Sustainable Design for Ecotourism Deserves Diversity


Nov 18, 2013 (3 years and 6 months ago)


Sustainable Design for Ecotourism

Deserves Diversity

The Ecotourism Association of Australia

National Conference

Taking the Next Steps

23 November 1995

Alice Springs, Australia

John Gertsakis

EcoReDesign Project Manager

National Key Centre for Desi
gn at RMIT



This paper is aims to highlight a range of issues and dilemmas
ssociated with the design of small scale tourism facilities for natural
. It is collection of observations which draw attention to
the need for diversity in design, particularly in relation to technology
selection and aesthetic qualities. Most of all it argues against the
development and promotion of absolute design criteria,
suggesting that
greater attention should be given to sustainable outcomes rather than
'checklists'. The environmental value of selectively transferring
technology from the aerospace, marine and automobile industries is
also considered. Other issues briefly

discussed include life
environmental impacts, minimum ecological footprint, high
design, and learning from product design. Overall the paper asks more
questions than it answers.


The evolution of ecotourism brings with it the nee
d to rethink, or at least review the
attitudes, assumptions and philosophies

which often underpin the design of tourism

This is further reinforced by the wide
spread recognition that the principles of
ecologically sustainable development should guide how humans interact with their

Given this shift in activity and pu
blic awareness, some alternative ideas
deserve exploration with a view to maximi
ing the environmental performance of tourism

Design should not be viewed as a static process governed by standard guidelines. Those
interested in genuine notions
of sustainable tourism should be driven by outcomes, rather
than by checklists

which generali
e and naively propose recycled construction materials as
the solution for every problem.

Similarly, design principles that espouse that

development should b
e 'simple' in design,
use local materials, be subordinate to the landscape, and employ low
tech solutions, reflect
a regressive impetus

one informed by history, not diversity and performance. Although
well intentioned, such principles should be used only

as reference points, and not followed

It is vital that the ecotourism industry be informed by other areas of environmental
information and marketing. Green consumerism is taking hold beyond appliances,
detergents or toilet paper, and has alr
eady surfaced in ecotourism.

Consumers of tourism
products will become increasingly discerning about the credibility of environmental claims
made by operators. This mean
s that the visual and operational performance of facilities
must match the rhetoric, if ecotourism is to grow and develop with integrity. A more
critical and innovative approach to facility design is paramount, otherwise with every new
development born, co
uld result a lost opportunity. This paper flags some observations and

which might help identify these opportunities and maximi
e design's
potential in ecotourism.

The collective message is about challenging the accepted, questioning assumpti
ons and
deviating from the norm. Above all, the arguments put forward are based on the need for
diversity in design. Whether its about definitions, technologies or aesthetics, the
importance of multiple responses should not be underestimated. The ideas are

presented as
a series of directions to explore and test, and aim to highlight some dilemmas often under
discussed. By no means are they advocated as a checklist for environmentally sensitive and
educational tourism facilities.

The Dilemma of Definitions

Any discussion about design for ecotourism should momentarily address some definitional
issues. History has shown that buzzwords can help raise awareness about otherwise
abstract concepts, however not unlike the debates surrounding the meaning of ecotouri
or sustainability,

distortion and mere complexity can cloud the integrity (and meaning)
of such concepts. Design and its array of adjectives is by no means immune to
distortions. So what is sustainable design? Is it different to environmentally sensitive
design? How does a designer synthesi
e the macro concept of ecologically sustainable
development into a physical structure used for interpretation and/or shelter?

What are the
performance indicators?

This selective list of questions illustrates that sustainable design is more complex than
specifying recycled materials or adopting passive solar design. Based on an ethic,
sustainable design should blend the creative

and the technical to help ensure the generation
of products and buildings

which are ecologically enhancing, economically progressive,
and culturally desirable.

Attempts to define and develop the broad suite of terms based on environmentally and

responsible design have gained a substantial boost in the last decade, both in terms
of architecture, but more so in the domain of product design.

Not since the early 7
0s and
Victor Papanek's landmark book,
Design for the Real World,

has design received such
environmentally inspired attention. Papanek was a fierce advocate of socio
responsibility across design disciplines from product to architecture. Penny Sparke in her
Design and Culture in the Twentieth Century,

encapsulates Papanek's essential
design philosophy, one emphasi
ed by:

'a repeated exhortation for the

designer to stop occupying himself with
'toys for adults' an to start working instead ... on real problems such as
those presented by the handicapped, the Third World, the elderly and
the demands of world ecology'.

