It was summertime and Jack Elliott's interior design students had scattered across the country. Soon their e-mails started coming in. One after the next, they wrote in behalf of their summer employers asking for suppliers of green materials: low-VOC paint, high-efficiency lighting, third-party certified hardwoods, refurbished furniture. Natalie Morom '02, interning for an international corporation that manages thousands of square feet of office space in the Los Angeles area, wrote that she was helping the company develop guidelines for minimizing negative environmental impacts when they "fit out" new spaces for tenants.
"It was really amazing," recalls Elliott of the aftermath of his class Ecological Literacy and Design (DEA 422), which had first been offered the preceding spring. "In every class I teach, there are a few students who really catch fire, but in this one I got the sense it was changing the worldviews of all these young people, even those I didn't expect to be affected by it."
Elliott, an assistant professor of design and environmental analysis, who was brought here three years ago to pioneer a program in what's variously termed sustainable, ecological, green, or regenerative design, knows it's about time. In daily decisions--large and small--designers, Elliott believes, can be major players in stemming the tide of environmental degradation. If only they would do so.
The idea of sustainability has been around for more than two decades. Originally, it was intended to mean practices that didn't compromise the future through satisfying present needs. This implied maintaining the status quo.
"The problem today is that the status quo wasn't sustainable in the first place," says Elliott. "We need to improve the situation, and that's what we're trying to do through regenerative design. Regenerative designs attempt to heal the earth through our interventions."
Consider, he says, that nearly half of the world's energy and resources are spent on creating, operating, or dismantling the built environment. Add to that the turnover particular to interior design: in the United States, commercial interior spaces are redone on average every five years, with most of what's removed dumped in landfills.
"What is really alarming is the lack of professional response to this in the design community," Elliott says. "It is not that designers don't care about what's happening in the biophysical world, but they care more about other issues that appear to be more immediate: profits, litigation, client satisfaction."
This "business as usual" attitude can be seen in institutes of design education as well. Environmental responsibility is not a high priority among the 115 Foundation of Interior Design Education Research (FIDER)-accredited four-year professional programs in the United States and Canada. In one survey, Elliott found that only nine schools offered explicit coursework pertaining to sustainable issues of design. And of these, only five programs required these courses. In fact, Cornell's is one of only a handful of interior design programs in the country taking a leadership position in sustainable design by seriously committing resources and curriculum (DEA 422 is required for all interior design majors).
"Students who come out of these programs drive the profession," Elliott observes. "This means that 90 percent of North America's graduating interior design students have not been exposed to the seriousness of the environmental crisis and the potential power of their profession in turning it around."
When students look at the best work of design professionals, they see exteriors and interiors that speak only too loudly of heads buried in the sand. Every building has what Elliott calls "rhetorical properties." Through the materials from which it's built, its location, and the way it operates, a building communicates the values of its creator. …