The Beauty of Green Design

Described by many as larger than life, Lance Hosey pushed for higher levels of excellence and beauty by architects and designers. He passed away in 2021, but he left a legacy of advocating for the use of aesthetics in green (or sustainable) design. Within his context of design, he held to a core idea that aligns with the Aesthetics Research Lab. Whatever you do, beauty (and aesthetics) can make it even better.

In 2012, Hosey published a book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design, defending his view on the need for aesthetics in sustainable design. An excerpt of his book was published on the Fast Company website the following year. This excerpt, titled “A Case For Why Green Design Must Be Beautiful,” offers a succinct overview of Hosey’s beliefs on the relationship between aesthetics and green design.

Hosey acknowledges the unfortunate separation between great design and green design. People view green design as necessarily ugly, which carries the implication that it is not for architecture. Being very direct, Hosey writes, “The ugly truth about sustainable design is that much of it is ugly.” Much of the greatest recent architecture, regardless of its look, displays a large amount of waste. This bias–that green design must be ugly–continues to dominate the discussions. People acknowledge that green design forfeits beauty and other aesthetic qualities, in order to seek a higher purpose. While this is noble, it cannot compete on the same level as great design that must disregard sustainability.

Designers care about image, and the green movement, like it or not, has a reputation for being all substance and no style.

Not satisfied, Hosey advocates for an optimistic vision of sustainable design that also possesses beauty. People care about beautiful things; beauty adds value. Philosopher Roger Scruton made a similar point. Scruton explained that an ugly building might be made to fulfill a specific purpose, but once that purpose disappears, the building usually sits empty. However, a beautiful building that loses its original purpose will not remain empty; people find a way to use a beautiful. Of course, counterexamples to this can be found. But the basic idea that people value beauty remains.

Who throws out a thing they find functional, beautiful, and valuable all at once? A more attractive design discourages us from abandoning it: if we want it, we won’t waste it.

“Aesthetics, or sensory appeal, are not just icing on the cake. In both nature and culture, shape and appearance can directly affect success and survival.” So Hosey explains. He explains that many naturally occurring things, like plants, animals, and environments, evolved in a way that brings pleasure. It can be direct, like color, smell, or taste. But it can also be indirect, like the earth being angled slightly on its axis to create the four different seasons. If pleasure drives evolution, in a sense, then we should learn from this process in our human-made artifacts and environments.

People form closer, positive connections with things they find beautiful. Hosey cites that people perceive products they consider more attractive to also be more functional. When given a choice of products that function the same way, people choose the ones that look better. A purely functional object might provide value, but it will not be as long lasting. It will be abandoned eventually. If we continue the trend of making sustainable buildings (or other objects) without concern for aesthetics, Hosey writes, it will not last. “Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern–it’s an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.”

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