Designing Products as if the Earth Really Mattered
By Edwin Datschefski

Products are the source of all environmental problems. It may seem surprising, but most environmental problems are caused by unintentional side-effects of the manufacture, use and disposal of products.

An individual product may look harmless enough, but the environmental damage it causes happens elsewhere, out of sight and mind, “hidden” from the consumer and often from the designer as well.

Major issues such as pollution, deforestation, species loss and global warming are all by-products of the activities that provide consumers with food, transport, shelter, clothing and the endless array of consumer goods on the market today. I call this the “Hidden Ugliness” of products.

Many environmental impacts are literally invisible. Vapors and gases float around unseen. Pesticides and other pollutants can be found in perfectly clean-looking water, radiation from nuclear or electrical sources can’t be seen or sensed without special equipment.

More than 30 tons of waste are produced for every ton of product that reaches the consumer. And then, 98 percent of those products are thrown away within six months. When you include these hidden impacts of manufacturing, we each consume our own body weight in materials every two days. If there is no plan or system for product take-backs, full re-use and cyclicity, then every product sold represents a toxic release.

A computer is about one-quarter plastic. The candy-colored translucent plastic called polycarbonate is the same stuff that CDs are made from. It is made from phosgene (which was used as a poison gas in the First World War) and Bisphenol A (an endocrine disruptor). The gold in the circuit boards may have come from Romania, where a gold mining accident caused one of the worst river pollution accidents in Europe. The life span of a computer is only about three to five years. Every year about 30 million computers are dumped, incinerated, shipped as waste exports or put into storage in people’s attics.

All over the world, designers, manufacturers and consumers are starting to go beyond the way products look and perform, to consider what goes on when products are made and what happens when they are eventually disposed of. An award-winning chair may look beautiful, but can it really represent the pinnacle of mankind’s genius if it is made using polluting methods or by exploiting workers?

Sustainability is inevitable. It will be a trillion-dollar business in the next five years. BP Amoco, Shell, DaimlerChrysler, Cargill Dow Polymers and Xerox have all initiated billion-dollar projects involving solar panels, fuel cells, bioplastics and remanufacturing.

Design is the key intervention point for making radical improvements in the environmental performance of products. Environmental thinking is an abundant source for innovation. Product developers are running out of ideas. Almost all new product areas are refinements of existing ones - the smaller laptop computer, the sleeker car, the wider-screen TV. When the enormous might of the new digital economy can only offer fridges that alert you to being out of milk, you know that manufacturers are looking for direction. Sustainability can give that new direction.

We have to create products that have “total beauty.” These products, also known as “sustainable products,” are those that are the best for people, profits and the planet.

When you’ve been looking at sustainable products for a while, you notice the same solutions come up time and again. Based on a review of 500 products, I found that 99 percent of all environmental innovations use one or more of these five principles:

  • CYCLIC. The product is made from compostable organic materials or from minerals that are continuously recycled in a closed loop. Instead of emitting waste and poisons, they biodegrade to produce materials that can be “food” for something else.
  • SOLAR. The product in manufacture and use consumes only renewable energy that is cyclic and safe. As the US Department of Energy notes: “Each day more solar energy falls to the Earth than the total amount of energy the planet’s 6 billion inhabitants would consume in 25 years. We’ve hardly begun to tap the potential of solar energy.”
  • SAFE. All releases to air, water, land or space are food for other systems. A safe process or product cannot chemically or physically disrupt people or other life.
  • EFFICIENT. The product in its manufacture and use requires 90 percent less energy, materials and water than products providing equivalent utility in 1990.
  • SOCIAL. Product manufacture and use supports basic human rights and natural justice. Human capital is our most valuable resource and we should look after it. Exploitation and maltreatment of our fellow man is unsupportable, yet companies do it all the time because such abuse is hidden to the end-user.

We often hear that the world is running out of resources. But there is still the same amount of atoms around. We have simply converted atoms into molecules that are of no use to us. With continuous cycling of both organic and inorganic materials, we will never run out of the resources we need.

Excerpted from The Total Beauty of Sustainable Products by Edwin Datschefski, (c) RotoVision SA 2001 [RotoVision, Rue Du Bugnon 7, 1299 Crans-Pres-Celigny, Switzerland,,].

The publishers call this book “a unique resource for the… urgent job of redesigning every product on the planet to be 100 percent sustainable.” A good half of the book’s pages are devoted to 100 products that can help you live a Sustainable Day - from the morning cup of organic shade-grown coffee to the electric car than carries you home from work.

The book also includes a chapter on “How to Assess the Beauty of Products” and a guide to environmentally safe materials.

Building as if Forests Mattered.
From the introduction to Building with Vision.
By Sim Van der Ryn

The following passages are excerpted from Building with Vision: Optimizing and Finding Alternatives to Wood - the second volume of The Wood Reduction Trilogy from Watershed Media [556 Matheson St., Healdsburg, CA 95448, (707) 895-3490, Cost: $22].

Wood, in the form of dimensional lumber, is simply a wonderful material. Easy to work with, warm to the eyes and hand, natural, reasonably durable, wood is the material that defines the trade of carpentry and is the standard material for houses and light buildings in North America.

