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How To Lead a Sustainable Life as a Design Student
By Jill Fehrenbacher

There's a torrent of talk in the news these days about 'sustainability.' And as design students, many of us spend a lot of time thinking about how to make our designs more energy efficient, healthier, and more environmentally sustainable. But amidst this onslaught of talk about sustainable design, one thing that doesn't often get mentioned is the sustainability of the atmosphere of design school.

I'm currently an architecture grad student, and despite my sincere passion for being in school, I can tell you that I've never seen a more unhealthy, more unsustainable environment than that of architecture school. How many people recognize this picture: students routinely spending 10-15 hours per day sitting in one place, glued to flickering computer screens working on 3D renderings, wedged into painfully cramped desks while toxic chemicals are mixed and handled all around them. I've often found myself in this exact position: eyes straining, back sore, trying to finish a project at 4am, under flickering fluorescent lights, while someone next to me melts acrylic with a cancer-causing chemical, the person on the other side of me hacking up toxic blue foam with a small saw, and the person behind me snoring in a sleeping bag underneath her desk. If you recognize yourself in this picture—consider this your wake-up call: THIS IS NOT HEALTHY!

Amidst this onslaught of talk about sustainable design, one thing that doesn't often get mentioned is the sustainability of the atmosphere of design school.

I frequently managed to pull multiple all-nighters in this type of environment, slowly watching more and more lines appear underneath my eyes and grey hairs popping up on my head. Why do we pay tens of thousands of dollars to subject ourselves to this kind of life, when other professional schools seem to have evolved to a more reasonable understanding of a live/work balance? Even medical schools, which used to be famous for torturing their students with grueling hours and unreasonable deadlines, have wised-up to the fact that red-eyed, sleep-deprived, pill-popping students can't learn effectively or make smart decisions. We do it because it's the culture of design school—this is what is expected of us, and what everyone around us seems to accept as 'the way things are.' This type of uber-competitive, insanely unhealthy atmosphere will only change when we decide to stop putting up with it, so the change has to start with you. And you can't fight the battle alone, so talk to your friends and teachers and try to get some support to stop the madness.

Here are 5 steps to taking back your life, and demanding a sustainable, healthy and productive experience as a design student:

1. Learn how to organize your time

A healthy lifestyle starts with you. The biggest cause of all-nighters is procrastination, so getting a jump on your work ahead of time will enable you to balance your life more effectively. I've found that setting internal goals and deadlines in a calendar can really help fight the creep of procrastination. My favorite procrastination-fighting tool? Google Calendar.

2. Seek out healthier materials

It seems that design students are expected to be happily living in a pile of blue foam and off-gassing plastics, but why subject yourself to that when there are plenty of natural model making materials that are healthier (and cheaper too). The next time you start to reach for blue foam, try balsa wood or corn-based foams instead. Cardboard and chipboard are plentiful, cheap and healthy alternatives to styrene and foam-core. Stay away from the "Zap-a-gap" and nasty super-glues—you'd be surprised how deft you can become with a hot glue guns instead. (Be careful not to burn your fingers!) Finally, on those days when you just can't find an alternative to acrylic, make sure you're wearing a respirator (not just a dust mask) and open the windows.

3. Take breaks & go outside

You may think that all you need to know can be found within the confines of your studio (or even your computer monitor), but this is simply not true. Most often the best ideas, intuitions and breakthroughs will come to you when your mind is relaxed and open—walking down the street, jogging or even sleeping. Good designers have lives. They go see movies, have lunch with friends and find inspiration in the world around them. There are limits to the inspiration you will derive from a computer screen; it is imperative to both your creativity and your sanity to take breaks.

4. Create a productive workspace

It's difficult to concentrate and work effectively when you are uncomfortable or distracted. Keep your desk clean and uncluttered, invest in a good LED desk lamp (they are energy efficient and don't heat up), and adjust your chair and desk to ergonomically appropriate heights so you can sit (or stand!) in an upright and alert position. (I prefer working standing up). Keep a refillable bottle of water on hand at all times, and an mp3 player and headphones to tune out the world around you.

5. Know when to eat, exercise and sleep

It's hard to be mentally alert and productive when you are hungry, sleep-deprived and tired. Your body needs food, rest, and exercise to stay on its game. Get into a regular exercise routine (like jogging or karate classes), stock up on healthy snacks to keep at your desk (fruit and nuts are a good bet), and know when to call it a night. Believe me, that idea you came up with at 5am after 5 cups of coffee won't hold up in the light of day, and your project really will be that much better after you've had a full night's sleep.

6. Learn how to say 'no"

A healthy lifestyle starts and ends with you. Learn how to stand up for yourself and don't succumb to the pressure of unhealthy attitudes around you. You are smart—you made it to design school—so you're smart enough to know deep down what is and what isn't good for you. Your teachers may pressure you, and your fellow students may compete to see who can go the most hours without sleep, so ignore them. Being a sheep won't get you anywhere in real life; none of the famous designers you admire are the type of people who are content to put up with the status quo. Look for support in your friends and in more enlightened faculty-members. It is only when enough people in design school realize that there is a better alternative that things will actually begin to change. Until then, hang in there and take responsibility for making the most out of your time in design school.

Jill is the founder of Inhabitat, as well as a freelance designer and architecture grad student at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning.