Sustainable Design Principles

Environmental Design Principles

By Annette Stelmack, Allied Member ASID, LEED®AP, Clifford Tuttle, ASID, LEED®AP, Lucinda Jennings, ASID, and Victoria Schomer, ASID, LEED®AP


The prevalence of sustainable design projects has increased multi-fold and ASID has been one of the leaders at the forefront of shaping the sustainable market place as founding members of the U.S. Green Building Council in 1993. ASID recognized that being a part of the sustainable growth in the market place would serve our members.

USGBC is comprised of member organizations such as architectural and engineering firms, design firms, contractors and developers; federal, state, and local government agencies; and professional associations like ASID, AIA, ASLA, IIDA and NEWH. The exponential growth of USGBCs Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™ encourages and accelerates global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices through the creation and implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria. The LEED™ rating system has progressed to LEEDv3 applicable to Homes; Commercial Interiors; New Construction; Core & Shell; Schools; Healthcare; Retail; Existing Buildings Operations & Maintenance; and Neighborhood Development. For more detail refer to:

The value of the LEED programs is a third-party certification in addition to being a nationally and internationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operations of high performance buildings providing measurable performance impacts.

With this significant professional move toward designing, specifying and building healthy buildings and interiors that offer superior indoor air quality and energy efficiency, it is no surprise that sustainable design is considered to be the fastest growing segment of our industry.

Designers from all industry sectors have the opportunity through everyday choices to become environmental stewards taking shared responsibility for our industries impact on the healthy, safety and welfare of projects and the triple bottom line – people, planet, and prosperity.

Clearly we are on our way toward adopting sustainability on all levels of our projects, our businesses, our lives – something is happening and it's both an exciting and challenging opportunity for our industry. Individuals and business leaders are making decisions everyday that support the economy and lighten their environmental footprint toward attaining sustainable results.

  • Major U.S. manufacturing companies are investing billions of dollars in developing cleaner practices and products
  • Cities and municipalities across the country are adopting green building standards
  • Design and building industry professionals understand the value and are investing in becoming LEED Accredited Professionals

Without a doubt, most of us want a cleaner environment, responsible resourcing for product manufacturing, energy and water efficiency, and healthier environments. Our hope is that within our lifetime we will realize positive environmental outcomes and certainly for the lives of our children and children's children. Conscientious choices can lead to improving and sustaining the economy, resourcefully honoring our resources, and a flourishing and healthy environment.

Environmental Stewardship

Everyday choices have tremendous significance for the environment and for our quality of life. Some of us understand these consequences and factor them into our project, business and life decisions. Others are starting to understand that we all share in the responsibility in being environmental stewards.

Opportunity abounds! For ourselves, our businesses, our clients and our communities – and our overall success is interlinked to each other. Our design principles, values and practices can include, and also exceed, sustainability standards, rating systems and guidelines. As environmental stewards we can choose to use natural resources – energy, water, raw materials – effectively reducing environmental impacts; we can choose to recycle 50-100% of jobsite waste; we can guide our clients on an integrated and sustainable design process.

As environmental stewards, we have the opportunity to support our client's preferences. We can positively impact their decisions to protect human health and the health of the natural environment. Natural resources are a part of the whole, life-sustaining system and without doubt the quality of one influences the quality of the others. Fundamentally, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts!

  • Energy
  • Materials
  • Ecosystems
  • Land, Air & Water

Think of the materials we specify on projects which demonstrates the interdependent relationships between natural resources. Through environmentally responsible design and manufacturing, lifecycle assessment and objectives, conservation and recycling of materials and products, non-toxic product content we can protect natural resources; minimize or eliminate polluting our land, air and water; and consume energy and water efficiently during the extraction of raw materials, production, transportation, use and maintenance of products, and last but not least consider the end of a products life through the lens of responsible reuse, repurposing, recycling and disposal.

As environmental stewards we can actively take responsibility to improve environmental quality and to achieve sustainable outcomes. Both in value and in practice we have the opportunity to accept responsibility through the continuous improvement of environmental performance achieving measurable sustainable outcomes toward sustaining quality of life for future generations. As a design community we can take into account the long term and short term effects of our decisions, and how they positively contribute to the triple bottom line – people, planet, and prosperity –social and environmental impact.

To follow is a short list of the distinctive nature of environmental stewardship:

  • Using natural resources effectively and efficiently toward reducing our environmental footprint and protecting natural systems
  • Preventing or minimizing environmental harm as a value based practice and decision making process
  • Embracing shared responsibility – design firms, businesses, manufacturers, clients, contractors, design teams, students, educators – through a collaborative concern about the full lifecycle of projects, products and services, up and down the supply chain and from the inside and outside of a project
  • Quest for environmental knowledge, education and science
  • Willingness to challenge the status quo and go above and beyond compliances (building codes, rating systems, etc...) continually raising the performance bar
  • Holding ourselves accountable to our actions, our choices, our decisions
  • Anticipating for the needs of future generations while serving the needs of the present
  • Recognizing the interconnected relationship between environmental quality and quality of life

The prosperity of humankind and the quality of the environment are interlinked and fundamental to our success through collaboration, shared responsibility and integrated design. As environmental stewards we need each other for inspiration, for support, for information, for best practices, for accountability, for collaborations - ultimately creating a community that takes us into the future.

