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Future Shock

Smart design colleges: The evolution of sustainable design

Eco-friendly design practices are fast becoming the gold standard for best practice in design education
University Business, January 2014

Today’s up-and-coming millennials are taking different learning style and lifestyle trajectories than our country’s one-career, suburban dwelling baby boomers. Young 20- and 30-somethings have flocked to metropolitan centers seeking upscale amenities, edgy culture and a more sustainable way of living and learning. They are attracted by underground music venues, microbreweries, artist galleries utilizing nontoxic materials, and Wi-Fi cafes that serve free trade coffee.

These city dwellers often forgo cars in favor of public transportation, grocery shop at corner bodegas and outdoor farmers’ markets instead of big box supermarkets, and prefer to live in modular condos rather than mowing lawns and cleaning gutters on the weekends.

In her new book, The End of Suburbs, Leigh Gallagher details how the 2008 financial crisis, coupled with rising energy costs, has made suburban living (and commuting) more and more untenable. Taken together with the cultural shift towards environmental stewardship, young folks are developing new values around how they live, learn, work and play.

Indeed, during Boston’s most recent mayoral race, incoming Mayor-elect Marty Walsh spoke about a new plan for urban development—a plan that includes transforming existing housing stock into single-, double- and triple-family homes, making these units affordable for first-time homebuyers to retain and grow the number of families in Boston’s city core.

These fast changing housing preferences translate into fresh and exciting opportunities for students and faculty who are well-trained in green design—ushering in new approaches to art and design education. Among the more novel and noteworthy art and design programs we scanned, Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, the Rhode Island School of Design, Portland Community College and Florida State University stand out.

Located in the metropolitan area of Denver, RMCAD is reinventing how art and design students learn their craft and apply their creative skills. Propelled by a forward-looking environmental vision, officials have challenged the conventional thinking that the classical arts must be taught in traditional ways. As a prime example, the college has witnessed significant success with its new, fully online bachelor’s program in illustration, which teaches classical technique aided by leading-edge educational technologies.

Beyond illustration, RMCAD has struck a resonant chord with its sustainable design concentration in the interior design program. The first-of-its-kind, accredited program offers a blended degree on campus and online.

Sustainable design students learn the aesthetic, technical, ethical and business skills necessary to launch a successful career in interior design, while also building a creative and competitive portfolio of professional work.

Brook Yeagle, interior design chair, says that the program’s students are “equipped with the knowledge and critical thinking skills to solve design problems ethically, responsibly and sustainably. They are able to create designs that address physical and emotional health and well-being, productivity, resource efficiency, environmental conservation and aesthetic experiences.”

In New England, The Rhode Island School of Design’s Interior Architecture program positions itself within the growing demand for buildings amenable to sustainable lifestyles. RISD faculty encourage students to “rethink the life of existing buildings—through design alterations, renovations and adaptive use.” This recycling, as opposed to construction, of new buildings promotes a contemporary environmental ethos that will serve as a critical set of skills for the next generation of interior designers.

The only two-year residential interior design program in Oregon, students at Portland Community College can specialize in sustainable design, receiving a 42-credit certificate, along with an associate’s degree in interior design. With course requirements such as Sustainable Materials for Residential Interiors, Environmental Ethics, and Sustainable Construction and Building Practices, students gain valuable experience through hands-on internships.

Ranked No. 2 in sustainable design practices in 2011 by Design Intelligence, Florida State University offers both bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees, as well as a masters of fine arts in interior design. FSU’s design programs also have an intent focus on computer applications, demonstrating the synergy between environmentally-conscious design and emerging technologies.

Through these sustainable design programs, eco-friendly design practices are fast becoming the gold standard for best practice in design education. With this momentum away from the post-WWII American suburban dream comes the exciting promise of contemporary urban design learning and living. This new breed of sustainable designers will set dynamic new directions for reimagining art and design education in the 21st century.

James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.