Four months ago, at the beginning of this semester and the start of this sustainability journey, the concept of “going green” and practicing a sustainable lifestyle was narrowly defined in my mind. My knowledge of sustainability within the interior design industry extended to LEED accreditation and the fact that manufacturers are introducing more products made from recycled content, but I never grasped how many media there were by which to practice sustainability. I viewed sustainability as many different parts that designers could choose to work on independently and focus on respectively; however, my definition of sustainability, now, is holistic. Sustainability, like the earth, is a system of interacting parts, theories, and perspectives that all work together and effect one another. I don’t think that there is one thing you can do to the earth – good or bad – that won’t effect something else. The critical question now, especially as a professional in the building industry, is what we want our impact to look like. I do still hold the perspective that there are different areas of “sustainability” that can be worked on – waste, energy, pollution, and even social issues – and that designers should attack these issues one at a time, or else we will all end up confused and juggling some web of concepts, trying to make sense of it all. It is extremely important to me now, though, with a new understanding of what sustainability is, to reflect on the bigger picture when practicing areas of sustainability and to hold a higher understanding of how our practices effect our environment.
Throughout the semester, we learned about many perspectives on sustainability that I was unfamiliar with. Some of the perspectives that surprised me were biomimicry and industrial ecology. When I was a freshman, my major was actually microbiology and molecular genetics, and I still have a passion for science and biology, so it was really enlightening for me to learn that I could integrate two of my passions: biology and design. When we learned about biomimicry and watched Ted Talks on innovations – both completed designs and design concepts – in the area of biomimicry, I thought, “why has no one thought of this before,” because it’s a practice that allows for advancement and respect to the earth simultaneously. I love the topic of biomimicry because it shows simultaneously how driven we are by technology and advancement, but how desperately this advancement has separated us from respecting and honoring our planet. We have come almost full circle through biomimicry in that we are turning to natural processes and natural materials as a guide to how we should be designing using highly advanced technologies. Industrial ecology is a concept that parallels biomimicry in that it is a system modeled after environmental ecology. Before taking this class, I had never heard of a “closed-loop system,” but I was familiar with recycling and upcycling. One problem that I see now with recycling is that the effect is only as significant as its ripple factor. If you recycle a material into another material that cannot be recycled again, there is still waste that needs to be eliminated. The idea of a closed-loop mechanical/industrial metabolism parallels the way that our environment naturally uses waste as food. Again, I wonder why no one has thought of this before, but then again, consumers are only recently being made aware of how much the industrial revolution and consumerism have negatively impacted our environment. These are the two biggest concepts that changed my perspective on sustainability throughout the course, although we discussed many other topics that I enjoyed as well, like empathic design and design activism.
Now that the semester has ended, I am looking forward to continuing my sustainability journey in my career. I graduate in just one week and am going to begin working at a commercial firm that specializes in research labs, health care, and scientific classrooms. I am excited to play a significant role in large projects where sustainable practices could make a difference. In my future, I will also have the opportunity to become LEED certified, which will not only help me professionally, but also give me the chance to continue my education in the topic of sustainability and designing energy-efficient buildings and spaces that enhance not only the world’s environment, but also the emotional environment of end-users. Now that I have learned about a few of the big perspectives and theories within the realm of sustainability, I am excited to be able to explore more and use this knowledge in real projects that have a real impact.