A series of case studies into sustainable product design: bringing innovation in the heating industry


As part of our series of case studies into sustainable product design, we decided to tackle heads-on one of our modern world’s hottest - no pun intended - topics: the increasing need for optimized heating systems, particularly in residential applications. 

Conceptual radiator from Punctuate Design with ecodesign principles
@Punctuate Design - Conceptual visualization

In this third article of our case study series, we dive into the complex yet inevitable subject of energy consumption and heat generation, specifically from an ecodesign perspective

First, we will provide a very brief introduction on what constitutes modern heating systems, from components to operations and everything in between.

Then, we will go through why matters related to heating systems are to be prioritized when it comes to sustainable design in the near future.

And, we will briefly showcase how some of the sustainable design strategies we introduce in our Circularity Workshop can help enhance the environmental, socio-cultural, and economic performance of tomorrow’s heating systems.

Given the rising interest - and inevitable need - for more sustainable and circular practices in various disciplines and fields all over the world, at Punctuate Design, we have meticulously built and curated a Circularity Workshop which we offer to our clients regardless the type of project they are undertaking. 

In fact, we designed the workshop to first familiarize your team with different sustainable strategies which can be applied to their project all while demonstrating their impacts on the overall lifecycle.

Then, we demonstrate exactly how and where these various strategies, methods and principles can be applied, implemented, and used to optimize the ecological performance of your project.

Lastly, our ultimate goal is to help empower your team to assimilate these strategies and to be able to independently utilize them in the future without our assistance.

As mentioned in our previous articles in this series, the different sustainability principles we have identified are meant to be integrated early on into the creative process if you are developing a new product or service. However, they can also be retrofitted into existing products, services or projects if you are looking to become more eco-responsible.

Heating systems with red neon lights for innovation
Photo by Danny Howe on Unsplash

Now, back to our case study: modern heating systems.

Since the dawn of time, humans have been surviving and thriving through the agency of heat. It has been used time and time again to warm up on cold nights, to cook ingredients that would be impossible to digest, to provide light and visibility, and even to protect from foes. From the prehistoric times to today’s modern world, heat is an imperative and irreplaceable tool and resource for survival.

In the past decades, projection studies have predicted the inevitable increase in population growth and of people living in urban and suburban spaces as these numbers are expected to reach up to 70% in 2050 (UN, 2013). City and suburban areas are both expanding in surface area and densifying in numbers of occupants all over the world (Haaland & van den Bosch, 2015), particularly in Northern hemisphere countries such as Canada.

These countries are known for their nordic weather: the short warm summers are almost always obliviated by long, harsh, cold winters. As a direct consequence of population growth, more residential units are being built and deployed within and around Northern cities.

maple leaf from canada icon
Photo by Silvestri Matteo on Unsplash

Heating in Canada

Modern heating systems in Canada - and other countries with similar climates and weather constraints - come in a variety of types, each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Some of the most common types of heating systems include furnaces, boilers, heat pumps, and geothermal systems. According to Natural Resources Canada, about 70% of Canadian homes use natural gas as their primary heating source. Furnaces, which burn natural gas or propane, are the most popular type of heating system used in Canada, but they can be costly to operate and can release harmful pollutants into the air. According to the Canadian National Energy Board, boilers are used as primary heat source in about 20% of Canadian homes. These boiler systems, which heat water or steam to distribute heat, are a more efficient option, but they can also be costly to install and maintain. 

Heat pumps are another popular option, used in about 6% of Canadian homes as the primary heat source, as they use electricity to transfer heat from the air or ground into the home. They are more efficient than furnaces and boilers, but they can struggle to provide enough heat in extremely cold temperatures. Geothermal systems, which use the constant temperature of the earth to heat and cool a home, are the most efficient option, but they can be expensive to install and are not suitable for all homes. According to the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association, geothermal systems are used in about 1% of Canadian homes as primary heat source. All this to say that each type of modern heating system has its own set of flaws and benefits, so it is important for homeowners to carefully consider their options before making a decision.

More recently, the rise in gas and electricity costs have been the central topic of many discussions across the global community. Analysts are predicting that natural gas or electricity bills will rise between an astonishing 50 all the way up to 100 per cent on average across the Americas and Europe (DeLaire, CTVNews, 2022; Huet & Carvnaro, EuroNews, 2022; BBC, 2022). Furthermore, it comes as no surprise that most residential housings are not adequately isolated, particularly in Northern countries such as Canada where the winters can be particularly harsh.

