SEDE: Sustainable Environmental Design Education
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1 Background

Foundations for SEDE Curriculum

  1. Sustainable Design - Philosophical Underpinnings
  2. Practice and Professional Environmental Design Education
  3. Application of Educational Theory and Pedagogy
  4. Framework for Regional Adaptation of Sustainable Design
  5. Barriers to Adoption and the Road to Acceptance

Sustainable Design

1. Definition of sustainability.
2. Global environmental issues.
3. Industry and professional response.


• Definition of sustainability


The term sustainability can be traced to the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) report entitled, Our Common Future (WCED 1987). The term shed light on the interdependence of social, economic and environmental issues as necessary factors to sustain life on earth. To quote the now familiar statement from the report: "Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future." The concept is transforming the way that we engineer, manufacture, farm, design, plan, build and rebuild our food, shelter, and human systems.

• Global environmental issues

Our human footprint increasingly is straining planetary resources and there are a multitude of indicators that the Earth's ability to recover from these impacts is diminishing. Causes for concern relate to the atmosphere, lithosphere, cryosphere, as well as biosphere. Specifically, global climate change, CO2 emissions, reduction in the ozone layer, eutrophication, sedimentation, and others are making our current patterns of lifestyle and consumption unsustainable.

The building industry is also a major player in determining the type of impact of planning, design, construction, and demolition. Buildings consume one-third of the total energy used in the U.S., produce 40% of the carbon dioxide emissions, and generate 33% of the construction waste that ends up in landfills. This is why a new paradigm is critical in the professions that make choices that affect patterns of resource consumption and environmental quality as it relates to energy, materials, water and air.

• Industry and professional response

The building industry* hasbegun to formulate a response to concerns over environmental quality and human health. The U.S. Green Building Council has been a leader in developing a system for rating the environmental soundness of "green" buildings through LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Manufacturers of building products have started certification processes with clear labelling of environmentally-preferred products (such as the Forest Stewardship Council, FSC).
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Practice and Professional Environmental Design Education

1. Tradition in environmental design education.
2. Continuting education, Accreditation and licensure.
3. A new paradigm.


• Tradition in environmental design education

Traditional environmental design education, as we know it today, developed during the Beaux Arts era where emphasis was placed on formal exploration of visual composition and space. Although styles changed over time (e.g., Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Baus Haus, Modernism, Post-Modernism), the fundamental approach to design remains the same to today. Since the 1950s when the world enjoyed an era of cheap and seemingly endless energy, traditional practice and education for landscape architecture and architecture have emphasized visual and spatial aspects of design.


• Continuing education, accreditation, and licensure


• Continuing Education and Professional Organizations

On a philosophical level, there is great acceptance and recognition of sustainability in professional arenas. The American Institute of Architects made significant inroads around 1992-93 with the creation of a Professional Interest Area (PIA) known as the Committee on the Environment (COTE) and the Environmental Resource Guide (ERG), a colossal loose-leaf binder with case studies and chapters on environmental impacts of building construction materials. Along similar lines, the American Society of Landscape Architects (A.S.L.A.) Board of Trustees unanimously adopted in October 1993 a “Declaration on Environment and Development” which provides a philosophical framework for the actions of landscape architects. Specifically, the text states:

The following objectives provide a conceptual framework for the implementation of sustainable development and a strategic direction for the ethics, education, and practice of landscape architects. Landscape architects commit themselves to:

• Accept responsibility for the consequences of their design, planning, management and policy decisions on the health of natural and cultural communities and their harmony, equity and balance with one another.

• Generate design, planning, management strategies, and policy from the basis of the cultural context and the ecosystem to which each landscape belongs at the local, regional, and global scale.

• Develop and specify products, materials, technologies, and techniques which exemplify the principles of sustainable development and landscape regeneration.

• Seek constant improvement in their knowledge, abilities, and skills, in their educational institutions, their professional practice and organizations, to more effectively achieve sustainable development.

