Designing a much more sustainable world

Can big business pay more than lip service to environmental policy? John Haven investigates the impact of a world-leading software company, Autodesk

How much can big business really do to help the environment? Purists may argue that the very idea of a corporate green policy is a contradiction in terms. Yet, pragmatists will claim that any measure is a step in the right direction.

To borrow a phrase from the UK’s largest retail business – is it really a case of “every little helps”?

Something is always better than nothing. But some large companies are willing to recognise their expertise or financial clout can make a difference. They have, though, also identified another fundamental factor: an environmentally positive approach can also make economic sense.

For example, manufacturers and retailers with substantial fleets of trucks, who have invested in experimenting with alternative fuels or making their vehicles more aerodynamic and efficient, achieve a double win of fewer emissions and lower overheads.

But where does this leave software companies? Microsoft, for example, emphasises its “citizenship responsibility”, which is complemented by the legendary largesse of the Gates Foundation. There are others, though, who have a desire to create a real change in thinking in their specialist field.

Autodesk is a world-leading 2D and 3D software company. And, with seven million

registered global users, its customers form the world’s largest design community. Its software has been used to create many of the buildings, products and infrastructure we see everyday. So, it has a significant environmental responsibility.

With buildings alone, in the UK, the construction industry generates around 100

million tonnes of waste a year, with 30 million tonnes going into landfill. And, after completion, the average building can cost as much as ten times to run as it did to build – through maintenance, heating, lighting, air conditioning, lifts, phones and computers.

Autodesk products can give users the tools to create sustainable buildings, longer lasting and better designed products and better infrastructure with less waste. But the company it cannot provide a magic formula. “There’s no green button on our software, it takes innovation from users too,” a spokesman says.

Therefore, it sees its role as a facilitator of both debate and action. First, it is determined to provide a forum for discussion, ensuring that designers pool their knowledge and keep talking about ideas to help drive our collective knowledge forward. It also works with top architects, engineers and product designers to increase awareness and adoption of sustainable practices. And it aims to enable users to actually experience their designs before they are real by way of dynamic intelligent models or virtual prototypes to optimise designs and minimise waste.

Driving debate

A part of Autodesk’s contribution to the sustainability debate has been its sponsorship of a TV programme, entitled Design: e2 (The Economics of Being Environmentally Conscious). Produced by Kontentreal for PBS – and narrated by Brad Pitt – the series highlights the positive impact sustainable design has on the economy, our health and the planet by chronicling important stories of green design around the world from New York to China.

It was described by an independent reviewer as “the design-specific equivalent of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth”. But, while the climate change film concentrates on the problem, the documentary does look at what is being done and how new answers are emerging.

The topics debated by leading architects including Ken Yeang and William McDonough include aesthetics versus ethics – and the greening of China.

Another move has been the development of a new sustainability centre ( which provides information and tools to facilitate an understanding of sustainable design, as well as to inspire and help design professionals further their work in this area.

For example, it tells the story of a young architect who could not afford to buy a house – but solved the dilemma by fashioning a beautiful, compact, energy-efficient home out of prefab materials. Unlike most would-be homeowners, Michelle Kaufmann had the know-how to design and build her own home. But she recognised that the development and construction process was daunting to most other homebuyers.

After researching the world of mass production and rethinking the design process, she found a way to save her clients time and money, while ensuring that their homes would be well-designed, healthy and sustainable. The secret was to come up with a simple, sectional design. Now the Glidehouse is a groundbreaking hit for architects MKD.

The Sustainability Centre is packed with stories such as this. It also provides an accessible primer on current big names in environmental thinking and their key ideas, plus it includes a resource centre for further information.

Analytical precision

So far so good – but, however important these moves are, they are sideshows to the main story. This is that the latest technology holds a crucial key to better future design.

Conventional methods using paper drawings or physical models or prototypes provide little understanding of how a finished product, building or other structure will behave over time. This makes sustainable design something of a hit or miss affair, lacking the analytical precision needed to really understand how the design will operate once created.

Current technology, however, can create a digital model of a building or product that incorporates information about its behaviour as well as its physical structure. When it comes to construction, this process has been refined and complemented by a strategy known as building information modelling (BIM).

BIM is based on the creation and collection of inter-related computable information about a building. This information is constantly being captured as the project progresses. As a result, reliable, co-ordinated and internally consistent digital representations of the building are always available for the many decisions that have a significant effect on energy use, material waste and even air quality.

Having the right information available early enough in a project to enable well informed decision making means that environmentally intelligent ideas are not an afterthought, but central to the design and therefore to the entire lifetime of the building.

In manufacturing, the ability to move seamlessly from a concept design to a fully engineered, virtual model which can be interrogated, tested and analysed in a far more rigorous way than any physical prototype, is helping produce better and more usable products. Accurate bills of materials created automatically result in more precise ordering and, therefore, less waste.

For example, the Northumberland-based New and Renewable Energy Centre uses 3D digital design for fast-tracking concept evaluation, feasibility studies and prototype testing as well as developing its own products. Currently funded by the government, its ultimate aim is to become self-sufficient.

The organisation has extensive testing facilities such as an advanced wind turbine blade-testing centre. “We’ve been able to move blade-testing techniques on to the next stage, enabling us to test larger blades and reduce set up time,” says technical and engineer specialist Nick Ridley.

“We really couldn’t have done this without first developing a 3D digital model which gives the flexibility to try things out, to experiment and see what happens if certain parameters change – always looking for the ultimate flexibility. We can carry out stress analysis on this model to test equipment which will need to withstand millions of fatigue cycles.”

On the infrastructure

side, the latest digital modelling technology enables designs that minimise impact on the surrounding landscape and balance cut and fill to help reduce the need for earthworks and transporting materials from one site to another.

One customer, Grontmij in the Netherlands, is using these automated and quick volume calculations to help extend the life of sites to their safe limit and avoid creating further sites.

In a recent speech to the Environmental Industries Commission late last year, Secretary of State for the Environment, David Miliband, said: “Turning every industry into an environmental industry will involve applying new principles. First, we need to make more with less. Second, we need to design out waste.” It is clear that design software has an important role in both these tasks.

He concluded: “The challenge in the next year is to turn the fear of climate change into hope, awareness into action.”

To this, Autodesk would add another aim – to increase discussion in order to inspire and connect. It does seem that big business has a role to play after all.

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