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Putting Environmental Ethics At The Center Of Design: A Case Study Approach

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1996 Annual Conference


Washington, District of Columbia

Publication Date

June 23, 1996

Start Date

June 23, 1996

End Date

June 26, 1996



Page Count


Page Numbers

1.368.1 - 1.368.4

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Paper Authors

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Michael E. German

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Matthew M. Mehalik

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 1661

Putting Environmental Ethics at the Center of Design: A Case-Study Approach

Michael E. German, Matthew M. Mehalik University of Virginia

The case-study approach is being used increasingly to teach engineering design. 1 ~ 2 and also engineering 4 ethics.3 Experts use case-based reasoning in making decisions; therefore, it makes sense to teach students the way experts learn.

Most of the cases that combine ethics and design are post-hoc analyses of failures like the Challenger, Chernobyl and Bhopal.5 These failures are often the result of design decisions made years before, though the cases frequently focus on faulty decisions that occurred at the moment of crisis.

What is needed to complement these valuable cases are cases that incorporate ethics as a major design consideration right up front, shaping the whole design process. We are creating and piloting a set of such cases; we will present two as examples:

1) The design of an environmentally-intelligent fabric

William McDonough, Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, agrees that designers and inventors ought to think about cost, performance and aesthetics, but also two additional constraints: will the design process and eventual product be ecologically intelligent and socially just? McDonough and Michael Braungart, the head of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency in Germany, are teaming up to change the way in which a wide range of chemical products are designed and manufactured. We are building a set of cases around their efforts. The goal of this series of cases is to expose students to an unusually rigorous set of environmental design criteria and to ask them whether it is desirable or even possible to implement them. The first case in this series concerns a new ecologically intelligent furniture fabric developed by Susan Lyons at DesignTex, Incorporated, a New York textile design company. In early 1992 she wanted the company’s next design to focus around an ethical issue, not just involve changes in aesthetics. Environmental responsibility was important to her, so she decided to design an environmentally friendly furniture fabric.

In December of 1992 while conducting research for the environmental design, she became interested in a sample of a fabric called ClimatexR, produced by Rohner Textil AG, a mill located in Heerbrugg, Switzerland. The fabric, a patented combination of wool, ramie, and polyester, was unique because it wicked away moisture from a person who was in contact with the fabric over long periods. It was intended to improve comfort in wheelchairs and transport lorries (trucks).

Lyons originally inquired about the recycling possibilities of ClimatexR. Albin Kaelin, director Rohner Textil’s operations, pointed out that since ClimatexR was a blend of wool, ramie and polyester. No recycling was possible because it was very difficult to separate these constituent components for recycling.

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German, M. E., & Mehalik, M. M. (1996, June), Putting Environmental Ethics At The Center Of Design: A Case Study Approach Paper presented at 1996 Annual Conference, Washington, District of Columbia.

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