• Actively engage in shaping decisions, attitudes and values that support human health, environmental protection, landscape regeneration and sustainable development.

The translation of general statements, such as those above, into specific guidelines and strategies for implementation within the landscape and architecture professions are clearly the needed next steps. The U.S. Green Building Council has taken philosophy one step further by introducing a system for continuing education and a green building rating system which has helped codify sustainable environmental design for practitioners and educators.

Requirements for sustainable environmental design in continuing education would reinforce these high level philosophies by forcing their translation into concrete actions. Currently, some state registration boards require continuing education for architects. The same is not true for landscape architects. However, demand for sustainable design from clients and consumers is driving the need for continuing education whether it is required or not.

In spite of demonstrated activity in professional organizations, substantive changes to key documents of professional education (such as accreditation criteria) and licensure (namely, exams) has yet to result in any significant or overt references to sustainable design. In particular, holding universities and their graduates accountable for demonstrated knowledge in sustainable design would be one means of creating an imperative for educational change. This leads to the topics introducing sustainable environmental design principles into accreditation of professional schools and professional licensure.

• University Accreditation Criteria

Both professional landscape and architecture professional degree programs must satisfy student performance criteria established by their respective accreditation boards. The National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) establishes and maintains accreditation standards as well as conducts the on-site reviews of undergraduate B.ARCH. and graduate M.ARCH. programs. The NAAB Student Performance Criteria (NAAB 1998 Conditions and Procedures for Professional Degree Programs in Architecture) specifies 37 areas that must be addressed explicitly within a university's curriculum. I have placed an asterisk next to the 26 criteria that most directly relate to goals and objectives for sustainable environmental design. The SEDE Curriculum Model could be presented to accredited schools with the recommendation of linking sustainability to these specific criteria.

The field of landscape architecture demonstrates its own parallels. The recently revised accreditation criteria have been written in a performance-based approach that is very inexplicit to the rigors and purpose of sustainable design. Accreditation criteria for landscape architecture curriculum are as follows:

a. landscape architectural history and theory
b. natural and cultural systems (*)
c. design theories, methodologies and applications (*)
d. landscape planning and management at various scales and applications (*)
e. site design and construction such as grading, drainage and circulation (*)
f. communication in written, verbal and visual applications (*)
g. plants and ecosystems at various scales and situations (*)
h. construction materials, methods, technologies and applications (*)
i. professional practice methods, values and ethics (*)
j. computing applications and other advanced technology


(*) potential for adaptation of criteria to explicit sustainable environmental design principles

Licensing Exams

Having a presence in accreditation criteria is one means for encouraging sustainable environmental design principles and practices in professional architecture and landscape architecture programs. As environmental themes develop a greater importance in schools, the spillover effect into professional practice is imminent. It is only logical then that the licensing exams for these two professional would be modified to include questions on sustainable design practice. Even if the schools lag behind, which they should not, continuing education courses will be able to supplement current practitioners needs for knowledge in this emerging field.


• A new paradigm

SEDE is a proposal to shift environmental design education towards a more comprehensive set of evaluation criteria whereby aesthetic concerns are met along with natural, cultural, economic, information technology, structural, material, energy, water, and other needs.
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Application of Educational Theory and Pedagogy

1. The Boyer Report.
2. Experiential Learning.
3. Case Study Method.
4. Eco-literacy


• The Boyer Report

In 1996, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching sponsored a study by researchers Ernest L. Boyer and Lee D. Mitgang entitled, Building Community: A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice. This study highlighted the opportunities associated with architectural design education. Seven priorities for architectural education are outlined in the book. As you can see, there are strong parallels to the goals of a sustainable environmental design education.

• Experiential Learning

At the core of traditional environmental education is termed, experiential learning, as a method that puts students face-to-face with the realities of their surrounding environment. With relatively little time spent outdoors (studies have shown, 80-90% of the time people are indoors) and little connection to the processes that make the objects that surround us, the need for interaction with the physical and natural world is imperative in order to move sustainable design from theory to practice.


