9 Principles of Sustainable Design

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Sustainable Design, Why?

We usually think of ourselves separate to nature. We think the natural world is a separate world out there, a world we visit on the weekend or for vacation. Nature has become a separate entity that has to be controlled. We created an us versus the environment mentality.

Even when we mean well and put effort in to protect the environment, it seems we can only think as far as to mitigate the damage we and our developed world supposedly cause.

We think in terms of doing less harm, which means we take for granted that a certain amount of harm to the environment is necessary and permissible for humankind to flourish and advance. 

The Hannover Principles and their authors William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart challenged us to reframe the conversation. Their thesis:

Instead of less harm why not just design and create buildings and things that are in harmony with the environment, even supportive! 

And just like that, a negative concept has been turned around to something positive. 

It goes with my own philosophy that my well being is intertwined with the well being of the environment.

The old paradigm means: Doing less harm to the environment (but still some) means I do less harm (but still some) to myself.

The new paradigm: Living in harmony with the environment means my own well being. 

This is my kind of approach to sustainability.

What are the Hannover Principles?

In 1991  William McDonough and Dr. Michael Braungart were commissioned by the city of Hannover, Germany to develop a set of sustainable design principles for the 2000 World’s Fair. The city chose “Humanity, Nature and Technology” as the theme of the Expo and it wanted to showcase a hopeful vision for a sustainable future.

As a result, The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability, were born in 1992. 

The Hannover Principles presented the first coherent framework to rethink design & architecture through the lens of sustainability to the world. At their core is a simple truth:

Human health, the strength of our economy and the well-being of our environment are all connected. 

I think it is fair to say that the Hannover Principles are the foundation and guiding principles for many subsequent developed green building standards. You can certainly see the nine principles reflected in one of the most rigorous green building standards, The Living Building Challenge.

The 9 Principles of Sustainability

  1. Insist on rights of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable condition.
  2. Recognize interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend upon the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognizing even distant effects.
  3. Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement including community, dwelling, industry and trade in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.
  4. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems and their right to co-exist.
  5. Create safe objects of long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential danger due to the careless creation of products, processes or standards.
  6. Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life-cycle of products and processes, to approach the state of natural systems, in which there is no waste.
  7. Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income. Incorporate this energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.
  8. Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not as an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled.
  9. Seek constant improvement by 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 re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.

What is so special about The Hannover Principles?

First of all, they were first. It seems to me that these nine principles of sustainable design are the mother of comprehensive Green Building Standards, such as LEED and The Living Building Challenge.

The authors intent was to inspire designers to consider how to adapt their work toward sustainable ends. There are no performance goals, no points to be collected for a possible certification and no fees, just pure inspiration.

They also take the doomsday thinking out of the equation for sustainability and equate sustainability with hope and an abundant future. 

These 9 Sustainable Design Principles should hang in every architect’s and contractor’s office.

When you’re looking for trade professionals to join your project team, ask them if they have heard of these principles. If not give them a copy of these principles and ask them to make it part of their proposal.

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