March 28th, 2011

Sustainability Education in the Interior Design Curriculum

By Jane Nichols and Erin Adams


Interior design education is by nature as transdisciplinary as sustainability education. Design students learn about environment-human behavior relationships through holistic, systems-based means, encompassing the fundamental components of sustainability. A model of sustainable education, embedded in and represented by the interior design education curriculum, may be translated and potentially imitated by other non life-science disciplines; interior design education may provide a valid prototype for a sustainability education focused curriculum. A course of study is provided that includes lessons and resource examples for educators or administrators. Outcomes of the students’ and graduates’ experiences are also shared.


Sustainability Education (SE) can take many pathways and forms as it becomes integrated with various curricula. Discipline-specific criteria dictate the manner and degree to which SE becomes embedded or merely an add-on to course content, and often this is determined by faculty who are ‘champions of the cause’. Because sustainability encompasses both environmental and social justice, educational content areas that are by their nature interdisciplinary may serve as fundamental models of SE. Additionally, a transdisciplinary teaching style that stimulates systems thinking and encourages relationship building provides ideal conditions that help promote collaboration and community involvement (Nichols & Shorb, 2007). Interior design practice and interior design education encompass multiple disciplines, including architecture, human ecology, ergonomics, environmental psychology, sociology, economics, marketing and consumer behavior, art, construction, materials science, and more. Interior design education therefore provides an excellent representation of sustainability education, because it is holistic, broad-based, and an exploration of the human-environment connection (Nichols, 2007).

Sustainability Education is identified by five key characteristics: an authentically interdisciplinary curriculum; transformative, experiential learning; instruction on how ecological health informs policy and ethics; collaborative learning experiences that focus on enhanced communal relationships, and action research paired with teaching and learning that serve local and global communities (Nichols & Shorb, 2007). The twin disciplines of architecture and interior design have realized the vital services they provide that endorse and advance the goals of sustainability. As such, design educators have supported and elevated these efforts to prepare a new generation of designers “to serve the critical process of creating a more sustainable world” (Nichols & Shorb, 2007, p. 62).

Ethical standards are designated by the accreditation bodies of the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA) and the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB). Additionally, evolving regulations and emerging certifications are provided by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the National Council of Interior Design Qualifications (NCIDQ) and Evidence-based Design Accreditation and Certification (EDAC). All of these require that designers have a working knowledge of sustainability and a concrete sense of social justice; therefore, leader-educators have initiated appropriate scholarship and teaching venues that amalgamate these new values. Sustainability advocates have re-positioned the benchmarks for academic competence, aligning eco-literacy with the new standards of the professions. At the lowest threshold, interior design educators must teach meeting the minimum performance criteria as set forth by the Council of Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA). At the higher threshold, educators who are advocates for sustainability and green design embed sustainability education in the course content and delivery methods they employ.

SE pedagogy embedded in IDES curriculum

Western Carolina University’s Interior Design program is housed within the School of Art and Design and the College of Fine and Performing Arts. Author-educators in the university’s interior design baccalaureate program share case studies of ethically grounded instructional models that demonstrate SE characteristics and provide evidence of transformational learning and ecological literacy. The archetypal pedagogy of flexible, adaptable and responsive learning conditions exemplifies natural life processes and encourages discovery of self and the world. It also mimics the explorative methods of problem-seeking and systems-based problem solving, as applied by design practitioners. Nichols and Adams confirm that by engaging students in curriculum and delivery models that engage and inspire them, a pedagogical framework is derived that may inspire and serve other disciplines and also inform curriculum designers, educators and administrators. The 2010-11 curriculum consists of 81 credit hours across 27 courses. These are distributed across 3 levels. A brief description of the course name and sustainable design education lessons contained within are as follows:

Foundations level

●      IDES 252 Survey of Materials- Lessons include: Life Cycle Analysis, Green Materials, Sustainable Building Products, Volatile Organic Compounds and Indoor Air Quality (Resources used: Films Blue Vinyl and The Story of Stuff)

●      IDES 255 Space Planning- Lessons include: Design for small footprint, design for disabilities, cultural values of space, cultural experience of space (better, not bigger) (Resource used: Rengel’s Shaping Interior Space)

●      IDES 257 Architectural Construction Processes- Lessons include: Crade to Cradle (C2C) concepts, inputs and outputs exchanges, origins through re-use or disposal processes, embodied energy, sustainable construction techniques, alternative energy, resource use and waste reduction, design for disassembly (dfd) and competing resources and stakeholders (Resource used: Kibert’s Sustainable Construction)

Intermediate level

●      IDES 352 Residential Design 1 Studio- Lessons include: Cultural values and assimilation, homelessness, meaning of home, the elderly homebound experience, affordable housing, green and healthy home design (Resource used: Kennedy’s Without a Net)

●      IDES 355 History of Furniture & Design- Lessons include: Preservation, restoration, rehabilitation and adaptive re-use, historical precedents for cultural values and social movements, history of the green design movement (Resources used: Murtagh’s Keeping Time and Young’s Historic Preservation Technology)

