The State University of New York (SUNY) has created a new Masters of Arts program at its Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), to instill among its students--interior designers, architects, facility planners, and managers--“a holistic vision of sustainable design practice,” says Grazyna Pilatowicz, assistant professor and chair of FIT’s new MA program in Sustainable Interior Environments.

“The curriculum was developed to guide students in synthesizing applied skills in behavioral research, inclusive design, indoor environmental quality, chemistry and specification of materials, as well as to build their expertise in design’s impact on human health and the health of the local and regional economy,” says Pilatowicz. The program differs from other interior design schools in its emphasis on critical thinking and researched-based analysis for design criteria, “a far cry from weekly studios and perspective drawing,” writes Michael Wickersheimer in a Metropolis Magazine blog about his experience as a master’s candidate in the program, which he describes as an opportunity to develop an integrated and holistic understanding of sustainability. “The challenges we face in taking on this material effectively mirror the challenges inherent in a new way of design that fully embraces the many facets of sustainability,” writes Wickersheimer.

“What we do as interior designers beside pick colors is specify materials,” says Pilatowicz. “To know what you’re proposing, and how it will affect occupant’s health and the environment, you have to know what it’s made of—you have to know how to read the label, and this involves at least a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry. There’s also a field known as environmental psychology that studies how humans interact with their environment, and we know the environment can inform us and affect behavior--anyone designing grocery stores can tell you the layout influences what people purchase. Likewise we believe that incorporating the right elements by design can influence people to make better environmental choices.”

She offered some examples, such as selecting finishes that require scouring powders or bleaching to maintain such as a stainless steel sink or white linen curtains. But if designers specify finishes that can be cleaned with soapy warm water, such as a VitraStone, not only do they help keep harsh bleach and ammonia out of the water, but they minimize the number of toxic chemicals that occupants need to store under the sink.

On the psychological side, Pilatowicz described the obvious link between consumers’ inclination to do the right thing for the environment, such as managing their energy use and recycling, when the option is designed into the environment and offered clearly and conveniently. Then she talked about the not-so-obvious way a designer inspires sustainability “by creating an environment people care about enough to preserve it, which is the essence of sustainability. If you design something that will go out of fashion and get thrown away in five years, who cares if you bought green materials. Better to have bought standard materials and made such a beautiful environment that people preserve it for 300 years.”

“Technology alone can take us about halfway, but we need people to do the rest,” says Pilatowicz. But many of today’s green designs present an almost anti-aesthetic, which works for tree huggers, but turns off many consumers, explains Pilatowicz, “and the real danger of this comes with the potential for environmentalism to go out of style.”

Nevertheless, Pilatowicz’s program emphasizes critical thinking skills such as when weighing the options between competing green products--one claiming fair trade, another recycled content, and still another energy-efficiency--how do you weigh the benefits for a specific project, balancing them with what the client wants and can afford? What about when the user is not at the table, for example, when designing for children or the elderly, do you know enough to represent their needs? “These important decisions become very complicated very quickly, and most interior designers do not have the background to make them competently,” Pilatowicz adds.

In another Metropolis student blog, Stefanie Krzyzamiak makes the point that, to become a sustainable discipline, the once purely aesthetic approach to interior design required the balance of a deeper sociological and scientific framework. She writes, “Design lives within a context that includes more than just materials and aesthetics. We learned how to push past the limits of conventional design practices by exploring literature in such areas of study as behavioral sciences and policy studies; these readings revealed to us the incredible connectedness that takes place between design, people, and the natural environment.”

The FIT Master of Arts program in Sustainable Interior Environments was meant for established professionals with five years of experience and a Bachelor’s degree in their fields. Courses, offered in evenings and on weekends, cover a broad definition of sustainable design that includes an understanding of sociology, universal design, design’s impact on the global environment and economy, and design’s impact on human health. Students’ degree studies culminate in a research-oriented capstone project. Among the thesis topics chosen by the first group of master’s candidates include Wickersheimer’s “How effective sustainable design strategies that relate to the built environment can be found in the principles of complementary and alternative medicine,” and Krzyzmiak’s “Nature Deficit Disorder: Can Sensory Design and Materials that Embody Biophilic Qualities Reconnect us With Nature?”

Tellingly, Wickersheimer describes the program as primarily an opportunity to ask questions and spend the requisite time to answer them. In his Interior Design Research blog in Metropolis Wickersheimer asks, “Why, for instance, does the built environment affect patient outcomes in hospitals? Why is there a disconnect between what design students think they know about sustainability and what they actually know about how it works? Why do green buildings seem to enhance worker productivity? Why are suburban communities seemingly less interested in developing sustainable building strategies than urban and rural ones?”

These are the questions we all need answered on our way to achieving a sustainable world that can support technological society. But when I wrote to Wickersheimer and asked him what answers he’d come up with, he replied, “Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to the research questions that I posed in the Metropolis blog. Those were hypothetical examples of the types of questions that sustainable design researchers, in my opinion, must begin to ask.”

If FIT’s Master’s degree in Sustainable Interior Environments succeeds, we will have more educated and sophisticated designers asking these questions and more solutions forthcoming. We will also have more teachers able to prepare students for a world that demands sustainable solutions. Until now, Pilatowicz told me, there were more students wanting to know than teachers with the knowledge. Her hope in establishing the new Master of Arts in Sustainable Interior Environments was that among the first cohort, a few of her students would become teachers.