Blog Post

Three Ways to Increase Sustainable Design Literacy in Firms

How can firms develop sustainability knowledge that leads to action? Here are three places to start.

collaboration helps increase sustainable design literacy

Lord Aeck Sargeant's offices feature a range of spaces designed to support collaboration—one of several strategies the firm uses to raise design quality and awareness firm-wide.

Photo: © 2015 Lord Aeck Sargent

BuildingGreen interviewed designers from several leading sustainable design firms to learn what sustainable design literacy means, what it looks like, and how the best firms are supporting increased knowledge—and action. The research resulted in our feature article Sustainable Design Literacy: A Foundation for Transformed Practice.

James Wilson, co-author of the article, identified three key skillsets that firms can focus on to foster sustainable design literacy:

1) An integrated understanding of the basic principles of both passive design and building science and how to apply these principles in practice.

A designer needs to understand, for example, the interaction between a building’s mechanical systems and its massing and orientation.

This knowledge alone can go a long way. Passive House training is a very efficient and convenient way for any designer to get up to speed on this type of knowledge.


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2) A knowledge of the essential vocabulary—the lingo.

Even just knowing the definitions of things like VOCs, EUI, R-value, SHGC, etc. can make a designer significantly better prepared to participate effectively on a project that’s pursuing sustainability, resilience, wellness, or high performance.

Designers with a general understanding of the main issues and the common strategies for addressing those issues are more likely to bring these concerns and solutions into design discussions. They’ll also be better able to apply critical thinking in tricky situations—like when standard operating procedures or rules of thumb threaten to undermine a project’s pursuit of its original sustainability goals.

Many firms seem to recognize the value of building this kind of “ambient” knowledge of the general sustainable design conversation and they use special "Lunch & Learns" and other ongoing formal education programs to expose the entire staff to as many of the issues and emerging best-practice solutions as possible. It’s a never-ending task to keep up with everything that’s happening in the expanding field of sustainable design.

And this knowledge is also important for all staff to have because it improves their ability to communicate and discuss the issues and possible solutions with clients, who often need to be educated to some degree. This is essential to getting client buy-in.

3) The basics of systems thinking.

Systems thinking, or integrated thinking, is something firms can work on both directly and indirectly. It’s important to communicate information about the integrative design process and systems thinking to staff. Perhaps even more important, though, is building a culture that supports this kind of thinking and working.

Every project is different, so it’s important for designers to learn a way of holistic thinking that, when applied on any particular project, will lead to the best solutions for that specific project and its larger context.

As a first step to building a culture that fosters this kind of thinking and working, see "Leading Collaborative Architectural Practice”.

Are you ready to increase your sustainable design literacy?

You can get started with the following resources:

Published February 5, 2018

Favaloro, S. (2018, February 5). Three Ways to Increase Sustainable Design Literacy in Firms. Retrieved from

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