top of page

6 Principles of Sustainable Design

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

Concept of Sustainable Design

A sustainable design is a combined piece of science and artwork created responsibly and purposefully. According to Jason McLennan (McLennan, 2004), the 6 principles of sustainable design are

  1. the respect for the wisdom of natural systems,

  2. the respect for people,

  3. the respect for place,

  4. the respect for the cycle of life (future),

  5. the respect for energy and natural resources, and

  6. the respect for process.

Sustainable designs incorporate the manifestation of efforts to minimise impact to the environment through renewable resources. Some of the factors that boost the popularity of sustainable designs include depletion of resources leading to diminishing returns and unsustainable investment, waste accumulation etc. Designers who respect sustainable design believe wastes are just resources at the wrong place. They can become highly valuable if sustainable designs appreciate their existence to be utilised in endless innovations and unexplored possibilities.

Every successful design serves a meaningful purpose. This purpose needs to be improved and eventually disrupted over time, just as the saying by Albert Einstein goes: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. Designs that lack sustainability concepts in the past need a retrofit for the future. Otherwise, they tend to trade a smaller but more imminent risk for a potentially more harmful risks afterward. With such, solutions would never catch up to resolve problems for the well beings of mankind, without inviting another.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”

Back in 2018, Elon Musk twitted: “About half my money is intended to help problems on Earth, and half to help establish a self-sustaining city on Mars to ensure continuation of life (of all species) in case Earth gets hit by a meteor like the dinosaurs or WW3 happens and we destroy ourselves.” This post represents the vision of one of the most ingenious men marking a perfect exemplary for dedication and devotion toward sustainable design. Now, it is not far-fetch that this man is mandated to bring well-beings for all mankind for the next seven generations – perhaps much more.

6 Principles of Sustainable Design

The biomimicry principle respects the wisdom of natural systems. The principle treats nature as a functional model worth learning from, and adapted to. Every function of the nature is form-fit to a perfection that even mankind – the number 1 intelligent being on the planet, can only be intrigued about. This level of perfection is not even questionable by the world’s number 1 influential man since the history of mankind, Isaac Newton, who could not believe this formation was created on its own and out of chaos. However, scientists tend to believe that this perfection is a result of evolutions after evolutions of natural selections where systems or organisms that are better fit have survived, while those that are not becomes eliminated and substituted.

This means that the world was indeed a chaos in the beginning some 4.54 billion years ago. Form-fit adaptations such as the natural selection process takes place over the course of billions of years and the unfit have eventually been eliminated, until a perfection is achieved. The nature operates in endless cycles backed by the laws of conservation of matter – water cycle, carbon and oxygen cycle, nitrogen cycle and phosphorous cycle are some of the main cycles that the nature revolves around. Apart from natural selection, cycles of life and forms, and perfect form-fit-functions, some other wonders of natures’ models include diversification, rewards of cooperation, abundances and balances, etc.

“Nature does nothing uselessly”. Nature inspired a lot of man-made creations through the biomimicry principle. The term biomimicry literally means the act of mimicking the nature’s model. For instance, Velcro is a carbon copy of how seeds stick to animal hair for pollination. Kevlar in bullet-proof vests is inspired by spider silk.

Respect for energy and natural resources, also known as the conservation principle, states that all energy is or has been derived from the Sun. It is indeed true that all energies on Earth originate at one time from the Sun. This even include tidal energy, which forms from the gravitational forces between the Earth, the Sun and the moon, with geothermal energy – including all forms of fossil fuels – that is the heat within the earth.

Energy storage is one of the most challenging and most demanding task of mankind for the future. Safe energy storage systems (a.k.a. batteries) that last long, and with high power to weight ratio, have always been a dream of scientists to revolutionise portable systems of this world – drones, electric cars, robots, and non-portable storage stations, on top of energy storage plants or grid energy storage. Naturally, a few natural processes see energy being stored and converted from one form to another. Hydrologic cycle provides water elevation via evaporation of sea water and downpour above mountains, the potential energy of which is widely harvested from in hydrogeneration plants. Biological processes have the solar energy captured through photosynthesis of green plants, which was transferred to other lifeforms in the higher food chains. Energy is stored in the human body in the form of glucose, which later converts into adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for muscle activation by the mitochondria.

These are all just one small portion of the wonders nature has to offer, all of which works perfectly as though it can never be put together without careful design and intentions. How unbelievable.