Types of heating

According to a brief study carried out by our design team, we were able to categorize heating systems into 3 main types:

Those who operate through the radiation of heat - through infra-red radiations which can be found in sunshine rays, or fire); through the conduction of heating energy - which can circulate and propagate within a given material and then emanate through its surface; and lastly though convection - better known as heating through the air.

Graphics that explain types of heating systems
@Punctuate Design - Types of heating graphics

How implementing sustainable design strategies into the design process today can help reshape the heating units of tomorrow

Now, it is important to remember that our human centered research approach empathizes with the user and their wellbeing. Long and cold winters call for optimized heating systems that are well adapted to both the user’s needs, as well as what’s best for the environment in which they live.

In fact, within the past few decades, society has been indubitably faced with “growing environmental and social pressures and responsibilities'' (Sherwin, 2004, P.22). After all, humanity and their artifacts’ survival depend on the quality of the natural environment in which they exist. In fact, mankind relies on “[…] ecosystem services both for meeting primary biological needs and for providing resources that are needed for economic and technological development” (Gaziulusoy, 2010, cited in Ceschin & Gaziulusoy, 2016, P.23). 

With the irresponsible and wasteful energy consumption habits of the past decades, we have a responsibility to make all the necessary efforts and sacrifices to simply do better.

In that sense, the heating systems of tomorrow’s world should be characterized by an optimized energy consumption (in terms of mainly ecological and economical impacts to name the main two) all while providing the maximum amount of comfort and satisfaction to their users.

The term comfort is used here as an umbrella concept, covering every design criteria relating to user satisfaction within the product’s life cycle: from intuitivity in use, to adaptability, to aesthetics, to security, and everything in between. To help vulgarize our design approach to this case study, we can summarize our intention with the following equation: 

Circular heating units = Optimized energy consumption + Maximum comfort


In order to tackle this wicked problem (Buchanan, 1992) the design team at Punctuate Design began brainstorming solutions through a compressed brainstorm session. Utilizing various analytical and visual tools such as mind maps, categorizations, semantic cards, how-might-we cards, value vs impact matrixes as well as WOW-HOW-NOW matrixes, to name only a few.

Brainstorming session from Punctuate Design for innovative heating systems
@Punctuate Design - Circularity workshop brainstorming

Sustainability Workshop Principle Cards

However, the analytical tool which proved to be the most useful in enabling us to directly impact the ecological performance of our designs was our Circularity Workshop Sustainable Design Principle Cards such as the DESIGN FOR MODULARITY, or the REDUCE, or even the UPGRADE AESTHETICS labels, to name only a few out of the 27 we have built and created (link to circularity workshop). We will briefly describe below how implementing the use of some of those simple cards helped frame our ideation process to generate eco-friendly, circular and responsible solutions.

These various methods allowed us to swiftly organize the design strategies that might impact tomorrow’s heating units into 3 main categories:

Firstly, by utilizing the DESIGN FOR MODULARITY and the DESIGN FOR MULTIFUNCTIONALITY cards for example, we questioned how design can impact the product experience itself by asking ourselves how can we displace heat

Second, we reflected on more technical aspects by applying the REDUCE and REUSE cards, and thus by trying to understand how we can reuse accidental heat sources? In fact, within this exploration, other stakes emerged making us question how to reduce the quantity of energy needed to heat?

And third, we dove into the ideation and conception process. And by putting into practice the REPAIR, RE-MANUFACTURE, RETROFIT, and SOURCING cards, we were able to reflect on how we can completely reimagine modern heating units? And same as before, another question emerged through the process making us think on how we can simplify repair within these heating systems?

Example of a Circularity workshop session live from Punctuate design studio
@Punctuate Design - Circularity workshop session live

The results of our express brainstorm session

How can we displace heat?

When it came to the first category relating to the product experience itself, the solutions explored through words, action verbs, concept sentences, quick doodles and then idea sketches translated into heating units which optimized the heat circulation in the household in an intuitive and user-friendly way. Some of the ideas developed here where inspired and fueled by a historic symbolic for example, such as the one found in traditional mortar bricks who were placed in the chimney to heat up, and then transported and placed into different rooms or sections of the household to propagate the heat - therefore literally “picking it up” and displacing it across the house.