Senior level

●      IDES 450 Residential Design II Studio- Lessons include: Design for the elderly and persons with disabilities, design for ‘the other’ (immigrants, socio-economically disadvantaged, global citizens), cohousing and high-density housing design, and historic preservation. (Resource used: Menzel’s Material World)

●      IDES 455 Contract Design II Studio – Lessons include: Design for cultural values, design for LEED, design for community needs, adaptive re-use, design with scarce resources. (Resources used: Journal of Environmental Psychology and Cama’s Evidence-Based Healthcare Design)

Authentic, interdisciplinary curriculum

In Foundations courses, students role-play as competing stakeholders, learning about scarce and limited resources, trade-offs, collaborative problem-solving, unintended circumstances, strategic thinking and long-term planning. These lessons take the form of mini-projects, such as the Design an Island and the Life-Cycle Analysis. These and other lessons are applied to all future scholarship and studio work. At intermediate and senior levels, historical preservation, gerontological studies and service-learning provide conduits for connecting students to community and connecting theory to practice. Students engaged with community representatives and leaders experience a vital sense of personal accountability and gauge their individual capacity to contribute to real-world solutions (Nichols & Adams, 2009).

Transformative, experiential learning

At the Foundations level, students are forced to confront and question their place in the ever-growing market of consumerism through completing a Life Cycle Analysis of a specific product. After watching ‘The Story of Stuff’ ( and “Blue Vinyl” (Gold et al., 2002), students are asked to explore the life cycle of a selected material and trace its origin, research the input-output stream created during the manufacturing, shipping and packaging processes, investigate the embodied energy used to create and distribute the product and follow the material to its eventual death or reuse. Figure 1.1.

This project allows students to gain a basic understanding of ecology, witness how consumer habits affect the environment and discover the differences between sustainable and non-sustainable practices and companies. A transformative learning experience occurs as the student realizes a set of ethics they need to confront and take a stand for or against, thus planting the seed to become agents of change for sustainability advocacy (Mezirow, 2000).

Learning how ecological health informs policy and ethics

As Intermediate and Senior level students in Residential Design studio courses learn about affordable housing, co-housing and other multiple housing design prototypes, they are often required to apply this learning to community-based housing design projects. One such project was a design competition mandating that students collaborate with local affordable housing authorities and area agencies on aging (AAA) to develop a model for a green, affordable home for elderly residents with physical disabilities. Students were exposed to the American Disabilities Act and Section 8 housing restrictions and constraints while working with the local chapter of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They gained a greater understanding of how economics and social policy impact housing and living options for the poor, the elderly and the mobility-impaired. Through this exercise, students also learned about indoor air pollution due to lead paint, mold, infestation and other ecologically based sick-building issues associated with lack of resources and inadequate political representation.

Action research

At the Intermediate level, students become action researchers in a commercial design project. During this studio class, students study ecological design strategies, green building processes and the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), as outlined in Sustainable Construction (Kibert, 2005). Each student design team locates a commercial property that is currently for sale and obtains the construction documents for that existing building. They are to re-purpose the structure into a commercial project of their choosing, while utilizing the LEED principles for existing buildings. Students are challenged to think beyond the traditional steps of the design process in order to research and discover a holistic approach to their sustainable design solutions.

Each team completes case studies on similar LEED accredited projects and conducts interviews with design professionals that have worked on LEED certified projects. Students begin the process of action research, as outlined in Checkland and Holwell’s action research cycle (1998). By working with experienced, professional designers and gathering evidence and interpreting data on relevant design projects, an evidence-based design action plan can be outlined. Through this project, design students experience empowerment, collaboration through participation, the acquisition of knowledge and ecological literacy skills and they gain a better understanding of designing holistically.

Collaborative learning experiences that focus on enhanced communal relationships

As seniors, the Contract Design II course is a required service-learning course that engages design students with their local communities, and with each other. The course content changes every year as community needs are assessed and projects developed to meet those needs. One example was the design of an Appalachian Farmstead and Craft School. The school was intended to meet the needs of local residents, in efforts to re-teach them the heritage crafts of the region to allow them to remain self-sufficient. Currently, local residents often sell their land and must take josbs at the local big box stores in order to survive. Students worked in collaborative groups, interviewed local community members and landowners, and developed the architectural drawings, models and specifications required for the trust foundation to compile a business plan and apply for funding and grants.

Does the IDES curriculum generate activism?

Nichols and Adams believe that learning emerges from an understanding of the connections between disciplines:  land use, resource conservation, social policy and health, access and quality of life, and the design of the built environment. Ecological literacy streams through each course, lesson and student design project. Throughout the students’ tenure, conflicts and dilemmas are internalized, processed and discussed, forcing students to confront their own biases and articulate their beliefs, ideas and solutions. The systematic integration of ecological literacy into the interior design curriculum allows for a platform that generates activism within the students (Nichols et al., 2008). At the foundation level, students are given the basic knowledge for eco-literacy. They become informed on a global level and begin to realize how consumer habits affect the environment. As the student progresses within the interior design program, sustainability education moves from a transfer of ecological knowledge to an awareness of the student’s direct impact on the environment. At this stage, they are awakened to the reality of societal and personal actions that may be in direct conflict with sustainable efforts.

