Sustainable design

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Sustainable design can be defined as “a design philosophy that values the natural environment as an integral factor in creating”[1] new physical objects, urban environment, and services “to comply with the principles of social, economic, and ecological sustainability”[2]. It should improve the long-term social, environmental and economic health of urban areas, including more sustainable travel patterns (modal shift towards public transport), efficient land use (appropriate densities in urban centres), good quality housing and living environments for citizens (including security aspects), and the protection and enhancement of natural systems, etc.


Sustainable design[3]

Traditionally, there has been an inequitable and unbalanced consideration of societal, economic and environment factors in urban areas. A renewed, more 'sustainable' focus is now more commonly acknowledged as central to delivery of an efficient and effective urban area. Hence, there is growing evidence that sustainable design is not just linked to ecological aspects, but also provides social and economic benefits[4]. Where social benefits are mainly related to the quality of life, health, and well-being, the economic benefits are mainly the result of a reduction in utility and maintenance costs, lower security costs, and indirect economic effects due to the social and environmental benefits. In addition, sustainable design makes urban environments safer and healthier.

Principles of sustainable development

The principles of sustainable development largely fall under the following themes:

  • Satisfaction of human needs by the efficient use of resources
  • Equity between generations
  • Respect for ecological integrity and biodiversity
  • Equity between countries and regions
  • Social equity
  • Respect for cultural heritage/diversity
  • Good decision-making[5]

Security related aspects of sustainable design

Security and safety in the urban area have an important impact on the 'quality of life', the wider functioning of the urban environment, and the interactions between persons. Concrete and steel, however, are materials that can be well used to secure a place, but are not the most sustainable materials possible. Put differently, the relationship between sustainable design (defined narrowly) and building security might seem to be coexisting and not complementary to each other. However, an increasing amount of designers believe that improved building security can work hand in hand with energy efficiency. Take, for instance, the results of the Pentagon renovation project:

The U.S. Department of Defense reported that a spray-on wall coating selected to improve blast-resistance also helped to improve the air tightness of the building envelope. Furthermore, "the tighter envelope not only saves heating and cooling energy, but also provides added protection against outside releases of airborne chemical or biological agents. The Department also reported "that new blast-resistant windows chosen to replace the original ones at the Pentagon are also 50% more energy efficient". "Another feature is the choice of photo-luminescent signage to mark evacuation routes; these require no standby power and are also easier to see through smoke caused by a fire or explosion than conventional exit signs". "A final example from the Pentagon project is the use of zoned climate control systems that not only reduce heating and cooling energy use and improve indoor air quality, but also make it easier to control smoke and manage the spread of chemical or biological toxins in response to an emergency" (Source: U.S. Department of Energy, EERE(2003), P 3-5 and 3-7).

Some other examples of interactions between security and efficiency measures[6]:

Ombrière SUDI - Sustainable Urban Design & Innovation
  • Improving control of air distribution systems enables a quick response to emergencies and energy-efficient operation.
  • Tighter building enclosure reduces energy losses from air infiltration and makes it easier to reduce airborne hazards from outside the building.
  • Daylit spaces make an evacuation easier and faster in case of a power failure.
  • Blast resistance windows create opportunities to improve thermal and optical daylight performance.
  • Intelligent security lightning with automated sensing and surveillance may reduce the need for nighttime lightning levels.
  • Particle air filters not only protect buildings from biological agent attacks, but also have occupant health benefits, improving the productivity of the occupants and improves the heat exchange efficiency.
  • “Site planning that provides a wide buffer zone to keep vehicles away from the exterior of a public building can also provide opportunities for better solar access and for climate-appropriate landscaping.”

In conclusion, due to the combination of sustainable and security investments in the urban environment, security measures become more affordable.

Social sustainability in urban design

Since an urban environment is much more than its physical form, an urban environment should also be socially sustainable and, for example, prevent an imbalance between affluence and deprivation of residential areas. Sustainable design of urban objects can help to make an urban environment more sustainable. This will enable both private agents and groups to meet their basic needs (e.g. shelter, education, work, income, safe living and working conditions, etc.). In addition, it will promote education, creativity and the development of human capital, and, as mentioned above, sustainable design will promote a certain level of equity, ensuring a fair distribution of wealth[7].

Economic sustainability in urban design

Social housing - - 1713178

Sustainable design leads to investment costs, but also generates direct (primary) and indirect (secondary) economic effects. Examples of direct economic benefits are savings on capital and operating cost (use of water, maintenance costs, etc.), and an increased productivity of occupants. Indirectly, the environmental and social benefits of sustainable design will not only lower permitting costs for the developer, but will also benefit society since there will be less air pollution, less need for utility investments (water/sewage treatment), etc.

Sustainable design in terms of security addresses issues such as the trade-off between short-term and long-term objectives. For example, one of the key goals of social housing is to keep these houses affordable (i.e. build them as efficiently and cheaply as possible). However, there is an increasing amount of literature available claiming that cheap housing is associated with crime and area deprivation, hence "the crime consequences of poor design of residential developments are there for the long term" (Pease, K and M. Gill (2011)[8].

Another relevant case related to sustainable design is the fundamental question if safety is a 'public' or 'private' investment. The security of dwellings, for instance, are traditionally a private issue, but also the society as a whole benefits from less crime, and one could argue that safety should not just be affordable for the ones who can afford it. Sustainable design solutions could incorporate security measures in the conceptual stage, including developers, designers, end users, police, the public authorities, etc.

Ecological sustainability in urban design

Sustainability plays an important role in urban planning since the urban environment has a large impact on the ecological environment and can cause all kinds of ecological damage such as erosion, flooding, air pollution, etc. There are multiple applications of sustainable design such as:

  • The use of energy-efficiency
  • Design for reuse and recycling
  • Design for the reduction of the total carbon footprint
  • The use of local or bioregional materials
  • The use of sustainable design standards
  • The use of low impact materials (e.g. non-toxic)[9]

Links and further information

Related subjects

Footnotes and references

  1. Ecopedia. Online:
  2. Source: Wikipedia. Online:
  4. See e.g.,U.S. Department of Energy (2003): The Business Case for Sustainable Design in Federal Facilities. Resource Document.
  5. COMHAR (Ireland) National Sustainable Development Partnership
  6. Harris et al. (2002): in Source: U.S. Department of Energy, EERE(2003): p3-7/8
  7. Hancock, T. (2009): Social infrastructure. The soft infrastructure of a Healthy Community. Online:
  8. Pease, K and M. Gill (2011): Home security and place design: Some evidence and its policy implications.
  9. Wikipedia,