There are many economic and durable home shell construction systems that are preferable to wood. I was born in Holland: a country with almost no forests and lots of clay. There, as in most of Europe, masonry is the material of choice for light construction and is the building industry standard.

Ancient old-growth forests are the keystone species of unique and awe-inspiring ecosystems. Cutting and using old-growth woods - our forest relatives - is the moral equivalent of murdering our living grandparents.

Any building project carries with it an ethical as well as an aesthetic contract with society - as it requires resources first to be built, maintained, restored and eventually disposed of.

Of the approximately 1.5 million new homes built each year in the US, 9 percent are framed in wood. At a conservative estimate of 400 studs per house, upwards of half-a-billion studs are required annually for residential construction - not to mention sheathing, flooring, roofing, trim and cabinetry.

According to the Center for Resourceful Building Technology, enough studs are wasted on 20 typical job sites to frame an additional house. Green building activist David Eisenberg argues that wood use should be reconsidered altogether. After all, he notes, wood “rots, burns, and is susceptible to bacterial and fungal growth.”

In North America, Europeans began burning and sawing their way through the continent’s 850 million acres of ancient forests almost as soon as they arrived. Ben Franklin wrote that by 1774, “wood, our common fuel which within these 300 years might be had at any man’s door, must now be fetched near [160 kilometers] to some towns, and makes a considerable article in the expense of some families.”

In 1840, when a Shaker woman devised the circular saw blade, this innovation eventually launched a revolution in stud- and stick-frame construction, which today accounts for at least 90 percent of residential buildings in the US. The amount of primary forest worldwide is now reported to be just 16 percent of its pre-industrial amount and dwindling by the day.

An acre of forest - up to 44 trees - goes into the 12,500 board feet that make up the average 2,000-square-foot home in the US. With approximately 1.5 million homes being built every year in the US, this adds up to enormous pressure on the forests.

With only 4 percent of US old-growth forests remaining and wood consumption still rising, the forest products industry is resorting to the use of smaller, younger trees. Because of over-harvesting, many builders are choosing to revive and update traditional systems - rammed earth, adobe and cob - rather than relying on intensive layering of processed industrial materials. Some industrially manufactured systems that have emerged over the past two decades - steel framing, insulated concrete forms - can significantly reduce or eliminate wood from the building frame.

A full range of alternatives is available to the Green builder. Some of these materials include: strawboard, fiber-cement, sandwich construction with pre-insulated panels, bamboo, Rastra adobe (incorporating polystyrene packaging beads), paper adobe, wood waste masonry, rubber slate, biocomposites (from crop wastes and recycled plastic), papercrete (made from recycled newsprint) and farm board (fashioned from row-crop wastes).

Building with Vision contains 132 detailed pages on Green Building tools and strategies, with scores of photos and hundreds of essential links to Green Building practitioners, manufacturers, books and websites.

True to its calling, this book contains its own eco-audit, admitting to the consumption of 35,400 pounds of paper. But, since the paper was 100 percent recycled stock from New Leaf paper [
215 Leidesdorf St., San Francisco, CA, (888) 989-LEAF,] the production of the book saved the equivalent of 62 trees, 5,598 pounds of solid waste, 6,159 gallons of water, 8,034 kilowatt hours of electricity, 10,178 pounds of greenhouse gases and 15 cubic yards of landfill.

Sim Van der Ryn, a former California State Architect under Gov. Jerry Brown, is the founder of Van der Ryn Architects and the Ecological Design Institute.

Basic Tenets of Resource-Efficient Building
Build small.
Pick a resource-efficient location.
Design simply and elegantly.
Design for flexibility.
Build for disassembly.
Build a durable structure.
Plan to minimize waste.
Collaborate with the rest of your team.

The 380-square-foot Household
by Dean A. DiSandro

Would you believe we can create housing for two adults and one child at unsubsidized rents as low as $206 per month per home? And, for no more than $575 per month (including taxes and insurance) the tenants could become mortgage-free owners within only 10 years.

Design, engineering and construction are the easy part. The hard part is our culture. One-third to one-half of all US “housing” space is now dedicated to storage. Storage of furnishings (cooking, dining, bedding, working, cleaning), clothing, recreational items and “stuff.”

I live in an “affordable housing” dwelling of my own creation. An area just 20-feet-deep by 19-feet-wide includes a full kitchen, a full toilet with bathtub/shower combo, a multimedia entertainment center, ample closet and cupboard space, dual office desks with computer, printer and the like, music recording equipment, breakfast nook and even a gathering room where we have hosted dinner parties for eight.

As a point of reference, 390 square feet is about the same size as two SUVs parked tightly by a Newport Beach valet.

The place is a snap to clean up and to keep clean. Our utility bills were tiny. Everything was easy to get to. Costs were so low my savings account swelled.

Because mundane household chores didn’t occupy my life, I found I had time for 5- to 10 -mile bike rides, including trips to the market, movies, restaurants and clubs. The use of my car declined to the point where I often had trouble keeping my car battery charged.

I also had time to tend a garden that included fruit trees, herbs, vegetables and row crops. I had time to compose and practice music, to write, to think, even to sleep. I learned that living small translated into better living.

