The practice of interior design, being a part of the larger building industry, undoubtedly creates a considerable environmental impact and ecological footprint, whether we like it or not. However, in order to effectively ameliorate the impact, sustainability in interior design should not be limited to merely adding plants and greenery to spaces. Rather, it should be a crucial consideration, integrated into the entire design process, from concept development to finishing specifications. With the wide range of sustainable practice methods and materials that have been emerging since the 2000s, we are now more well-equipped than ever to make environmentally conscious choices in our designs and thus, make an impact both within and beyond the practice itself.
Specifying sustainable furniture, fixtures, finishes, and materials
One of the most important contributions that interior design practice can make towards sustainability is specifying sustainable FF&E (furniture, fixture, and equipment) and interior finishes. Since there are so many different components of sustainability and sustainable design, there are many specific ways to approach this.
Many materials used in interior design either have their own sustainability certifications or are made from renewable sources or recycled materials. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council certifies wood that comes from responsibly managed forests. Also, an increasing number of smaller manufacturers are offering products made from repurposed materials such as reclaimed wood. By specifying these products and working with these manufacturers, we not only reduce the carbon and ecological footprint of our own design solution and projects but also contribute to and encourage the businesses of environmentally conscious manufacturers.
Another way that interior designers can make an impact is by specifying energy-efficient light fixtures, plumbing equipment, and other electrical appliances. Examples include LED lights, water-saving faucets, and showerheads, and ENERGY STAR-labelled appliances. These help clients to save both cost and the environment, in the long run. Furthermore, as sustainability became a more pressing issue over the past decade, brands are now offering a wider range of designs for these greener options, so that designers and clients, no longer have to sacrifice aesthetics or style to be eco-friendly.
When it comes to finishes such as interior paint, carpets, vinyl flooring, varnishes and finishes, interior designers can help to create a greener and healthier environment by specifying products that have low or zero VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions as well as other toxic compounds. While many commercial paint brands such as Behr and Benjamin Moore are already offering such options, many furniture may still contain toxic chemicals that are used as flame retardants. It is easy to overlook these details and so we must remember to pay extra attention when it comes to these items.
Integrating sustainability into the design process
Apart from specifying greener materials, integrating sustainability as a major consideration into the overall design process might be a more effective approach to achieving real environmental impacts. In fact, green design and planning for sustainability can and should begin in the earliest stages of design. For instance, programming spaces that are flexible to changes is one way of potentially minimizing the need for renovation in the long run. Instead of blocking out spaces with solid walls, designing movable or folding partitions might be a more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly solution that accommodates a series of foreseeable changes to space.
Also, planning for minimal energy consumption might be another approach. This is especially relevant for lighting in both cases- abundance and scarcity of natural light in an indoor environment. Whichever the circumstance, minimal partitioning, and a lighter interior palette both go a long way in reducing the need for electric lighting, as light can enter and reflect in the space. Similarly, carpets are found to be effective at reducing heat loss and hence, reduce electric consumption that otherwise would have been needed to heat interior spaces during winters.
Encouraging education and leadership in green design
Many interior design firms offer lunch and learn programs where specific brands come in to give a presentation of their latest products. By actively participating in such programs, design firms and individual designers can stay up-to-date on the newest technologies and green design solutions that brands are offering. Partnerships between design firms and manufacturing companies also bring about and encourage more green businesses within and beyond the field.
Additionally, interior design firms and companies could do more to encourage their employees and designers to earn certifications in sustainable design, as part of an effort to become a more environmentally conscious practice. Examples of internationally-recognized certifications such as the LEED Green Associates and the LEED AP ID+C (Interior Design + Construction) credentials are offered in conjunction with the Green Business Certification Inc. and the US Green Building Council. These certifications acknowledge individual designers in their commitment to green design practice as well as inspire designers to attain leadership in green design practices and set a role model for other interior designers. Since, such certifications consist of a continuing education component in addition to the initial examination, and require a sustained effort to maintain, they are more than just titles and credentials to a name, and instead offer continued to learn learning opportunities to become a more environmentally conscious designer.
Sustainability in interior design practice is not something that can be achieved overnight, nor is it about creating an immediate or visual impact. Rather, it is a specific perspective and approach to design that we as designers must consciously cultivate if we really want to make a positive impact on the health of the people and the environment.