Building Efficiency, Design Deficiency? Exploring the Design Deficit in the Theory and Practice of Sustainable Architecture

By Phillipa Marsh.

Published by The Design Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Whilst architectural design is commonly perceived as a practice, a profession and a product (Till, 2009), current sustainable design literatures overwhelmingly focuses on the product and on the technical (Edwards & Hyett, 2001). Guy and Shove (2000) have argued this prevailing techno-rational construct tends to cast designers in “a rather passive role” doing more or less their best to meet clearly identified societal needs. Further, Groak (1992) suggests that this conceptualizes buildings as static objects, where design is viewed as the straightforward assembly of more or less efficient construction materials. According to Schon (1991) these techno-rationalist design approaches assume both well-structured design problems and the need for building science (not design) to fill the methodological gap between theory and practice.

Current architectural design practice also appears to be reinforcing this notion, where technological exemplars and rational practices are promoted and embedded into new built environments. Existing practices and related design guidance has focused predominantly on fulfilling technical requirements. Thus design has limited its vision by following linear rules of sustainability (Marsh:2009; Wilkinson: 2010). However, sociological factors are also central to sustainability and in losing sight of this, techno-rationally oriented built environments have been significantly less efficient than predicted (Roy:2000; Chappells & Shove:2000).

This paper suggests that design may be suffering something of an identity crisis, in what it offers and how it is perceived within the discourse of sustainability. By focusing on architectural design and through examination of the related sustainability literature; within social sciences, the philosophy of technology and the philosophy of pragmatism, this paper will highlight the predominance of a limited perception of sustainable design focused on the short term and static objects. When contrasted to established design theory, this limited view of the role of design undervalues the potential importance of design in achieving sustainability.

Keywords: Sustainable Design, Techno-Rational, Design, Pragmatics of Design

Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, Volume 5, Issue 5, pp.543-556. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 858.866KB).

Phillipa Marsh

Researcher, Department of the Built Environment, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK

Phillipa Marsh is currently researching for a PhD in Architecture at the University of Nottingham, considering the influence of technology on the design practice of sustainable housing. She also teaches widely as Senior Lecturer for Interior Architecture as well as in Marketing; teaching design concepts for the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University. She completed a Masters degree in Research Methods in 2004 that focused on craftsmanship, creativity and the construction of making. Her previous industry experience is as an interior designer within architecture and as a product designer, as well as previously teaching design theory in Furniture and Product Design disciplines.


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