A common misconception is that sustainable design is a new trend. If we stop and consider, however, what really creates sustainable design, we see that much of the trend is based upon ideas that have existed for centuries. In the recent past, we became so obsessed with new, expensive, capitalist ideas, that we branched away from the basics of sustainability in order to use more, have more, and be more than our neighbors. Re-use of products was seen as a poor man’s solution to save money rather than a ecological concern to save the environment. The world was focused on a desire to get all new expensive products that used the most expensive technologies.

It is true that the origins of many sustainable ideas used today began because of limitations in technology. Utilizing the knowledge of the past does not need to reduce technology, but should be used to advance sustainable ideas. Building upon the basics utilized before advances in technology is an excellent way to reduce costs of greening and improve amounts of renewable resources. According to Ian Williams, President of the Lawrence Technological University Alternative Energy Student group, the “best sustainable technologies are the simplest. Consider the location of a building or increasing insulation. For instance, something like the adobe hut”.  The adobe hut is an excellent example of a century old sustainable insulation solution.

An adobe hut is merely a small dwelling made from dried mud bricks and covered in a type of mud plaster. The process protects the bricks from the elements, thus increasing the lifespan of the hut. The hut is highly insulated. Mud, a renewable resource, is a highly available product. Societies dating back to 900 have been found in Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico that were built completely in this fashion (Buildings Across Time, An Introduction to World Architecture).

While it is true that adobe  huts are applicable in dry locations, the process uses easily renewable resources. The idea is simple and inexpensive. Knowledge of the adobe process can be transferred into other ideas that apply across climates, eras, and technological advances. In cold climates, an igloo utilizes a similar idea. The wigwams of Native Americans exist in locations between the two climates.

Today, understanding the basic, simple ideas intensifies the understanding of sustainable design. Advances are being made in sustainable design that are highly beneficial. The costs of these advances seem outrageous to many buyers.   Presently, many of the technological advances being made are rather expensive. Things like photovoltaic panels require an assembly and installation process that cost more  than other installations. As a result, it is important to remember and implement the simple ideas that have been being used successfully for a very long time. The easiest solution is to consider the basics of sustainable design. Each sustainable idea has an appropriate application, and implementation of the simple ideas will reduce the overall cost and lead to an overall more sustainable design. Designers, as well as consumers, should remember that the basic ideas do not only effect monetary situations, but also use renewable resources.

(Ian Williams. Personal Interview. March 2010.)
Samantha Smigelski
s.a.smigelski@gmail.com