Papanek's most recent book,
The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and
Architecture (1995),

continues his earlier arguments, with the added dimension of over
twenty years of social, ecological and
technological change all impacting upon the
definition of what design is, or more pertinently, what Papanek believes it should be.

One of the more detailed tourism
d elaborations of sustainable design and its
objectives is to be found in
The Ecolodge Sourcebook for Planners and Developers

Despite reflecting a sometime evangelical
approach to design correctness, this sourcebook
should not be ignored. Its case

studies combined with design guidelines and project

planning strategies provide a useful starting point for designers or developers wanting to
understand the Ecotourism Societ
y's (USA) perspective on facility design.

For those practitioners interested in a more 'local' set of principles, the Royal Australian
Institute of Architects have in place a conceptually solid Environment Policy.

Ultimately definitions, principles and policies can only have a limited influence on how to
design sustainable and educational tourism facilities. The most memorable buildings be
they for tourism, living or
working, are not the result of absolute criteria. Design is a
creative process

a hybrid between art, science and engineering. Although some broad
parameters are required to control those with excessive egos and destructive habits, it is a
myth to believe

that a detailed definition of sustainable design will facilitate sustainable
tourism outcomes.

Life Cycle Impacts and Ecological Footprints

In terms of environmentally sensitive design practice and theory, one of the single most
distinguishing features
in recent thinking has been the attention to life
cycle impacts.
Whether applied to appliances, packaging, or tourism facilities, a life
cycle or cradle to
grave approach aims to be holistic. It seeks to be comprehensive is assessing
environmental impacts
throughout an object's life (product, building or service). From a
more technical perspective, a life
cycle approach tries to identify, quantify and assess the
impacts associated with every stage including:

aw materials extraction and processing

ture or construction;

se and operation;

ransport and distribution; and

isposal, recycling and/or demolition.

Historically, environmentally sensitive design has embraced one or two key issues,
focusing on a very particular stage of a building's life

cycle, usually that of materials
composition or operation. Although a commendable first step, such foci do not reflect
the total range of impacts resulting from decisions made at the design stage. For
example, a building material perceived to be environmen
tally appropriate during the

stage, may have been produced through a highly polluting or energy

process, or may have end
life implications when

and thus the dilemma emerges.

Ultimately, which is more sustaina

a building material cleanly produced, with no
emissions or impacts during the use stage, but difficult to recycle? Or is it more sustainable
to specify a material, with a relatively high
embodied energy content that has no impacts
during use and is h
ighly recyclable, but consumes vast quantities of energy and water to

Answering such questions is not a matter of considering the material in isolation, nor is it
matter of straight science. Indeed generali
ing about any material, energy source
water/sewage treatment method, construction process (or demolition process), without
considering the specific application, its location, its life

span, the user
interaction and other
building life
cycle variations, is a risk
laden approach to design. It
not only fails to
e the life
cycle impacts of decisions made at the design stage,
but also

synergistic consequences of mixing incremental environmental design improvements. A
significant step in addressing some of these issues from a li
cycle perspective has been
taken by the United States National Park Service in its
Environmentally Responsible
Building Products Guide

So what is the basic message
? Avoid generali
ing, and always adopt a critical and
questioning attitude in assessing what is, and what is not, environmentally appropriate. A
design process aimed at generating sustainable outcomes has no place for catch
cry claims.
The need to be vigil
ant of assertions such as: paper is 'greener' than plastics, timber is
'greener' than steel, or low
tech is 'greener' than high

is vital. As slogans they lack
rigour and conveniently dismiss the specifics of site and application. Such claims reflect

the hype of those intoxicated with confrontation, and should not form the core principles of
committed designers and ecotourism operators.

The next step toward relating a life
cycle design approach to ecotourism involves the
notion of the
minimum ecologi
cal footprint
, and the underpinning view that any
development will have an impact which extends beyond its boundary.

For example,
consider the source of materials (for
construction or for use), or any waste products from
the facility (from construction and use). Furthermore take into account the impact of
transporting materials or waste (including the source of fuel and the release of emissions to
air, water and soil). I
t quickly becomes apparent that an impact can extend far beyond a
development site. Energy supply and use, water supply and treatment of grey water and
sewage, food supply and people transport

all aspects of a tourism development involves
cycles that ext
end beyond a site boundary.

Consequently it is possible to talk in conceptual terms about a facility's
ecological footprint
as a relative measure of the area of the total ecosystem affected by the existence and
operation of a development. In broad terms
the smaller the
ecological footprint

the better.

