Sustainable design

March 14, 2011
Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editorial director, explores ways of measuring and improving the sustainability of products.

With an eye to retiring on a limited income, my brother Larry is planning a house in the Washington State hinterlands. We grew up near Chicago, so we’re obsessed about the cold, and we’ve spent hours on the phone discussing the merits and possibilities of geothermal heat pumps, solar cells and alternative fuels for space and water heating.

Larry’s been a semiconductor design engineer in northern California for 30 years, so it’s no surprise he tends to look for high-tech solutions. For fun, he very successfully converted his favorite motorcycle to electric power.


But his years in product design and manufacturing have also given Larry a practical streak and a healthy respect for time-tested, simple solutions. It took us a few weeks, but we eventually moved from focusing on high-tech heating solutions to the kinds of R-values, air-exchange rates and passive features that could shrink the energy requirements to the point where the sources would be almost immaterial. Then he can draw on the Northwest’s relatively cheap and renewable hydroelectric power through existing power lines.

It shouldn’t surprise you that Larry’s everyday pickup truck is a 1964 Studebaker that he keeps in excellent condition. But it’s interesting to know that one of his reasons for keeping his old truck on the road is that the materials and energy it took to manufacture it have already been spent. Since the old Studebaker satisfies his needs, he’d rather not have a new truck made for him.

The same sort of thinking has led the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) to name the natural gas-powered 2011 Honda Civic GX “greenest car” for the eighth year in a row. You’d think the new all-electric Nissan Leaf would lead the list, but it placed second, followed by the gas-powered Smart Fortwo. Hybrids take the next three spots, followed by Ford’s new Fiesta SFE (for super fuel economy) and the Chevrolet Cruze Eco. The Chevrolet Volt, the only other plug-in among the winners, rounded out the list at No. 13.

The Civic GX tops the list because the methodology considers the environmental costs of generating and transmitting electricity to charge electric cars and the emissions associated with battery manufacture and disposal, in a manner that reflects material content, drawing from Argonne National Laboratory’s GREET model.

The United States’ predominantly coal-fired electric power plants are not very clean or efficient. A significant percentage of electricity is lost during transmission, and more inefficiencies are introduced by charging and discharging batteries.

ACEEE Transportation Director Therese Langer notes, “Vehicles running on electricity emit nothing from the tailpipe, but their upstream emissions can be substantial, depending on where they’re charged. As U.S. power generation becomes cleaner, these vehicles’ scores will rise.”

During his recent webcast, “Bringing Lifecycle Thinking into Sustainable Design,” Asheen Phansey of DS SolidWorks detailed the range of accepted ways of measuring and improving the sustainability of a product based on its entire lifecycle. His company’s product design software offers the ability to evaluate a design’s sustainability on the materials, locations of manufacture and use, projected reuse and disposal of each component.

In one example, he compared the common five-gallon plastic pail to a plastic-lined cardboard box. The box handily trounced the pail until Phansey clicked on reusing the pail a few times instead of discarding it after a single use.

Phansey points out that his company’s software is used to design about a billion products each year, and he questions whether or not all those products are really serving a need. “The most sustainable product is one you never make,” he says. But if the energy content of the ones we do make could be reduced “a few percent, just moving the needle a little bit,” he says, “we could shut down a couple of power plants.”

More likely, we’ll need them to power up Nissan Leafs, Chevy Volts, and Larry’s electric bike.

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