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Designing with Energy – Time to rethink our material world.

There is an elephant in the room and you may be sitting on it.

The energy that goes into manufacturing our material world is the largest component of our energy consumption and something designers have a direct impact on. Yet few people understand this embodied energy or actively design with it in mind.

This struck us as a little scary, so a couple of years ago we started researching our own embodied energy footprints, visualising the data and creating tools that could integrate this data into our design process. The result is an energy driven design process and our Energy Trumps design tool, we wanted to share some of our insights from this exploration to encourage other people to start designing with energy.

The Energy Trump design tool in use

Reducing our energy consumption must tackle our largest energy segment; stuff.

The largest energy consumption sector in the UK is embodied energy ( The Guardian’s National carbon calculatorSustainable energy without the hot air).This is the sum energy from extraction to production that goes into making our material world. This is the energy that went into making the house you live in, the bike you ride, the phone you talk on and the coffee cup you drink out of.

“The real issue is not our direct consumption of energy but the greenhouse gases embodied in the goods we buy”

Monbiot (2010)

Energy has been invested in making almost every element of our material world. We need to start looking carefully for ways of delivering these functions for a fraction of the energy.

Understanding the energy properties of materials can drive low embodied energy design.

Embodied energy data tells us how much energy it typically takes to manufacture a kilogram of a particular material. This data enables us to analyse and interpret the impact of products, leading to a more informed design process.

Our own understanding of embodied energy started with a very personal exploration. Having realised I knew next to nothing about the energy implications of all my belongings I attempted to catalogue and calculate the embodied energy of everything I owned. The calculations were very crude but they forced me to get hold of as much embodied energy data as possible and sparked an interest in what could be achieved with this data.

Embodied energy catalogue

The data itself can be confusing as you need to factor in material density to understand the implications for a given material. We found one of the best ways to look at the data is to show the volume of the material that can be produced for 1 megajoule of energy. This gives you a more tangible idea of the energy intensity of a material.

Cubes showing the volume of each material that could be manufactured with 1 megajoule of energy.

The data can also be applied to simple mono-material products, multiplying the embodied energy figure by the weight of the product to give you an estimate of its total embodied energy.

Estimates of how much energy it took to manufacture each product.

Embodied energy data can equally be used to calculate the energy in more complex products, giving you the energy break down of a product’s components. The video below shows one of our studio experiments scaling product components relative to their embodied energy, this allows you to ‘see’ a products embodied energy.

Augmented reality experiments to ‘see’ embodied energy

These approaches to visualising and analysing products using embodied energy data have given us a much richer understanding of the numbers. They allow you to quickly understand the impact of materials and assess where there is the greatest potential for change.

Simple tools to make energy part of the creative process.

Through our own explorations into an energy driven design process we could see how valuable embodied energy data was as a design driver, but also knew how little it was currently used in the design process.

“We need numbers, not adjectives“

MacKay (2009)

Adopting David MacKay’s approach, we wanted to move environmental design decisions away from popular opinion or aesthetic associations and put the numbers at the heart of the design process. To do this we created the Energy Trumps, a visual design tool that integrates environmental data into the creative process. The cards allow you to quickly assess and compare materials, enabling you to make more informed material choices early in your design process. The video below shows the cards in action, detailing why we made them and showing some of the products we designed using the data.

Energy Trumps video

Through our web app the cards also allow you to explore the data in 3D, showing the different volumes of material that can be produced with 1 megajoule of energy.

The Energy Trumps augmented reality web app.

We originally developed the cards to use in our own design process but they became such a valuable way of explaining embodied energy and the impact of design decision that we developed them into a commercially available version.

Moving towards a low energy future

With a better understanding of the energy properties of materials we can use embodied energy to drive design decisions and deliver low energy solutions. However, if you are looking for the products with the lowest embodied energy, look no further than the cheapest items in bargain stores. These products are almost a miracle of cost reduction, reduced to the most minimal amount of material to stay functioning. By their nature they have used the smallest amount of energy to be produced, but they are also prone to failure and very challenging to repair giving them very short life spans.

Our future design approach needs to integrate embodied energy with existing design criteria; functionality, aesthetics, longevity and disposal to create balanced solutions that minimize their impact. In our own projects we use embodied energy as a filter through which to assess designs, looking carefully at how much functionality and value is being delivered per megajoule. This pushes us to look for elegant and creative uses of materials that radically reduce energy impact.

About the author: Rich Gilbert is a Co-founder of The Agency of Design, a London based design studio helping organisations design a better future by re-thinking our digital and physical worlds.

For more information on the project see;

The energy trumps home page

Our PDF on designing with energy

The design project that sparked the cards


{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Greg December 6, 2012, 5:31 am

    There’s a good quote that really defines this problem – “Perfection is attained, not when no more can be added, but when no more can be removed”

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