What is Environmental Design?

Large buildings can be built with stone floors to help with cooling in hot climates.

Environmental design is often confused with ecodesign, also known as eco design, but the two are not the same. Ecodesign is an aspect of this discipline and addresses sustainability issues, but environmental design is a much broader field that involves taking the surrounding environment into consideration when planning a design. When successful, it is a synergy between a building, landscape or even a product and its surroundings, to the benefit of both.

Landscape designers should only use plants native to their specific region to prevent invasion by foreign species.

While the movement itself first emerged in the 1940s, environmental design is nothing new. The ancient Greeks built houses facing south, which kept them cooler in summer and warmer in winter due to the seasonal orientation of the sun. The Romans continued this practice and began placing panes of glass on windows to let in light without allowing the heat to escape, which evolved into the creation of greenhouses to grow exotic plants from much warmer climates. Various cultures at this time also created solar panels from curved sheets of metal that could capture the sun’s heat and turn it into usable heat for cooking, bathing, and home comfort.

Large shade trees can help reduce a home’s energy needs.

Modern environmental design still uses many concepts handed down from the ancients, and new technologies and ideas continually evolve. Various energy crises over the years have led architects and city planners to plan buildings around the relative location of the sun and other natural formations such as trees, mountains and bodies of water in an attempt to increase energy efficiency. The windows are oriented to allow maximum penetration of sunlight in winter and minimum penetration in summer to reduce climate control costs. Large buildings in hot climates are built with stone floors to help with cooling and often have shuttered windows that allow light to penetrate indirectly, keeping the heat out.

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Solar panels, which capture the sun’s rays, can be used to incorporate solar energy into a building’s design.

This discipline also applies to exterior design. Responsible landscapers will only use plants native to the region to prevent the invasion of foreign species, and desert gardens will likely be xeriscaped, using cacti on beds of rock and pebbles to eliminate the need for irrigation. Prickly hedges under the windows prevent intrusion and large shade trees outside the large windows reduce energy needs. Outdoor lighting can easily contain a small solar panel that will collect enough energy during the day to power you all night long without using electricity.

Environmental design includes elements that minimize energy consumption in a building.

The US Green Building Council initiated the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) certification system in 1998 to recognize sustainably designed buildings. These buildings often incorporate solar, wind, and even geothermal energy to create a zero-emissions state, with the building itself producing all the energy it needs to run. The most efficient of them actually produce more energy than they need, which they then sell to electric companies for consumer use.

At its root, environmental design is not necessarily about new technologies, although recent advances have promoted the field considerably. It is about taking advantage of what already exists, rather than demolishing and leveling a construction site, for example. Working with the imperfections and unique aspects of each individual location ultimately makes the final product run smoother at a lower cost.

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