Sustainable Design: What It Is and How to Achieve It

Sustainable Design: What It Is and How to Achieve It 

When we talk about sustainability and sustainable design, it is easy to think only about environmentalism. While environmental concerns are certainly important, sustainability goes beyond that. Sustainability is the ability to survive and maintain functionality over time. To achieve this, we need designs that are efficient, reliable, and resilient. 

Sustainable Design

The Core of Sustainability

Efficiency requires that resource use, costs, and environmental impacts of the building or facility construction are minimal. Reliability ensures that systems are sufficiently distant from failing. A resilient system has the ability to return to its original functioning state within an acceptable period of time when subjected to unpredictable disruptions. 

We can also think about sustainability in terms of three pillars: environmental, social, and economic responsibilities to our community. A resilient, efficient, and adaptable system is necessary to meet these responsibilities head-on as we design for our future.

Other Aspects of Sustainability

Aside from efficiency, reliability, and resilience, there are other things we consider when designing sustainably: Is the project bearable (socially acceptable), viable (economically feasible), and equitable (fair)?

Often the budget drives what happens with a project, but ensuring sustainable design involves considering some of these questions as well:

  • How do we preserve biodiversity considering the potential impacts of a project over its life cycle?
  • How do we spread information on the environmental impact of projects to increase awareness and responsibility?
  • How do we contribute towards a safe and healthy environment during all phases of a project’s life cycle?
  • How do we help customers discriminate needs from longings so they can truly increase their well-being?
  • How do we ensure projects contribute towards the development of involved people and communities?
  • How do we seek involvement from stakeholders and other professionals to find holistic solutions?
  • How do we enforce the precautionary principle when a project may cause severe social or environmental harm?
  • How do we keep the impacts of a project within the affected ecosystem’s carrying capacity?
  • How do we limit or avoid the use of non-renewable resources during a project’s life cycle?

Sustainable Design

A Few Approaches to Sustainable Design

As designers, our approach to sustainable design involves optimizing materials for strength and quantity to reduce unnecessary raw material extraction. This saves clients both time and money while reducing our impact on natural resources. We also prioritize structural member selection with lower embodied carbon where possible compared to traditional design practices without diminishing the integrity of the design or increasing cost to the client.

We aim to help our clients consider sites that are best suited for a project’s intended use while minimizing harm to surrounding communities. Architecturally speaking, our team encourages building reuse or renovation over demolition whenever possible and is happy to provide facility assessments of existing buildings to confirm feasibility.

Our lighting designers continue to research the best products available and select luminaires with high-recycled content and those that are free from Red List ingredients. Mechanical engineers at Schemmer focus on energy efficiency and life cycle cost. They design to save energy by incorporating heat recovery units to reuse the heat in exhausted air and economizers by taking advantage of nighttime air to cool facilities.  Our mechanical designers also use low-flow plumbing fixtures to save water.

Our civil engineers can advise on site locations to incorporate additional bioretention ponds that are surrounded by native vegetation in order to clean surface water, increase biodiversity, provide community amenity spaces and reduce the heat-island effect.

Transportation engineers at Schemmer work on plenty of projects with multimodal transportation options such as bike lanes, trails, and sidewalks which promote social well-being and transit infrastructure to all. 

Sustainable Design: Maximizing Positive Impacts

Sustainable design goes beyond just being environmentally friendly; it involves creating designs that are efficient, reliable, and resilient while also being socially acceptable, economically feasible, fair, and innovative. At Schemmer, we design projects to maximize positive impacts for all stakeholders involved including owners, employees, contractors, neighbors, and the environment. 


Schemmer is a full-service architecture, engineering and construction field services consultant, providing responsible solutions for complex design and construction-related challenges.

Founded in 1959, we are grounded in our past but remain fully committed to the future. Located in five states and nine offices throughout the Midwest, Schemmer is providing services to clients from coast-to-coast and border-to-border across the United States.

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