This category exploration using our Sustainable Design Cards lead to a handful of preliminary ideas such as modular heating units which can be divided, picked up, transported and placed in various rooms using conduction principles, heat towers where different modules can be rotated and manipulated to move the heat radiating from the tower and target different areas. Another idea is including simple convection accessories which can be safely placed on existing heating units, absorbing the heat and preserving it, and then displaced and positioned close to the skin for example.

How we can reuse waste heat sources?

How to reduce the quantity of energy needed to heat?

Then, in regards to the second direction relating to the more technical aspects, we researched and explored products or services found which accidentally generate heat as a by-product of their main purpose or function. As we found that these types of products - such as computer servers, ovens, fridges, or even charger batteries- can generate heat as they are put to use, we started investigating ingenious ways to harvest this to be used for more purposeful heating. 

This next exploration resulted in many interesting concepts such as heating furnishes where the accidental heat generated by some house furnishings or accessories (such as bathtubs) are redirected through infrastructures throughout the house (to heat the floors for example). Another preliminary idea proposed a heating direction ceiling fan or lamp - where the heating element is integrated into an existing product in a seamless and discreet way, thus better integrating into a more minimalist decor or even limited space.

How we can completely reimagine modern heating units ?

How we can simplify repair within these heating systems ?

Lastly, the third approach relating to the conception process itself allowed us to take a step back - or forward? - and to carefully look into how heat travels and circulates within a given material (by looking into thermal properties and characteristics afforded by chemical and structural composition), and thus translating beyond to the production process, the assemblies of the components,  all the way to the implementation within the spatial context. 

In this instance, we imagined a relay heating product where the main unit can be turned off after a while, and internal elements can be exposed all while emanating heat without the need for energy (residual heat from previous charge). Other ideas include a completely disassembled and customizable heating unit with a central resistance, where all technical elements can be exposed and replaced, and the outer “skin” can be customized by each user depending on their needs, and so on.

Circularity workshop session results from Punctuate design studio
@Punctuate Design - Circularity workshop session

Conclusion: optimized, sustainable, and innovative heating solutions as the new status quo

Optimized heating systems designs play a crucial role in ensuring energy efficiency as well as sustainability in residents. By incorporating sustainable practices such as utilizing renewable energy sources, implementing energy-saving technologies, designing for optimal thermal comfort and flexibility in use, innovative solutions for the future can be achieved. This not only helps protect the environment but also leads to cost savings for building owners or occupants, all while providing unique and satisfying user experiences all throughout the product life cycle. Overall, the integration of sustainable practices into heating systems design is essential for creating a sustainable future.

In that sense, the quantity of rich and innovative ideas generated during similar brainstorm sessions can vary greatly depending on the preparation before (research, analysis, pre-defined directions, inspirations, etc.), the size and diversity of the team, the specific design challenge being addressed, and the methods and techniques used to facilitate the brainstorm session.

In fact, using our Sustainability Principles Cards helped generate more specific and detailed preliminary ideas that purposefully solved a clear problem. In fact, the research has shown that by using such effective brainstorming techniques such as SCAMPER, Morphological Analysis and Mind mapping, and fostering a positive and inclusive team dynamic, it is possible to generate a large number of high-quality and feasible ideas. Additionally, it is important to note that the quantity of ideas generated during a brainstorm is not the only metric for success, as the quality and feasibility of the ideas is crucial for the success of the design project.

Lastly, whether you are a startup, an established enterprise or even a manufacturer, through the variety of workshops we offer at Punctuate Design, we can provide you and your team with the design methodology and analytical tools you need to positively impact the environmental, socio-cultural and economical impact of your product.

Few more articles to read about our series of case studies into sustainable product design:

Why does sustainable product design create value

A series of case studies into sustainable product design: The Framework Laptop

Sustainable product design principles allowing the user to actively contribute to a circular economy ?

Sustainable product design practices for a circular economy ?

Encouraging sustainable actions through the 5 Rs methodology

We would love to hear from you!

Contact us here or reach out to enquiries@punctuatedesign.com If you want to learn about our circularity workshop !