Testing the Waters

by Barent Roth
Professor of Sustainable Design, The New School

This week at the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) International Design conference in Seattle we will be trying something new, something called a Swarm. Borrowing elements of brainstorming, design thinking, and the intensity of a hackathon, designers will cluster in groups of eight to ten and try and harness the power of collaborative timed competition to create ______.

As a veteran of engaging, inspiring conferences that result in nothing more than digital handshakes in the aftermath, I will instead try to lead our group to take advantage of the incredible brain power in the room by creating something lasting and meaningful. It’s ambitious, and unlikely, but it can be done. In the fall of 2011 I started teaching Sustainable Design at The New School. The school and its collaborators at the Stevens Institute had just completed their entry into the Solar Decathlon, an amazing competition that challenges universities around the world to build a solar powered home. Seeing all of the entries at the National Mall in DC makes you feel like you are getting a little glimpse of the future, a stroll down an idyllic sustainability lane. Yet after proving their photovoltaic collectors can easily power the needs of a family by actually living in their new constructions, the students dutifully deconstruct the homes and take them back to campus limbo, all except for The New School’s entry, the Empowerhouse. The Empowerhouse is now a home for a family outside our nation’s capital. During the design process the post competition phase of the house was carefully considered and addressed. On a much, much smaller scale our Design Swarm will attempt a similar form of longevity.

The Empowerhouse (photo by Martin Seck)

The Empowerhouse (photo by Martin Seck)

During our 3.5 hour workshop, we will be creating an ocean trawl for 5Gyres to be created using Shapeways 3D Printing technology. A trawl is a simple tool pulled by a boat made to float atop the water’s surface and collect debris in a large net. The report last December that revealed the incomprehensible 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans was thanks to the 5Gyres organization pulling a trawl through the global seas.* This inspiring marine research non profit wants to make it possible for others around the world to build their own low-tech trawls in order to test their own waters. Shapeways not only allows 5Gyres to produce a trawl but equally important, Shapeways can deliver the Trawl parts directly to citizen scientists, or actual scientists, for assembly, helping to make this horrific submerged pollution problem more visible.

Trawl in Action (photo by 5Gyres.org)

Trawl in Action (photo by 5Gyres.org)

Details of the Design Swarm are being kept intentionally vague to keep the conference attendees and the Design Swarm moderators on their feet. What we do know is that we will work in thirty minute bursts and have design minions sketching, CAD modeling, and prototyping our ideas for us while we try to solve our chosen problem. Ideally we can follow the lead of The Empowerhouse and create something 5Gyres can actually use to help illuminate the scope of the worldwide plastic pollution problem.

Debris gathered from a 5Gyres trawl of the Hudson River NYC, June 2015. (photo by Marcus Eriksen)

Debris gathered from a 5Gyres trawl of the Hudson River NYC, June 2015. (photo by Marcus Eriksen)

There will be a follow up post after the Design Swarm to report on the results.


* PLOS One (Public Library of Science) http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111913

Outerknown Evolution Menswear


Outerknown has released a new range of outerwear and board shorts made from recycled nylon sourced from reclaimed fishing nets. According to the UN FAO there are over 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing nets clogging up the oceans. Designer Kelly Slater says:

“By collecting the fishing nets that are regenerated into ECONYL® products, we lessen our environmental impact while also cleaning up the oceans that we love so much – and that unique commitment to sustainability is central to who we are as a company”


Borough Furnace: Possibly the Most Environmentally Friendly Skillet


Borough Furnace is a metal casting workshop in Syracuse, New York that was started through Kickstarter. They create small batches of hand made products using a traditional process that has been updated to be more environmentally friendly.

Their business centers around the Skilletron, a furnace that burns Waste Vegetable Oil to melt scrap iron at 3000ºF. Using old fryer grease as fuel helps to greatly eliminate the energy consumption typically associated with metal casting. In order to keep with their mission of consuming as little as possible, they only use recycled metal.


Three Leaves, Rapanui and Vivobarefoot

Rapanui is “an Award-Winning Eco-fashion brand from on the Isle of Wight”. They make organic, ethical clothing in factories powered by wind and solar energy. Every piece is rated on its sustainability with a letter grade from A-G: A being organic, ethical and sustainable, and G being none of the aforementioned. Where the award winning comes in however, is through their traceability. For all of their clothing they have both a map and a description of the entire process, what they call “from seed to shop”, showing the journey their clothing takes through the entire supply chain to get to the store. Not only are their products animal friendly, but they also work towards animal welfare.

“At Rapanui we will never use fur and none of the products on our site were made after being tested on animals, nor were they derived from animal products.”

Fairtrade Cotton / FSC Rubber Shoes Wolfpack Sweat

Three Leaves, from Red Hook Brooklyn, is a new eCommerce store entering the foray of ethical menswear. That carry brands using eco-friendly materials, with strict certifications like GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), cruelty free shoes like Novacas, and socially responsible brands that would never use sweatshop labor, they strive to offer fashion staples for the uncompromising man. Although not entirely vegan (there is some wool and  leather, e.g. jacket zipper, jean tag) they will make note of it in the item’s description.


Vivobarefoot offers eco barefoot shoes suited for most any lifestyle, from trail running to casual. They are made from recycled, locally sourced materials in ethical factories using sustainable production techniques. Each shoe has an eco matrix, in the form of a numerical rating, to score their environmental impact throughout the lifecycle. If a shoe is vegan, it can be found under the shoe’s “features” labeled “Eco Credentials: 100% Vegan”.

“Sprucing” Up the Place With Sustainable Decor

Patrick LaDuke joins The Discerning Brute’s lineup of incisive contributors and shares his take on interiors and furniture that dignify principled aesthetics.


  • Ranging from furniture to interior, LA’s District Millworks is the perfect alternative for an eco friendly household. As stated in their blog, ” We use reclaimed wood sources along with FSC wood and materials. We finish our projects with eco friendly materials. Our goal is 100% eco friendly and sustainable products.” Not only can one get a table made from wine barrel inserts, but also lighting made from the barrels’ rings. They even offer reclaimed wood floors.

  • NYC’s Voos Furniture supports local designers by showcasing and selling their work. Their eco friendly options inculde discarded construction material, reclaimed wood, and recycled cork just to name a few. Check out the wine rack made entirely from waste material from the wine cork industry pictured above.

  • Score+Solder is a simple green option by merely housing your plants in a very modern way. Handmade to order, these terrariums and planters are simply glass and lead-free solder.

Patrick LaDuke is currently a fashion design student. He focuses on sustainability and ethics in all of his work, and is passionate about all things vegan. He has been a vegan since 17 and is always in search for the latest in sustainable design. He is also an aspiring musician, artist, and pastry chef.