It is just one way of viewing a tourism facility's environmental impact from a life
perspective, in which all environmental affects are considered along a chain which
progresses from materials extract
ion, to construction, to operation, and finally, disposal of
waste or maybe demolition. Between each of these phases in the life of materials (or
energy), there is usually some form of transport, with distance traveled, and the transport
mechanism contribu
ting to the total environmental impact.

As a conceptual design tool, the
minimum ecological footprint

is an approach rather than a
measurable system. It is about reminding designers that the existence and operation of such
a facility draws on, or projects

into an environment far removed from the immediate
location. And that design can reduce such projections at the earliest possible stage, rather
than address undesirable impacts after the facility is built and operational. Adopting a
minimum ecological foo

approach helps ensure that a problem addressed at the site is
not being dealt with by transferring its impact elsewhere.

Beyond Low
Tech and Rustic

The role and image of technology in natural environments can be a contentious issue,
especially whe
n associated with tourism facilities. Technology type, be it high, low,
alternative, sophisticated or appropriate, is often seen as a crucial decision influencing the
overall image, function and performance of a facility. Whether in relation to constructio
materials, energy generation, waste treatment or interpretation, the dominant view is
generally in favour of
tech and local materials

Such a view offers much ap
peal and presents an image of minimal development, low
environmental impact, and other qualities associated with all things
. Furthermore it
exudes connotations of contrast and opposites. However

in ecotourism has more
to do with escaping t
he artificial, the urban and the complexities of city life, than it does
with ecological appropriateness or sustainability.

The proposition that low
tech has some intrinsic value and intimate relevance to natural
environments is partially flawed. And usin
g the technologies and materials as historically
employed by indigenous cultures, pioneers or folk
oriented traditions as the primary
justification is overly simplistic. Vernacular architecture or traditional technologies are a
rich reference from which to

respectfully borrow, but to mimic for the sake of aesthetics or
perceived ecological benefits fails to recogni
e the contemporary functions of tourism

Vernacular architectures have evolved not because of some global treaty or convention
h declared for all time that
small is beautiful
, or that

is synonymous with low
impact. The architecture of indigenous cultures is the result of dynamic natural and social
processes, where geology, ecology, hydrology and other natural forces interac
t with human
innovation and spontaneity. Bernard Rudofsky, in his highly informative book,
Architecture Without Architects
, illustrates the complexities of vernacular architecture with
countless insights on the process of building and living in landscapes
best described as
exotic, remote, fragile, hostile and topographically changeling.

If sustainable tourism development is the goal, then the process of selecting techno
type should be determined in the first instance by its ability to eliminate or minimise
adverse environmental impacts. A Canadian symposium convened by the Alpine Club of
Canada on
'Water, Energy and Waste Management in Alpine Shelters'
, highlighted t
dilemmas of not relinquishing long held traditions and conventions regarding the use of
technology in wild places:

'We can anticipate objections from those who have decided that
technology is inherently bad and those who think that such
technologies ar
e inconsistent with he experience they are seeking in the
mountain environment. This is in spite of the technology present in the
car or bicycle or skis they used to get there. There is no doubt that, at
least initially, such technologies may appear to com
promise the
'naturalness' of a wilderness experience. However, if the alternatives
lead to compromising the wilderness itself, it would seem that the
thoughtful use of technology would be the lesser of two evils.'

Yet again, the importance of diversity emerges. Selecting the most appropriate technology
is the objective, not blindly advocating one over the other. Where a low
tech response
blends well with the landscape,
meets the interpretative needs, is compatible with the
overall site and building design, then low
tech is an excellent solution. However, where the
climate is extreme and demands the most advanced and durable materials, and the
hydrology is vulnerable to c
ontamination, then a high
tech solution exploiting sensor and
monitoring electronics is equally as valid.

Imposing either low or high
tech for the sake of it, or on ideological grounds is futile, and
potentially detrimental to the environment. The scenari
os are infinite as are the aesthetic

How should an ecotourism facility look?

there a limited number of visual styles that
are appropriate in natural environments? Are aesthetics more important than other
environmental issues such as the

facility's ecological performance? Should facilities be
concealed, camouflaged and subordinate to the landscape? It looks green, feels green

is it sustainable? There can be an unproductive tension between how facilities should
perform visually as op
posed to operationally. Many involved in the design and
development of ecotourism facilities have pursued what in broad terms could be described
as the
tech look

tech look

seems to be incorrectly premised on the view that if a toilet block,
nformation centre or cabin, looks rustic, folky, rough
cut and timber
then its
environmental impact must be minimal. There is no need for visual performance to
compete with operational performance. Indeed clever design should integrate both
ents as a way of constructing an artificial but symbiotic relationship. The technology
could inspire or shape the aesthetic, whilst the visual qualities and form could inform the
technology type, its placement and method of operation. Waste and energy tech
should not always be seen as some alien or exotic intervention in the natural environment.