Through targeted assignments and group projects, students develop a working understanding of sustainable architecture and design methodologies, while learning through a collaborative process that enhances their collegial relationships. They become informed about human policy and community action. They begin to understand their civic roles, how they fit into society and they learn how to be engaged citizens in a participatory-democratic society (Lieberman et al., 2007). As they transition into their senior year, service-learning projects also afford them the opportunity to discover how other cultures view the connections between natural and human ecologies. Through these service-learning projects, students gain real-life experience that transforms their learning. By interacting with community representatives, residents and organizational administrators, they connect environmental design theories with the practice of design, thus empowering them as designers and as active participants in community improvement (Nichols, 2010). At this stage, they begin to realize their potential as community leaders and recognize that they can become part of the solution (Gordon & Berry, 2006). This stepping-stone platform of sustainability education integration transforms students into ‘champions of the cause’ and prevents students from remaining apathetic or uninvolved.

Sustainable design education cultivates leaders and champions of the cause

What may at first appear to be artificial and forced ultimately requires design students to step into the “other’s” shoes and consider various perspectives; leadership can be cultivated, and at times must be thrust upon learners. The curriculum creates venues for students to act as leaders and agents for positive change, and propels them into positions of power.  The program of study is intentional. It doesn’t offer sustainable design courses or add-ons; SE is integral and emerges from philosophical convictions. Those principles are routinely adopted outside of the classroom as well. The interior design club often chooses extracurricular activities that are both altruistic and ecologically inclined. The club members regularly participate in Habitat for Humanity home building. They have also participated in a food drive that celebrates architectural design in CANstruction, as well as scheduled university-wide denim-drives, collecting used jeans to be recycled into insulation material. Another measurable successful outcome of the described educational program is demonstrated by the alumni, who frequently choose employment with architecture and interior design firms that specialize in sustainable environmental design. This commitment to eco-design career paths grows with each graduating class.

Proprietary knowledge

There are important and obvious links between ecology and the life sciences (biology, chemistry) and earth sciences (climatology, conservation). There are also several academic disciplines that attempt to declare ownership of sustainability and sustainability education. When author-educators are confronted with incredulousness about the relationship between interior design and sustainability, a platform presents itself for discussion-for comparing the interdisciplinarity of interior design with that of sustainability – and the sustainability-design education links are easily made. Because interior design students learn about the environment-human behavior link in a broad, holistic, systems-based manner, their education also represents the fundamental components of sustainability. What is presented here is a prototype of sustainable education, embedded in an interior design education curriculum, and it may be functionally translated to other less-than-obvious disciplines. For academics and administrators seeking a road-map for integrating sustainability education, interior design education may provide an excellent guide.


Cama, R. (2009). Evidence-Based Healthcare Design. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

Checkland, P., & Holwell, S. (1998). Information, Systems, and Information Systems:

Making Sense of the Field. Chichester, Sussex; New York: Wiley.

Gold, D., Hefland, J. and Parker, J. (Producers & Director). (2002). Blue Vinyl [DVD]. Santa Monica: Next Wave Films.

Gordon, J. & Berry, J. (2006). Environmental Leadership Equals Essential    Leadership. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kennedy, S. (2003). Without a Net. NY, NY: Penguin Books.

Kibert, C. J. (2005). Sustainable construction: Green building design and delivery. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Lieberman, A., Saxl, E. & Miles, M. (2007). Teacher Leadership: Ideology and  Practices. In The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership. San     Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Menzel, P. (1994). Material World. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in    progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Murtagh, M. (2006). Keeping Time. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

Nichols, J. (2010). Sustainable Design Guide for a Desert Community that Meets the            Needs of the Elderly and Mobility-Impaired. Dissertation published by UMI,         Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest.

Nichols, J. & Adams, E. (2009) Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA)  Conference, Kansas City. Half-Day Intensive Workshop. The Ethical        Implications of Sustainability in Interior Design: Sustainability Education          Offers Opportunity to Facilitate a New Kind of Leadership. Conference             proceedings.

Nichols, J., Adams, E., Roberts, C. & Zanin-Yost, A. (2008). Information Literacy Conference, Savannah, GA. Cultivating a Model of Collaboration, Workshop.

Nichols, J. & Shorb, T. (2007). Sustainability Education and Teaching Leadership,  Academic Exchange Quarterly, Summer 2007, pp.61-65.

Nichols, J. (2007). A Hearty Economy and Healthy Ecology Can Co-exist. Journal of  Interior Design, Vol.12 (2) pp.6-10.

The Story of Stuff (2009). Retrieved April 2, 2009.

Young, R. (2008). Historic Preservation Technology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

| | PRINT: print

Comments are closed.