A typical housing tract of 50 1,500 square-foot homes - each occupying 5,000 square-foot lots set along 50-foot-wide streets (plus five additional feet on each side for sidewalks) - can cover 10 acres of land with asphalt, housing and cement surfaces.

Instead, 50 of our 400 square-foot homes (each graced with a 320 square-foot private garden and arranged in checkerboard fashion along 20-foot-wide pedestrian paths) uses less than one acre of land, leaving nine acres of open space for larger-scale agriculture, recreation and tranquility. These villages would feature auto-accessible streets only at the perimeter.

The numbers are do-able, even for single parents and workers earning the current minimum wage. Using an equity-building structure, the pride of private ownership would ensure proper care and maintenance by residents.

This style of living encourages tight-knit communities, personal food-gardening, lower consumption and less accumulation of stuff.

Because this type of housing takes profit out of developers’ pockets, promoting such housing would require significant political will along with some necessary cultural adjustments. But we can do it. We can create dignified and affordable housing to accommodate all.

Excerpted from Hope Dance Magazine [PO Box 15609, San Luis Obispo, CA 93406, (888) 206-7070,]. For the full text of this article, along with floor plans, cost figures and financial calculations for the mini-homes, check out

Edited reprint. Not available for distribution.

Building Codes and Sustainability
by David Eisenberg

Building codes are supposed to protect the health and safety of people from the built environment. If building codes are actually jeopardizing the health and safety of everyone on the planet, resulting in the destruction of the ecosystems that sustain us, we are obligated to re-invent the codes.

Though the consequences are enormous, building codes ignore where resources come from, how efficiently they’re used, or whether they can be reused at the end of the useful life of a structure.

Building accounts for one-fourth of the world’s wood harvest, two-fifths of its material and energy usage, and one-sixth of its fresh water usage.

Modern building codes were initially developed by insurance interests and have been influenced heavily by the industries that produce the materials and building systems that are regulated by the codes.

In many climates, the indigenous buildings are far more comfortable and have far fewer negative impacts and costs than the modern buildings that have replaced them.

The Development Center for Appropriate Technology [DCAT, PO Box 27513, Tucson, AZ 85726-7513,] is heading a coalition to focus attention on the issue of building codes and sustainability. The Civil Engineering Research Foundation, an affiliate of the American Society of Civil Engineers, has incorporated sustainable development principles into the full spectrum of civil engineering activities.

David Eisenberg is the co-director of DCAT. Excerpted from The Last Straw [].

Freelance writer contribution. Copyright of author.

Great Green Reads

  • Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth by Lester R. Brown (Earth Policy Institute, 2002,
  • Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President by Ralph Nader (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press)
  • Stupid White Men: And Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation by Michael Moore (Harper-Collins)
  • The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World by Joel Kovel (Zed Books)
  • Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower by William Blum (Common Courage Press)
  • Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance by Peter Rossett (Food First)
  • Global Showdown: How the New Activists are Fighting Global Corporate Rule by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke (Stoddart)
  • Good News for a Change: Hope for a Troubled Planet by David Suzuki and Holly Dressel (Stoddart)
  • Global Uprising: Stories from a New Generation of Activists by Neva Welton and Linda Wolf (New Society Publishers)
  • Turning the Corner: Energy Solutions for the 21st Century by the Alternative Energy Institute, Inc. (
  • A Cafecito Story by Julia Alvarez (Chelsea Green)
  • Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature by Richard Register (Berkeley Hills)
  • Inciting Democracy: A Practical Proposal for Creating a Good Society by Randy Schutt (SpringForward Press)
  • Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West by Chip Ward (Verso)
  • The Blue Frontier by David Helvarg (H. Holt)
  • Epicurean Simplicity by Stephanie Mills (Island Press)

Journal staff contribution. Can be reprinted for non-profit purposes. Please credit and notify Earth Island Journal.

Resources for Building Better Homes and a Better World
New Village Journal [2000 Center St., Suite 120, Berkeley, CA 94704, (510) 845-0685,] was created by Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility to showcase examples of innovative community-based solutions to the housing crisis.

Builders without Borders. An international network of ecological builders working to create affordable housing around the world. [119 Main Street, Kingston, NM 88042, (505) 895-5400,]

Underground Houses & Buildings. A book by architect Malcolm Wells [673 Satucket Rd., Brewster, MA 02831] includes plans for a 320-square-foot underground house and a Bipad Solar Earth Shelter for two.

The First International Green Building Conference and Expo will be held in Austin, Texas on November 13-15. The US Green Building Council [, (607) 277-6240] will host more than 2,000 architects, engineers, developers, builders, contractors, financiers and government officials who will convene to promote the “rapidly expanding green building industry.”

A Greener Map of the World (40"x 27,” $15.95) displays surface vegetation, wetlands, permafrost, deforestation, population densities, indigenous nations and disputed borders. From the Exploration Company [4203 W. Aries Dr., Phoenix, AZ 85053, (602) 547-8612,].

Journal staff contribution. Can be reprinted for non-profit purposes. Please credit and notify Earth Island Journal.

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