A couple of months ago, we decided to build knowledge around a topic that is so obvious we forget about it. Design. Why do we design the things we have the way we do? So we looked for the guy who could help us make sense of this, and tell us how to do better! This guy is named Jeremy Faludi.
We were able to have a long chat on sustainability and sustainable design in the world and his already long career achievements. Get your mind ready to roam the invisible yet ubiquitous world of design, we’re going on a two-part adventure (season special) through pins, glue, concrete and coffee beans. Take a good look at your favourite objects, because you’ll never look at anything the same after this interview.
To read or re-read part one, hit this link.
How do you measure sustainable design?
Plan A: Do we have any indicators for the impact of getting these people into the early stages of design? How would you go about measuring this impact?
Faludi: There are a bunch of ways to measure through this, the most credible way is called “Life Cycle Assessment” where you can quantify, let’s say CO2 emissions, acidification, acid rain, eutrophication, water pollution, particulate matter, land use, mineral depletion, fossil fuel depletion, carcinogens and other environmental toxins.
This is a method of analysis that’s been going on for 30 years, and whenever you hear of doing a carbon footprint, that’s a kind of Life Cycle Assessment only measuring one thing. You can measure multiple things, and it will be comprehensive, it’s far from perfect, but it’s better than anything else. There are also certification schemes like cradle to cradle or EP (Environmental Professional) or on the more social end Fair Trade or SA8000 and so you can absolutely quantify the environmental and social impact of things.
Part of what I do in advising people and one of the Green Design methods that I created to help people do this is a way of integrating Life Cycle Assessment and other quantitative measurements into the creative stages of the early design process.
How do you compile this kind of “non-data” information and organise it in an accessible way?
Faludi: So asknature is not a tool for measuring impacts. It’s a tool for getting inspiration and getting new ideas. I worked on the very first version around 15 years ago, so a lot of other people have worked on it other than me. Even at the time, I was one of the very few people gathering information, and those that were mostly gathering it were biologists who were combing biological literature to find interesting phenomena.
We knew that architects, engineers, and designers would be interested in waterproofing, choosing colour or creating colour, waterproofing, structural strength etc. We comb the biological literature for things that would accomplish that, then we translate those scientific articles so that a normal human could read them.
This includes designers or architects and to follow that we found pictures to illustrate the articles and tried to put it all together. This was all the brainchild of Bryony and Janine of the Biomimicry Institute, but I helped design the first version and to plan out what the architecture of the site was.
Do you still work with data and these kinds of new big amounts of information and does this influence new ecological designs within sustainability?
I don’t do any big data stuff myself, certainly life cycle assessment is a very data intensive thing. You must figure out how many grams of steel, what variety of steels, and the specific manufacturing process with the data. What kinds of plastic, and in turn with that what kind of manufacturing processes. Then how much glass and electricity you use and what is the electricity grid mix of electricity there. Is the mix of coal vs. hydro vs. nuclear? A fair amount of what I do is very data intensive but it’s not the “Big Data” or aggregating databases for millions of data points. There’s one Big data project that I’ve done called Street Nature Score.
If you go to the website streetnaturescore.com, that site calculates the percentage of nature per area of any place in the United States. The goal is to encourage nature in dense urban areas to make these dense urban areas more attractive and livable to people.
It will also improve air quality and reduce peoples’ stress alongside the urban heat island effect. Even that website required tens of millions of data points because it’s a grid of 30-meter by 30-meter pixels that covers the entire United States.
3D Printing – On choosing the right material
In line with projects like that, what are you working on today?
I’m still researching Green Design methods and how to teach designers and engineers sustainability. A somewhat new area of research I’ve been doing is Green 3D printing and to invent new materials and technologies to improve the environmental impacts of 3D printing.
What new materials do you use for 3D printing?
Well, we’re still in the very early exploratory phases and currently, we don’t have anything that works very well. We have certainly 3D printed stuff, but we haven’t gotten very good physical properties yet.
