Instant sustainable web design via web editor plug-ins

Unlike web designers and developers, most industrial designers are keenly aware of sustainability issues. More important, they understand that sustainability is the responsibility of the designer, even at the early stages of the design process – their design is not something created in a vacuum and handed to an engineer to fix.

To help designers incorporate sustainability in early iterations of their work, many 3D industrial design modeling tools have sustainability plug-ins. To really calculate sustainability one would have to do a full Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) every time the product was changed. The sustainability plug-ins use “boilerplate” LCA calculations to give estimates of the environmental impact of a design, and the effect of material changes.

This article summarizes some of the plug-ins available for 3D product modeling software:

One of the things I like about this article is that the word “engineer” and “designer” are u for the same person. In other words, the designer is an engineer as well – a “hybrid”. Hybrids are what we’ll need to implement Sustainable Web Design, and the larger Sustainable Virtual Design.

Here’s an example for SoildWorks. A small dashboard does the calculation.

Solidworks user interface for sustainability plug-ins
SolidWorks Sustainability UI

If the footprint is too high, the designer can search for similar materials with lower environmental impact:

SolidWorkds comparing plastic and steel
Compare raw materials

PTC has a somewhat similar product called WindChill,

If you go to the page, you can see a image slideshow on the right-hand side. It’s a pretty lame Lightbox show, but you can see a beautiful example of how a “green ingredient” might be quantified for its impact on a design.

PTC LCA dashboard

One can imagine similar software being created for the web, possibly as a plug-in for common development tools like Coda and Dreamweaver. During the design process, a plug-in could scan the website, tally the component HTML, CSS, JavaScript, plus hosting service and compute a similar “rough LCA” for the site when it was published to the Internet. The plug-in would have to:

  • Scan the website and its assets
  • Find and compute the “green ingredients”
  • Calculate the page speed, download, and HTTP requests
  • Factor in the carbon footprint of the web hosting provider being used.
  • Compute extra “energy of transport” if the web page goes international. In other words, if the site was hosted in the US, the software would estimate the costs of delivering it to China versus Ohio. SolidWorks displays this kind of information in a graph, so a similar display could be created for web designers
  • Allow designers to view alternate ingredients with the same impact.
  • Allow designers to shuffle assets between static (with long cache expire times) and dynamic (short expire times) bins, and see the overall result on sustainability.
  • Compute the energy expenditure expected for the mix of target web browsers. Other research shows that IE9 uses significantly less power than Chrome and Firefox, and mobile browsers consume far less energy than desktops. This would require feeding in the expected target market for the site – levels again! The business model has to be part of design

Now, a REALLY COOL sustainability module would look at the designer’s own system. It would look at the average energy consumption of the system over time, and tell them how much “energy of manufacture” was being used to create the web page. For some sites, this might be a significant fraction of energy consumption

And an EXTREMELY COOL sustainability module would be loaded with “artsy” sustainable ingredients.

For example, the software might suggest an image be created via vector graphics and burned to SVG, or suggest that a simple background pattern be rendered using CSS3 rather than downloading bitmaps.

Or, the software might scale and rank different textures for textures, adding drop shadows, or enabling JQuery-style motion graphics. It might compute some sort of complexity function, e.g, the “fractal-ness” of a design, and use that to show designers if their art was too Baroque to be sustainable.

We can also imagine sustainability incorporated into web analytic software and SEO software. Web analytic software might score the number of “futile” clicktrails as “wasted motion” of Internet users, with a secondary, LCA-style calculation of the energy and resources users waste due to delays on the website. SEO software might compute the same “wasted motion” calculations for efficient versus inefficient search, or “black hat” versus “white hat” SEO. Wow, will we someday see spammers buying carbon offsets based on these kind of rough LCA calculations?

“…The average greenhouse gas emissions associated with an individual spam email are about 0.3 grams of CO2…”

Some have questioned whether we should do these calculations – aren’t we just computing uptime? But that’s like saying that “the freeways are there, who cares if they serve Hummers versus Smart Cars”. The idea of real-time sustainability calculations driving the daily work of a web designer doesn’t seem that strange to me.

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