Environmental design is often confused with ecodesign, also known as green design, but the two are not the same. Ecodesign is one aspect of this discipline, and addresses sustainability concerns, but environmental design is a much broader field that involves taking the surrounding environment into account when planning a design. When successful, it is a synergy between a building, landscape, or even a product and its surroundings, to the benefit of both.
Although the movement itself first came to light in the 1940s, environmental design is nothing new. Ancient Greeks built houses facing south, which kept them cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter due to the seasonal orientation of the sun. The Romans continued this practice, and began putting glass panes in windows to allow light in without allowing heat to escape, which evolved into the creation of greenhouses to cultivate exotic plants from much warmer climates. Various cultures around this time also created solar panels from curved sheets of metal that could capture the heat of the sun and turn it into usable heat for cooking, bathing, and home comfort.
Modern environmental design still uses many concepts passed down from the ancients, and new technology and ideas continuously evolve. Various energy crises over the years have led architects and city planners to plan buildings around the relative location of the sun and other natural formations like trees, mountains, and bodies of water in attempts to increase energy efficiency. Windows are oriented to allow maximum sunlight penetration in winter and minimum in summer to cut climate control costs. Large buildings in warm climates are built with stone floors to assist in cooling, and often have louvered windows that allow light to penetrate indirectly, keeping the heat outside.
This discipline applies to outdoor design as well. Responsible landscape designers will only use plants native to the region to avoid the invasion of foreign species, and desert gardens are likely to be xeriscaped, using cactus in rock and pebble beds to eliminate the need for irrigation. Thorny hedges under windows deter break-ins, and large shade trees outside large windows reduce energy needs. Outdoor lighting can easily contain a small solar panel that will collect enough energy during daylight hours to power it all night long without the use of electricity.
The United States Green Building Council began the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) certification system in 1998 to recognize sustainably designed buildings. These buildings often incorporate solar energy, wind energy, and even geothermal energy to create a zero-emissions state, with the building itself producing all of the energy it needs to run. The most efficient of these actually produce more energy than they need, which they then sell to electric companies for use by consumers.
At its root, environmental design is not necessarily about new technology, although recent advances have furthered the field considerably. It is about using what is already there, instead of demolishing and leveling a building site, for example. Working with the imperfections and unique aspects of each individual site ultimately makes the end product operate more smoothly, at a lower cost.