Informed Decisions


Information and participation replace standardization, power and anonymity of decisions to produce a precise fit between elements and function to meet need. The need for power and standardization to resolve design problems can be countered by substitution of careful observation, acquired knowledge and direct participation. Given adequate information we can achieve precise fits between system and function and make design more closely related to particular user needs. This information may be applied in initial shaping of the environment or during operation and use where feedback may be used. There are a variety of ways that we can gain information to better understand design needs and requirements. Several authors provide examples of ways we can have more informed design practices through ecologic accounting, sharing of knowledge, monitoring of projects and participation.

•Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan in Ecological Design suggest that ecological accounting is one way to inform design (pg. 82-101). While familiar with economic accounting, "we have largely failed to consider the parallel set of accounts that link design to the health of ecosystems." Ecological accounting tracks the flow of energy, materials, products, buildings, landscapes and communities to provide "an accurate measure of the environmental impacts of design, allowing these impacts to inform the design." Simple laws of energy and material accounting may be used. "Energy stored in the inputs must equal the energy stored in the outputs plus any waste energy." "Energy degrades in quality or usefulness as it is converted from one form to another." The minimizing of economic costs, often through not counting externalities, frequently maximizes environmental and social costs. Ecological design "asks us explicitly to consider the environmental impact of everything we include in a design." We can think of this as a life-cycle analysis. The components we place in a design have a beginning and an end and through their life they may require inputs and produce outputs. In our accounting system we can look to the resource flow accompanying the design components. Such accounting will provide "critical guidance for the ecological design process."

•The U.S. National Park Service in Guiding Principles of Sustainable Design suggests we seek constant improvement by sharing knowledge (pg. 5) and monitoring results (pg. 18). In the sharing of knowledge, "encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers and users to link long-term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and reestablish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity." Educate "the building industry, clients, and the general public about the importance of sustainable design." Work "to change policies, regulations, and standards in government and business so that sustainable design will become the fully supported standard practice." In the realm of monitoring, "the effects on surrounding resources of developing and operating facilities should be routinely monitored and evaluated, and actions should be taken immediately to correct problems. This information can be used for improving design of future phases of the development. Monitoring will ensure that the limits of acceptable change are not exceeded and will provide information about the behavior of the system. Indicator species provide useful and efficient monitoring tools. Initial and repeated geographic information system inventories of soils, hydrology, land use patterns, and plant and animal communities can aid in this understanding."

Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan in
Ecological Design suggest that people have an understanding of design needs that should be tapped into and understood (pg. 146-159). For much of history design has been an intuitive part of culture. People understood their regions and communities and knew the design templates that would work. More recently, design professions have supplanted intuitive design processes.

"Ecological design suggests a deeply participatory process in which technical disciplinary languages and barriers are exchanged for a shared understanding of the design problem. Ecological design changes the old rules about what counts for knowledge and who counts as knower. It suggests that sustainability is a cultural process rather than an expert one, and that we should all acquire a basic competence in the shaping of our world." Design needs to "once again become permeable to the outside world, responding to the challenges offered by real places and adding ecology and community to the list" of concerns. "Design is molded by powerful political and economic forces. It is well past time to open up the methods, products, and apparatus of design to wider constituencies." "While everyone will not become a master builder or a competent ecological engineer, ... we can all possess a basic design literacy that allows us to participate in the shaping of our places."