Respect for people, also known as the human vitality, this principle aims to create healthy and nourishing places for personal comfort. It is only until recently that sustainable building design incorporates indoor environment quality (IEQ) in the design of built environments. Before this, all built environments were mostly utilitarian, and focussed on functions rather than environmental aesthetics and qualities. Now, air-conditioning systems in habitable spaces are designed with standards governing temperature and relative humidity for thermal comfort. Similarly, cars then were only designed to transport humans from one place to another. Now, ergonomics of the drivers and the passengers become a priority apart from transportation and safety. Healthy and nourishing environment create healthy minds and individuals who encourage sense of community, boost employees’ commitment and overall productivity.

Respect for place, also known as the ecosystem principle, this principle imitates designs from the environment, or where the building is located. More often than not, a building inherits a traditional style and culture of the place that is unique and only originate from there. For instance, some heritage houses in Melaka City, or Georgetown, Penang showcase local histories of ethnic Chinese-Malays called Baba-Nyonya or Peranakan, with distinctive characteristic of houses. Vernacular architecture is an example of respect for place. It is an architecture characterised by the use of local materials and knowledge, and often showcase resemblance to specific styles of culture and traditions. Apart from culture, one of the most significant influences on vernacular architecture is the macroclimate of the area. Buildings in cold climate usually are constructed with high thermal mass materials with significant amounts of insulation. Openings such as windows may be small or does not exist. On the other hand, buildings in warm climates are constructed with lighter materials allowing cross-ventilations, and may have full height windows or glazing for aesthetic purposes and the attainment of natural lighting.

By paying respect for process, the System Thinking, also known as the holistic principle, may be evident by many examples, but hard to be practised. This principle emphasises the comprehensive thinking in design considering all impacts, or more precisely, the impact of one event with probable consequences linking to another, one level after another. This design consideration encompasses careful analyses of all possible impacts, impacts after impacts, or an impacts ‘avalanche’ in a chain reaction. Then, it devises strategies incorporated in the design – holistic design – to minimise or curb the impacts to a considerably low and acceptable risk level.

Which is the most significant of the 6?

All of the 6 design principles are indispensable in terms of human advancement and the security of a sustainable future. However, there is one of the 6 principles that outweighs the rest in terms of significance and impacts, and shall be properly addressed. Over the recent years, emphasis in this principle also increases with several notable instances of initiatives –(discussed in the next section) adopted by the construction industry.

This is the ‘Seven Generations’ Principle – a respect for the future. This theory emphasises a very fundamental but alarming sense of logic, that unless something is renewable, or has a rate of consumption lower than the rate of replenishment, it will eventually be depleted, thereby bringing undesired impacts. The theory suggests that while we “care for now”, we should also “consider our future”. We need to do something before it is too late, that is, before a resource becomes limited. Initiatives have to be made either through the advent of more available and less harmful substitutes, or by controlling the consumption (or formation) of a substance (or wastes). When the principle is concerned, under no circumstances shall the initiatives only be a boon or a temporary relief – “In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations”. This renowned saying extracted from the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy is where the principle has its base on.

We may have been practising the principle without consciously noticing it. After all, only the professionals in the respective field get first-hand information about how things work out. With technological advancement and the availability of information on the internet, professionals disseminate crucial information about how things were carried out – and how they shall be done – as a reference to the community. This is in line with the importance of the existence of this principle and how much we respect and appreciate it in the modern setting. Nonetheless, below are some of the questions we shall be looking for answers, in the context of this principle. How confident are we to say that everything we do on purpose considers consequences for 7 generations of our offspring, across a span of 200 years? Apparently, there is still a big gap to catch up with. With the current conditions of living, we still enjoy the abundance of yet-to-deplete resources. Most of us however, does not cherish them. It is in fact even hard to expect everyone to think and act in ways the principle suggests, at least not anywhere soon. Regardless, this is a cul-de-sac we must go into and find a way out. Otherwise, would we not be too selfish to destroy our future generations just because we will not live long enough to be part of the affected?

Apart from that, wastes that we generate also pile up dangers to our community. Everybody in this world produces 5 pounds of solid wastes daily. Multiplied to 7.8 billion world’s population (2021), the amount of wastes is yet to include heavy industrial wastes as the by-products of various production lines.

Nevertheless, we still see some initiatives that are very worthy of discussion. Some of them have been made progressively, paying massive respect to the future. Some notable instances of the design change or initiatives undertaken well in the context of a built-environment include:

1. Controlled Development

2. Incorporation of Earthquake Resistance Design

3. Lifespan of Reinforced Concrete Structure

4. Design for Maintainability

We need to always remember: We pay much more when we have to pay than when we don’t!

134 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page