Diversity in aesthetics

which explores new frontiers beyond the rustic

can offer enormous
potential for the design of tourism facilities. This is not to
endorse boldly sited blots on the
landscape or to worship shelters that look like space ships. It is


a challenge
which the majority of designers would relish if only permitted by conservative natural
resource managers and an often crusading envi
ronment movement. It is also an opportunity
for designers and operators to demonstrate the ingenuity and innovation Australians are
known for. The aim is to be clever in the application of such alternatives.

The Environmental Value of Technology Transfer

The enthusiasm for, and popularity of, transferring technologies from indigenous cultures
to ecotourism facilities, should be extended where appropriate to the transfer of
technologies from advanced manufacturing industries. Structures, shelters and other

ecotourism infrastructure could achieve significant environmental gains by selective
sampling from the aerospace, marine and automobile industries. Technologies, materials
and systems from these industries, unlike the development of architecture, is based

performance and optimisation, factors which should underpin the next phase of tourism
design in Australia.

A pioneer in the design of high
performance buildings and technology transfer is Future
Systems, a UK based architecture and design consultancy.

The principal designers, Jan
Kaplicky and Amanda Levette, have generated numerous visions of sustainable and 'self
sufficient pieces of equipment standing in the landscape'. Their diverse design studies
cover high
tech pods and cabins for fragile natural
environments, as well as lightly
'skinned' green office blocks for the most densely populated urban zones. What makes the
work of Future Systems even more convincing and technically viable is the involvement
and collaboration with Ove Arup, a global engine
ering consultancy.

Future System's obsession with technology transfer from manufacturing industry to
architecture, also defines a new aesthetic, one not incompatible to the systems, cycles and
images found in nature. Indeed many of the forms and visual qu
alities of Future System's
projects, borrow heavily from zoology and botany. It would be difficult to argue against
Kaplicky' view that architectural design has much to learn from industrial design and
manufacturing, which in turn implies that sustainable
design for ecotourism could benefit
from the same performance
based approach:

'The reason you get better and better products out of the car industry,
aerospace and racing yacht design is because they are all businesses
that depend on performance to succee
d. In architecture, success doesn't
depend on performance but on value. To get better performance you
need a lot of research and development

to get value you only need

The value of Future System's work in terms of ecotourism, is to illustrate the importance of
design diversity, and that sustainability can be expressed in a variety of forms, technologies
and aesthetics. Their work is not presented as a substi
tution for current practices, rather an
example that when the focus is on the outcome (the facility), the process by which it can be
achieved is in fact plural.

Extrapolating from Outdoor Equipment Technology

Ecotourism and associated outdoor recreationa
l activities such as bushwalking,
country skiing, snow
camping and scuba diving, necessarily require an environment
where combinations of topography, climate, flora and fauna, create the desire to relax,
create, explore, observe and learn. But wha
t of the highly colourful, space
equipment these travellers use? On closer observation of these activities, it becomes very
apparent that reliance on technology is pivotal. Advanced materials derived from industries
as diverse as aerospace, defence and

marine, are all summoned in the name of human
safety, pleasure and dazzling holiday snaps.

Open any issue of Wild magazine, or its equivalent from the US, Europe or south
east Asia,
and one will find a catalogue of high
design clothing, tents, boots, gad
gets, widgets and
gismos promoting
breathability, durability, performance, compactness

, etc. What ever happened to the sanctimonious principles of natural materials,
simple design and minimal synthetics?

It seems that humans adopt one

set of principles when comes to their own personal safety,
and a different set for safeguarding the natural environment they are meant to treasure so
much. The role and type of technologies used by travellers to protect themselves could
only be described
as high
tech and manufactured from some of the most sophisticated
synthetic substances. The irony is that whilst


is the driving force
behind travel clothing, tents, skis and navigational equipment, the impetus for the design of
m facilities is unclear but probably leaning towards visual performance.

Learning from outdoor equipment design and its highly successful adoption of advanced
technologies and materials, can provide a rich source of ideas for the design of tourism
ies. Not only could it be a catalyst for sustainable solutions, it also highlights the
potential value of collaborative design teams which blend skills, knowledge and experience
from disciplines such as architecture, product and textiles design.


