Green design finds fertile fields

October 19, 2008
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“Going green” may elicit images of hybrid cars or funny-shaped light bulbs, and locally, “green” is often spelled L-E-E-D, with West Michigan guiding the nation in LEED-certified buildings.

What “going green” doesn’t necessarily elicit is the intimate relationship between sustainability and design, and how the two can set U.S. companies apart and help revive the economy.

“We have in America a longstanding tradition of being really innovative — creative — and our designs are copied all over the world,” said Brad Davis, president, CEO and co-founder of Knú, a sustainable home and office furnishings company.

Davis gave a nod to Europe for good design practice, especially in the realm of sustainability, but emphasized the economic opportunities design can provide.

“I really believe that design can be a real catalyst for economic growth, and that’s why I support it wholeheartedly,” he said. Davis is a member of the Design West Michigan advisory group, which helps promote the economic benefits of design, among other things.

Davis said that design and sustainability are intertwined on many levels. From the beginning, if a company implements good design practices, it can reduce or eliminate waste — even at the basic level of designing a product that works well and looks good, which means people will keep it longer. The longer it stays out of the dump, the more sustainable it is.

“It’s really time for us all to start looking at, not only what we do everyday, but how much we consume. And I think that’s a real important part of sustainability: to look at the products that you buy and say, ‘Am I going to buy crap that’s going to last a couple of years and then I have to replace that?’ Or am I going to make some more judicious purchases and say, ‘I really love this product; I’m willing to save a little bit and buy a piece of product that will last me my whole life,’” said Davis.

To emphasize his point, Davis gave the example of the living room set his parents bought in 1964 — and that’s now in his house. The pieces have been reupholstered four times, but the sound quality and good design make them timeless.

“You’re going to have to design products that not only last a long time, but also are timeless in their aesthetic,” said Davis. “Very trendy type things are going to fall out of favor, and they’ll end up in a landfill.”

Tom Newhouse, of Thomas J. Newhouse Design, has been an advocate of sustainable design for quite some time.

“I used to call it ‘ecologically sensitive design’ or ‘eco-design,’” said Newhouse. “In recent years, it finally became something a client wanted. The last five (years), it’s been getting amazing. There’s really some earnest work going on.”

Newhouse, who has done work for Herman Miller, spoke about what it is like these days for a designer to present a design to the office furniture manufacturer.

“They require the designers to bring in green designs,” said Newhouse. “Designers are scrutinized from the get go — from the roughest concepts in terms of the environmental impact of the product — so I love that.”

Both Davis and Newhouse agree that a focus on sustainable design can make a company more competitive.

“A lot of people think that sustainability is expensive, and I can tell you that in many cases, it’s the exact opposite,” said Davis. “If you are saving energy, you are saving money — bottom line. First of all, you have to pay for the stuff you throw into the landfill, so you’ve already paid for it once; now you have to pay for it again in disposal cost.”

Newhouse said sustainability and design affect a company’s competitiveness on two levels.

“Because of things like LEED — where customers who want to build a building have heard of it, and now are starting to ask for a green building — now all the design disciplines have to know what they’re doing,” said Newhouse. “In office furniture, for example, all of the companies now are heading to sustainability; it has become an obligation. It’s just fantastic. It’s like the price of entry almost.”

While sustainable design principles have been proven to save money over the long haul, they can be more expensive upfront and call for support from upper management.

“It probably costs a little more, but I believe the paybacks are there,” said Newhouse, pointing out that sustainable products such as Toyota’s Prius or the highly recyclable chairs from Herman Miller would not have been possible without support from management.

Steelcase is another company that has been reaping the rewards of sustainable design — saving $600,000 in its wood facility alone by switching to water-based solvents.

Brett Kincaid, manager of the Steelcase Design Studio, and Kevin Kuske, general manager of wood furniture for Steelcase, both implement sustainable design principles and see the benefits.

“For a long time it’s played a role in this company,” said Kuske. “It’s something that helps the business and the people who work there feel good about what they’re doing. It helps from an internal perspective that when you rally people around these challenges, they feel better about what they’ve done when they’ve accomplished it.”

From an external perspective, Kuske said that more and more customers are looking for sustainable products that produce more opportunities for business.

“It has never yet not made us more profitable in our efforts,” said Kuske about sustainable practices. “There may have been short-term investments you had to make, but they were very short term before they were paid off.”

“Sustainability has had a very significant impact on how we develop products here at Steelcase,” said Kincaid. “The big one for us is thinking about what happens at the end of the life of a product from a design point of view. In the beginning of the process, we can choose from lots of different materials for a product — some that are much better for the environment.”

Kuske took up that thread: “One of the things I’ve seen as we’ve added this constraint — thinking about material choices, thinking about the lifecycle and the process it goes through — to a certain degree, it creates a much higher bar. I think you get a better solution in the end.”

Kincaid added, “The only way to solve a lot of these sustainability issues is with new thinking. Every time we come to the front of a problem, every time we write a design brief or a design marketing brief for a project, we are increasing the requirements from the last project. It’s not just about the product design: We’re bringing that same type of design thinking and that same creativity to sustainability problems when we look at business models.”

Newhouse stated that roughly 70 percent of the potential of a product to be sustainable or not happens on the design concept page.

“Way up front of the process is where you can make tremendous strides — or screw it up and then down the stream, you can’t fix it.”

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