I haven’t found something to replace ABS (Acrylonitrile, Butadiene, and Styrene), polycarbonate, or PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) plastic yet. I did a bunch of life cycle assessments of 3D printing and actually did a report for the OECD. It was on the future trajectory of what our priorities for sustainability should be in additive manufacturing.
What I found was that 3D printing takes a lot more energy than injection moulding for the same product if its plastic. That can be fine if you’re prototyping and making 2 or 3 of some object. It’s not good if you’re making millions of something and then switch over manufacturing as a whole to 3D printing. But I think that there’s potential, one of the 3D printers that I measured was this experimental setup at UC Berkeley.
Professor Ronald Rael was printing in things such as sawdust, salt, and coffee grounds. He had a low-energy printing process and some of the materials that he used were bio-materials. I concluded through this process and my research that the main priorities are having low-energy processes and printing compostable bio-materials. That will give these materials a good end of life because recycling plastics is already difficult and not super economical. 3D printing plastics can sometimes help on the supply side because 3D printing materials are generally more expensive. It’s OK to use more expensive recycled plastics as your materials but it won’t help on the demand side in the long term. People will want to 3D print multiple materials all mixed together, which will destroy recycling no matter how good the individual plastics are.
If you have a good bio-material, it doesn’t matter how many different materials you have mixed together. All can be thrown into the same compost bin. Following that idea, we’re printing in things like rice flour, maltodextrin, orange flower, orange peels, sawdust, and various other things.
Do you think the name of the game in sustainable design then is to get rid of artificial materials like plastic and concrete? Those materials that are very energy intensive and with poor life-cycles?
Yes, but you can’t think too single-mindedly about any of these things. You must look at things from a whole-system perspective. Like for a car: it’s ok to use materials that are worse, such as carbon fibre, which has much more environmental impact per pound than steel. Still, that’s ok because for a car the top priority is saving fuel or energy use during the driving. If you can make that car lighter by using carbon fibre instead of steel, then it’s ok because in the whole system you are still better off. Does that make sense?
You must tackle the problem from all ends. I guess the end game is to find a bit of improvement everywhere?
Yeah and that’s why it’s important to do things like Life Cycle Assessment and to do things on the scale of the whole product. Knowing what your priorities are on the whole system level, rather than spending thousands of hours and millions of dollars replacing this one material when that doesn’t matter on the large scale.
The Future in which Everyone Can Help
When you teach, you must see a lot of young creative minds around you, what do you tell them when it comes to being sustainable?
Oh, I say all kinds of things! For engineering students, they must understand engineering is what got us into this mess in the first place and engineers need to get us out of it. That’s one angle, another angle is that engineers and designers build the physical world, we build the material world that everybody lives in and so we have the power to fix it and make it better.
How do you get people like me, people without an engineering or design background, the importance of what you do? How do you make people understand that this is the blueprint of what makes the material world?
Well I think that the people today are conscious and paying attention. They understand that there are big environmental problems, and we’re all looking around for solutions. People from all walks of life can help to find the solutions. You own a restaurant, you can do all sorts of things for your food, by sourcing your ingredients while eliminating food waste and things like that. You know if you are a banker you can invest in sustainable businesses and community businesses. Everyone can help.
Jeremy it’s been a pleasure, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Faludi: No problem, it was a pleasure.
Jeremy Faludi is currently working as a Professor at Dartmouth University. With a Master of Engineering from Stanford University and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California Berkeley. He’s contributed to various books on sustainable design, including Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. He co-authored the Autodesk Sustainability Workshop, created the Whole System Mapping sustainable design method, designed the prototype of AskNature.org for the Biomimicry Institute, and a bicycle he helped design appeared in the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum’s 2007 exhibit “Design for the Other 90%.”. He loves nature, sustainability and design. He’s a sustainable design strategist. He’s got it.