Sustainable Design Strategies

In today's business environment shareholders, employees and customers all have higher expectations of a business' ability to demonstrate responsible behaviour across the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental management that goes beyond philanthropy. The integration of responsible business into every level of a business operation will enhance reputation and improve market share and position. A sustainable design industry is good for business.

The majority of the outlined sustainable design principles and material selection strategies apply to all sectors of the design industry.

Residential Interiors

The following are some sustainable design practices for residential designers to consider as they incorporate sustainable practices into their work.

  • Utilize the REGREEN guidelines for best practice strategies
  • Make a more ecologically sound choice of wood from a supplier who can verify through a chain of custody that the original trees came from an ecologically sustainable forest managed under guidelines of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
  • Specify "green" paint and other finishing materials that have documented levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or chemical emitting materials, that are the lowest levels possible, and the rate of their emissions -- or dissipation -- is as fast as possible.
  • Specify products free of urea formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
  • Specify sustainable fabrics that support the use of materials from rapidly renewable, post-consumer or post-industrial sources.
  • Use rapidly renewable flooring products such as bamboo or linoleum to help reduce the amount of land and resources dedicated to producing construction materials.
  • Specify energy-efficient appliances such as dishwashers and refrigerators with the EnergyStar™ rating.
  • Work with contractors who use the LEED™ for Homes rating system.
  • Design around standard product sizes to reduce material waste.
  • Consider the recyclability of all materials used to redirect their "next life" away from landfills.
  • Some products once referred to as "natural" are now known to have toxic qualities. For instance, pesticides are used to grow cotton and some wool is cleaned with dangerous chemicals during processing. With the help of new government labeling requirements, better tools and information about these products are becoming more available as well as a new vocabulary that can be useful to investigate materials and products for interior projects.

Commercial Interiors

LEED™ for Commercial Interiors (CI) rating system, intended for tenant improvement projects in existing buildings, has proven to be effective in reducing energy use, reducing waste, and providing a healthier work environment.

The following are some sustainable design practices specific to commercial projects:

  • Design flexible floor plans for multiple uses and easy future reconfiguration. Arrange spaces to maximize the penetration of natural daylight and allow views to the outdoors from all occupied spaces.
  • Anticipate future renovations and attempt to avoid them. Interior spaces are often renovated because they have become outdated, even though the materials are not worn. Discarded materials add unnecessarily to landfills.
  • Provide adequate space for inhabitants to recycle paper, glass, metals and plastics. Locate the recycling spaces in easy-to-use areas.
  • Specify materials that are manufactured locally or within a 500-mile radius to reduce the embodied energy costs of using fossil fuels.
  • Specify carpeting manufactured from wool or recycled fibers. Consider woven carpeting with minimal backing material and avoid petroleum-based backing materials.
  • Recycle existing carpet through the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE).
  • Work closely with the electrical engineer to select high-quality, energy-efficient lighting. Coordinate lighting controls with operable window coverings to optimize lighting quality, minimize glare and save energy.
  • Recommend using office equipment such as computers, copiers and printers with the EnergyStar™ rating.
  • Specify products with low VOC ratings. Patronize companies that have submitted their products for testing by GreenGuard™ or other testing agencies.
  • Require a flush-out period prior to building occupancy.
  • Research materials in advance, including a review of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and require submittals of the MSDS by the contractor particularly on product substitutions.


Tourism is the world's largest industry. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, within the United States alone 43 million people are self-proclaimed "eco-tourists" who are willing to pay 8.5 percent more to environmentally sensitive travel suppliers. A survey of U.S. travelers found 87 percent would be more likely to stay at "green" properties.

Presently the LEED Rating System for New Construction (LEED NC) and the LEED Rating System for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) can be implemented for hotels, although Hospitality Industry Leaders recently met with the U.S. Green Building Council to further the standards for the hospitality industry.

The following are some sustainable design practices specific to hospitality projects.

  • Anticipate future renovations and attempt to avoid them by using "timeless and unique" designs within a market appropriate scope. Consider the use of durable products and finishes that will last beyond the typical hospitality useful life. Owners are looking for the highest quality competitively priced products that are appropriate for their use, within budget and can work within efficient construction windows.
  • Interior spaces are often renovated because they have become outdated, even though the materials are not worn. Discarded materials add unnecessarily to landfills.
  • Work closely with the mechanical engineer and electrical engineer to consider occupancy sensors for guestrooms
  • Work closely with the mechanical engineer to select digital thermostats for guest areas.
  • Consider occupancy sensors for public restrooms and back-of-house areas.
  • Recommend the use of equipment such as televisions and refrigerators with the EnergyStar™ rating.
  • Specify products with low VOC ratings. Patronize companies that have submitted their products for testing by GreenGuard™ or other testing agencies.
  • Recycle existing carpeting and wallcovering instead of including it in the construction waste.
  • Consider fabrics that are inherently flame retardant as opposed to fabrics that require chemical flame retardants that off gas into the atmosphere.

Remember that every project can serve as an educational experience for its primary users and the visitors that enter the building whether it's a home, a lodging facility, an office building, manufacturing facility, elementary school, healthcare or environmental learning center. Take advantage of the special opportunities presented by LEED™ to pursue recognition for your client's new space or building as well as your design efforts.