• Case Study Method

For many years, medical and business schools have utilized the case study approach to teaching the next generation of professionals. The model has proven successful both in terms of creating a positive learning environment and passing on core knowledge in fields that demand complex decision making with serious physical or financial consequences.

The American Institute of Architects has since decided to adapt the case study method for the teaching of professionals, especially in the nuances of the design and construction processes. The number of players in design, the legal, financial, and ethical issues surrounding design decisions and construction processes, make a clear case for why the use of real projects and their associated data is so instrumental.

• Eco-literacy

Similar to other "literacy" movements, there is an effort to increase environmental awareness of all students as a basic philosophy that permeates all disciplines at the university level. The integration of this topic, woven throughout the curriculum, provides a pedagogical model for teaching ecological concepts to non-scientists and scientists alike. David Orr, in his book, Eco-literacy, expands on this topic.
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Framework for Regional Adaptation of Sustainable Design

While there are universal features within the design process, a specific sustainable design response (building or landscape) should be dependent on the building type, site characteristics, and the climate at both regional and local scales. "Should be" needs emphasis here because we are existing an era of cheap energy and a forgiving environment that can accept tons of CO2 emissions and other waste products. The international style with its identical glass box curtain wall buildings from Phoenix to Minnesota is no longer appropriate in an age of environmentally responsive design. Moreover, even sustainable design solutions that are appropriate to one area can be inappropriately exported to another region where they do not belong. Thus, a Framework for Regional Adaptation of Design tries to address these concerns through making specific recommendations for microclimatic zones.

There are examples of regionalized adaptations of guidelines and rating systems although limited in number. For example, a number of West Coast cities have created their own versions of LEED™ that take into account their specific regional climatic characteristics.
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Barriers to adoption and the road to acceptance

There are numerous misperceptions about sustainable design that are held by students, faculty, and administrators as well as building owners, occupants, architects, landscape architects and consultants. These include:

a) Sustainability is a fad or a buzz word.
b) Sustainability is a technological fix.
c) Sustainability produces "ugly" or "weird" buildings and landscapes.
d) Sustainability will make me uncomfortable (e.g., freeze-in-the-dark).
e) Sustainability is a not affordable.
f) Sustainability cannot be defined.

There are also structural barriers to teaching interdisciplinary subject matters that relate to current university structures of separate departments and faculty. Team teaching across departments and student enrollment in courses offered by other departments are two examples of institutional barriers in academia to teaching sustainable design.

Although there are barriers to sustainability, the benefits of adopting sustainable design counter many of the aforementioned arguments. For example, homes as well as commerical and instituional buildings, built according to sustainable principles can save significant operating costs over time. Also, better occupant comfort and indoor quality can be achieved through buildings designed with passive solar heating and passive cooling in mind. As has been proven through several landmark studies, the first costs of sustainable design are decreasing. (See http://www.ciwmb.ca.gov/greenbuilding/Design/CostIssues.htm and http://www.packard.org/index.cgi?page=building.) Gradually, green is becoming mainstream.
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 §  Survey and Needs Assessment


Survey Methodology


In order to assess the current state of Sustainable Environmental Design Education, a survey of community colleges, universities,and industry professionals was conducted. More>>

Survey Results

The results of the educators survey assessing the current state of sustainable design in post-secondary institutions are compiled in a report called, Sustainable Environmental Design Education: Educator Survey Report (pdf).


A mini-survey was also done for
landscape and architecture professionals and their associations and firms called, Sustainable Environmental Design Education: Industry Survey Report (pdf).

Survey Forms

To see the original surveys, download either of these forms:
Educator Survey (pdf)
Professional/Industry Survey (pdf)



1 May 2004 Home BackgroundCurriculum ModelTeaching MethodsResources Contact us