Sustainable design is not about following rules and checklists. Such an approach is for
those keen on design by committee. The best designs should be informed by research

intuition. Ultimately the most sustainable tourism facilities will be those wh
ich break rules
and conventions, and challenge preconceptions about what is, and what is not appropriate
in natural environments.

Although 'how to' manuals are useful starting points, they are not bibles. The challenge for
designers and developers is to i
nterpret their content critically, apply their guidelines
selectively, but most of all remain open and receptive to new ideas, diverse aesthetics, and
appropriate technologies. Changing ecologies, dynamic socio
environmental interactions
and fluctuating to
urism markets can not be addressed through sustainable design practice
or theory which is absolute or static. Protecting and interpreting some of Australia's most
significant and fragile places deserves a best practice approach guided by innovation,
ivity and performance, not to mention diversity in design.

Selected Reading

Ecotourism: A South Australian Design Guide for Sustainable Development., written by
Pholeros, P., Tawa, M. & Opie, N., for the South Australian Tourism Commission,
Adelaide, 199

Jencks, C., The Architecture of the Jumping Universe., Academy Editions, London, 1995.

Guiding Principles of Sustainable Design., United States Department of the Interior,
National Park Service, Denver Service Centre, 1993.

Vale, B. & R., Green Archi
tecture: Design for a Sustainable Future., Thames and Hudson,
London, 1991.

Wilson, A., The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon
Valdez., Blackwell, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992.

1. For the purposes of this paper
sm facilities

refers to small
scale built forms both
permanent and transportable used primarily for nature
based tourism or ecotourism in
sensitive or fragile environments.

2. Despite numerous definitions for ESD, this paper accepts the definition adopted

by the
Commonwealth Government of Australia as set out in the National Strategy for
Ecologically Sustainable Development, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 1992. p6.

3. 'Ecotourism is a ruse by any other name ...', by Paul Mansfield in The Melbourne A
Travel Supplement, 4 March 1995.

4. For a more focussed definition and overview of sustainable development in relation to
tourism, refer to: Sustainable Tourism

An Australian Perspective., eds. Harris, R. &
Leiper, N., Butterworth
Heinemann, Chatswo
od, 1995, ppxvii

5. There are currently several terms in global currency which refer to a design approach
which considers environmental concerns. These terms can have a different emphasis, and
are often used interchangeably, usually reflecting the

latest conference jargon. Some of the
terms include: ecodesign, green design, life
cycle design, ecological design, environmental
design, biodesign, benign design, design for the environment, sustainable design.

6. Papanek, V., Design for the Real World:

Human Ecology and Social Change., Thames
and Hudson, revised edition Chicago, 1992.

7. Sparke, P., An Introduction to Design and Culture in the Twentieth Century., Unwin
Hyman, 1986, London, pp 194

8. Papanek, V., The Green Imperative: Ecology and
Ethics in Design and Architecture.,
Thames and Hudson, 1995, London.

9. Hawkins, D.E., Epler Wood, M. & Bittman, S., The Ecolodge Sourcebook for Planners
and Developers., The Ecotourism Society, North Bennington, Vermont, 1995, pp29

10. Cox, L., 'Maki
ng a Vision Become a Reality', in Sustainable Design and Ecotourism
Seminar Proceedings, Hobart, Australia, 1994, pp6
11. Cox's paper contains the RAIA
Environment Policy.

11. Environmentally Responsible Building Products Guide., National Park Service, De
Service Centre, Department of the Interior, United States, 1992.

12 The 'Ecological Footprint' concept first emerged in urban planning theory to describe
the less tangible (and thus more invisible) environmental consequences of sprawling cities
and s

13 Andersen, D.L., 'A Window to the Natural World: the Design of Ecotourism Facilities,
in Ecotourism: A Guide for Planners and Managers, eds Lindberg, K., & Hawkins, D.E.,
The Ecotourism Society, North Bennington, Vermont, 1993, pp 125

14 R
udofsky, B., Architecture Without Architects

A Short Introduction to Non
Architecture, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1964.

15 Thompson, D., 'Tradition and Environment: Complement or Clash', in Water, Energy
and Waste Management
in Alpine Shelters Symposium Proceedings., Alpine Club of
Canada, Alberta, 1991, p19.

16 Pawley, M., Theory and Design in the Second Machine Age, Basil Blackwell, Oxford,
1990, p41.

Copyright © 1995, National Key Centre for Design at RMIT

PO Box 2476V, Melbourne Victoria 3001, Australia

Vox: +61 3 9925 2362 Fax: +61 3 9639 34



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Last updated 6 Novemb
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