Eco-friendly design is not just a question of choosing between good and bad alternatives, but involves complex equations that take into account both the broader picture and the longer view. While 'ecological', 'environmentally friendly', 'sustainable', 'green', 'natural' and 'organic' appear to be interchangeable concepts, they can imply quite different solutions. The fluidity of these terms has resulted in many interpretations by architects, designers and ecologists, and not a little controversy.
Broadly, ecological design is design that makes use of resources that come from the earth in such a way that they can be returned to the earth without causing harm, in a cycle that echoes the natural system of living things. 'Sustainability', a related but not exactly equivalent concept, implies using resources, including land and energy, with maximum efficiency, at a rate that does not compromise the needs of future generations. While 'green' has become a blanket term for a rangeof environmentally friendly approaches, 'natural' and to some extent 'organic are even less precise, particularly since such terminology has been increasingly appropriated by companies seeking to 'greenwash' their products. In design terms, 'natural' and 'organic' have also been used to describe buildings that echo the colours and forms of the natural world which is not the same as designing to protect the natural environment.
The benefits of natural design
Theres no getting away from the fact that eco design is fundamentally altruistic; it's investing in a future one won't necessary live to see, on behalf of generations to come. But alturism, on the whole is not a strong motivator. We live in a 'here' and 'now' society and have grown accustomed to more or less instant gratification of our needs and desires.
Some builders of eco homes did not deliberately set out to design and construct on ecological grounds; they simply arrived at that point by opting for the most cost and labour-efficient options.
In general, however, it is important to be aware that eco design does not necessarily save money in the first instance, nor cost less. While it seeks to reduce the use of materials, which can result in considerable savings for new-build projects, in some cases there may actually be a greater use of materials.While many eco homes cost next to nothing to heat and power and some actually earn income by exporting home-produced energy to national grids, at the same time, there are higher start-up costs associated with energy-efficient elements such as high-performance glass or solar technology, and the payback period for these can be as long as ten to twenty years. The economic picture, however, is not a static one; with increased demand, it is likely that many eco-products or technologies may cost less in the future, as is already happening in the case of photovoltaics.
If the economic arguments in favour of eco design are not clear cut, one of the most immediately obvious benefits is improved personal health. Many modern materials and finishes commonly used in construction contain a huge number of chemicals and additives with a proven track record of causing illness. Chief among the culprits are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a large class of chemicals that includes formaldehyde, organo-chlorines and phenols, which readily release vapours at room temperature or below. VOCs are present in carpets, underlays, paints, varnishes, vinyl flooring, insulating materials, seals and adhesives, household cleaners and air freshners among other products. Health problems associated with VOCs range from skin rashes, nausea, asthma and other breathing problems to chronic fatgue and dizzyness. Designing and decorating with natural, untreated materials will help remove the threat caused by such toxins from the home.
Less tangibly but no less satisfying, eco design encourages an innate feeling of well-being and comfort. Natural light, fresh air and greater reliance on passive heating and cooling create environments in tune with biological rhythms - houses that feel like a third skin. Materials that connect with the land offer a quality of rootedness that gives a house a true sense of place as well as providing unforeseen sensual delights, such as the velvety sound quality of a straw-bale house, for example.
Eco design promotes a better style of life in the fullest sense of the term.