (Founded in the work of Fukuoka, Yeoman, Smith, etc..
  • 1994 David Orr, in his book "Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect", compiled a series of essays on "ecolgocial design intelligence" and its power to create healthy, durable, resilient, just, and prosperous communities.
  • 1994 Canadian biologists John Todd and Nancy Jack Todd, in their book "From Eco-Cities to Living Machines" describe the precepts of ecological design.
  • 2000 Ecosa Institute begins offering an Ecological Design Certificate, teaching designers to design with nature.
  • 2004 Fritjof Capra, in his book "The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living", wrote this primer on the science of living systems and considers the application of new thinking by life scientists to our understanding of social organization.
  • 2004 K. Ausebel compiled compelling personal stories of the world's most innovative ecological designers in "Nature's Operating Instructions."

Art and decorating

Recycling has been used in art since the early part of the 20th century, when cubist artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Georges Braque (1882–1963) created collages from newsprints, packaging and other found materials. The "Outside Art" movement is recognized as a genuine expressive art form, and is celebrated because of the materials used and not in spite of them. The same principle can be used inside the home, where found objects are now displayed with pride and collecting certain objects and materials to furnish a home is now admired rather than looked down upon.

There is a huge demand in Western countries to decorate homes in a "green" style. A lot of effort is placed into recycled product design and the creation of a natural look. This ideal is also a part of developing countries, although their use of recycled and natural products is often based in necessity and wanting to get maximum use out of materials.


There are some clothing companies that are using several ecological design methods to change the future of the textile industry into a more environmentally friendly one. Recycling used clothing to minimize the use of resources, using biodegradable textile materials to reduce the impact on the environment, and using plant dyes instead of poisonous chemicals to improve the appearance of fabric.[8]

See also

Notes and references

  1. Van der Ryn S, Cowan S(1996). “Ecological Design”. Island Press, p.18
  2. Anne-Marie Willis (1991), “An international Eco Design” conference
  3. John McHale (1969), “An Ecological Overview”, in The Future of the Future, New York; George Braziller, pp.66-74
  4. Victor Papanek (1972), “Design for the Real World: Human Ecological and social change”, Chicago: Academy Edition, ix.
  5. Victor Margolin (1997), “Design for a Sustainable World”, Design Issues, vol14, 2. pp. 85
  6. Clive Dilnot (1982), “Design as a Society Significant Activity: An Introduction”, Design studies 3:2. pp.144
  7. Victor Margolin (1988), “Design for a Sustainable World”, Design Issues, vol14,2. pp. 91
  8. Taieb, Amine Hadj et al. (2010). "Sensitising Children to Ecological Issues through Textile Eco-Design". International Journal of Art & Design Education, vol. 29, 3. p313-320


  • Lacoste, R., Robiolle, M., Vital, X., (2011), "Ecodesign of electronic devices", DUNOD, France
  • McAloone, T. C. & Bey, N. (2009), Environmental improvement through product development - a guide, Danish EPA, Copenhagen Denmark, ISBN 978-87-7052-950-1, 46 pages
  • Lindahl, M.: Designer's utilization of DfE methods. Proceedings of the 1st International Workshop on "Sustainable Consumption", 2003. Tokyo, Japan, The Society of Non-Traditional Technology (SNTT) and Research Center for Life Cycle Assessment (AIST).
  • Wimmer W., Züst R., Lee K.-M. (2004): Ecodesign Implementation – A Systematic Guidance on Integrating Environmental Considerations into Product Development, Dordrecht, Springer
  • Charter, M./ Tischner, U. (2001): Sustainable Solutions. Developing Products and Services for the Future. Sheffield: Greenleaf
  • ISO TC 207/WG3
  • ISO TR 14062
  • The Journal of Design History: Environmental conscious design and inverse manufacturing,2005. Eco Design 2005, 4th International Symposium
  • The Design Journal: Vol 13, Number 1, March 2010 - Design is the problem: The future of Design must be sustainable, N. Shedroff.
  • "Eco Deco", S. Walton
  • "Small ECO Houses - Living Green in Style", C. Paredes Benitez, A. Sanchez Vidiella
  • What does eco design mean?

Further reading

  • From Bauhaus to Ecohouse: A History of Ecological Design. By Peder Anker, Published by Louisiana State University Press, 2010. ISBN 0-8071-3551-8.
  • Ecological Design. By Sim Van der Ryn, Stuart Cowan, Published by Island Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59726-141-8 (2nd ed., 1st, 1996)
  • Ignorance and Surprise: Science, Society, and Ecological Design. By Matthias Gross, Published by MIT Press, 2010. ISBN 0-262-01348-7
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