Published on 12 March 2018

Development of sustainable design principles

About ten years ago, the Dutch engineering industry started developing tools aimed at assessing and integrating sustainability in design and implementation processes. For many, sustainability was something of a catchall term and there was a strong need for a clear definition. This resulted in the multitude of ‘wheel’ diagrams centred on sustainability related themes, offering ways to deal with comprehensive decision-making in construction projects and designing. Initially, these themes mainly originated in the physical domain, e.g. water, soil, air and nature, and a few in the social domain, such as safety.

Identifying the right approach
Witteveen+Bos started looking for ways to define sustainability together with a number of European partners in the Sustainable Cities programme, aimed at creating a framework for sustainable urban development. The partners soon found out that the temptation to simplify was considerable – a tool needs to be convenient in practice too, without turning into a research project of its own – and the number of themes was practically infinite. And if we also add into the mix an engineer’s natural tendency to accurately measure all actual and potential effects, it could well be a recipe for failure. Along the way, Witteveen+Bos decided to translate its possible contribution to major global challenges into principles instead of into themes, giving rise to its sustainable design principles, not least because creating designs is the core business of an engineering consultancy. We based the actual principles on the principles of sustainable development as defined in 1992 by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, also known as the Earth Summit). For the application of the Rio principles, the Millennium Development Goals were developed, followed by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both by the United Nations. Sustainable development is therefore the link between sustainable design principles and the global goals. The sustainable design principles challenge engineers to maximise the positive impact of their designs on people’s wellbeing. That may sound easy, but the tricky thing for engineers is to create their designs in such a way that the positive impact on wellbeing does not unwittingly result in marginal negative effects. That danger is always just around the corner, because the design assignment is often simplified to a single objective in order to keep the design process manageable. This makes it vital to keep a sharp focus on all themes, because the sting of unintended side effects is that very often we do not see them coming.

To design is to anticipate and choose
Designing is making choices with vision. In the design process, measures are devised aimed at resolving problems in order to promote wellbeing. That is a creative yet structured process, which involves:

  • a problem analysis: What is the problem? What are the obstacles standing in the way of wellbeing? What goals are we aiming to attain with a project?
  • a system analysis: How does the problem arise? What buttons can we push in order to remove the cause of the problem?
  • a function analysis: What functions will the design need to fulfil in order to resolve the problem?
  • a variant study: What are the different ways in which the functions can be fulfilled? Which physical objects will that require? What are the dimensions of those objects?
  • an effect study: What are the positive effects on wellbeing of each variant? Do the variants involve any unintended negative effects on wellbeing? What are the costs of each variant?

The design process is subject to the condition that choices must be made based on the expected effects on wellbeing. In order to identify measures with beneficial effects, we use our seven sustainable design principles. Each principle has its own perspective, and complements the other six principles. Which principles are relevant will depend on the design assignment.

No quality without sustainability
Witteveen+Bos has made the sustainable design principles a part of its quality assurance system. This means that every project leader has to make clear in his/her project plan how the principles have been considered and what the outcome was. The result of this ‘comply-or-explain’ principle is that most Witteveen+Bos employees know about the sustainable design principles (the latest survey showed that 80 % know about the principles and 40 % applied them in 2017). In practice, this initially means an additional thought process: the applicability of each principle in an upcoming project has to be assessed. Eventually, this thought process will become second nature. That is how we commit ourselves to finding – together with clients, partners and other stakeholders – the best solutions, with the sustainable design principles as a guideline to do what is right.

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