If the environment was the only priority, the design strategy would be straightforward: Specify only finishes, materials and furnishings that are recycled, recyclable, high performance, non-toxic and locally made. But, in reality, other factors come into play: The project has to look good, the products have to exist and the client has to be willing to pay for them.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that people spend 90 percent of their time indoors. That’s a long time to be in proximity to anything. As a result, interior designers have the onus of designing spaces that are not only aesthetic and productive, but also eco-friendly and healthy. Fortunately, technological and manufacturing advances prodded by market demand have led to more green products that work and look better. And the momentum is driving sustainability in new directions, seven of which follow.
1. Novelty becomes reality. Green products that once sounded too good to be true are coming to fruition. Such products are improving user experience and building performance, and they can be easily integrated in high-design environments. Recyclable carpet tiles sporting biophilic patterns and recycled rubber–backed flooring that cushions impact and dampens sound have been on the market for years. New products include self-cleaning tableware by Innventia (still in prototyping), Onyx Solar’s nonslip glass flooring with embedded micro-size — essentially transparent — photovoltaic cells, and KI’s AirCarbon chairs made from plastic resin derived from greenhouse gases. It’s risky to be an early adopter of product innovations, but acceptance by the design industry will encourage clients and manufacturers to depart from the tried, the true and the inefficient.
2. Smart-looking, smarter controls. An increasing number of building systems and controls can self-optimize or can be automated. But with improvements in product design and user interface along with increased occupant interest in energy usage, controls no longer have to be housed in an awkward box on prominent wall real estate. Nest Labs, Honeywell and Venstar offer Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats that make decent design objects or that can be customized with screen backgrounds or cover plates to coordinate with the interior design. Startup Goldee likewise brings clean design to lighting controls. Sensors and wireless networks allow different building systems, such as electric lighting and shading devices, to communicate with one another and monitor conditions outside without the clutter of cable trays and raceways. Better design also has upgraded the appearance of equipment such as radiators and hand dryers. These improvements enable designers to worry less about the functions disrupting the form, which may lead them to begin to embrace controls as design elements.
3. Bespoke products at your fingertips. 3-D printing is exploding, but it’s only one of the design-to-fabrication technologies now within reach. Multi-material printing is opening the door for more affordable custom furnishings, but savvy manufacturers also are opening their own production lines to become virtually accessible, large-scale rapid prototyping machines. Companies such as A. Zahner Co., Fireclay Tile and 3Form offer web-based tools to design one-off finishes at competitive prices. These advanced production methods can reduce material waste because components are made as needed, and they also can reduce energy consumed by the warehousing and transportation of materials. Moreover, designers can give clients custom, budget-friendly and eco-conscious products.
4. Efficient lighting takes shape. The past decade’s rapid shift from incandescent lamps is long overdue. With high-wattage lamps on the banned list, LED-powered sources are filling product catalogs and store shelves. Due to the existing fixture stock, manufacturers are backward engineering LEDs to work with the drivers and form factors that are suited for conventional sources — incandescent, halogen and fluorescent — but don’t necessarily leverage LEDs’ energy efficiency. As the use and availability of LED luminaires expand, manufacturers are exploring new form factors. Philips recently released SlimStyle A Shape, an LED lamp that admittedly looks like an incandescent bulb put through the wringer, but has a form that’s thermally advantageous for LEDs. Flexible, organic LEDs (OLEDs) will provide greater possibilities once the technology is further developed. These eye-catching geometries can help designers steer clients away from the traditional notion of a luminaire and reduce energy consumption simultaneously.
5. Collaboration among third-party certification programs. Manufacturers are navigating the waters of proprietary to the land of product transparency. But with the panoply of third-party certification programs and organizations, designers have the daunting task of knowing which accreditations pertain to which product categories and then interpreting the information disclosed. Just because a product is Greenguard certified or listed in the Pharos Project database doesn’t mean it’s free of VOCs. Collaboration is always talked about in design, but now the third-party certifiers are jumping on the bandwagon. The Health Product Declaration Collaborative recently announced that it is developing an official protocol for third-party verification among seven major certification programs. For specifiers, this means that a straightforward, user-friendly and universal format for explaining a product’s makeup and potential health risks is coming.
6. Occupant competition. Complementing product transparency is building transparency through post-occupancy benchmarking, which increasingly more jurisdictions are mandating. Intelligent building management systems and third-party monitoring services have eased the process while feeding into the nebulous buzz term that is big data. On the plus side, if owners become comfortable sharing the data through social media and with tools such as the Lucid Design Group’s Building Dashboard and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Dynamic Plaque, these monitoring systems not only check whether green design is actually green, but also can spawn competition among building owners and tenants to see who can reduce their carbon footprints the most. Designers who specify products, such as shading systems and luminaires, that can communicate with central monitoring systems can aid in the race to energy efficiency.
7. Social responsibility. No client ever highlights a mass-produced workstation, and boasting about a piece made from scarce, exotic resources is carrying more of a stigma. Instead, building owners are bragging about furniture made from salvaged materials, such as old seating booths from the defunct restaurant down the street, which do double duty as being environmentally and socially responsible. Designers can encourage clients to consider salvaged materials — which likewise can carry a stigma — by researching the stories behind the sustainable products that they want clients to approve. Repurposed materials aren’t new, but their increased use in contract spaces highlights the need for an organized, online marketplace and inventory system. With luck, websites such as PlanetReuse and American Builder Surplus will become more populated and robust. But social responsibility is about more than just sustainable materials, energy efficiency and the local economy. It’s also about the people behind the products and the working conditions that they endure. As such, programs that focus on social equity, such as the International Living Future Institute’s Just platform, should become a frequent reference for designers.
Opportunities for designers to wave their green flag are abundant. Choosing products that are high quality, durable, demountable and salvageable certainly factor into the eco-friendly equation. But advances in building materials, manufacturing and systems are increasing the options that designers have to implement sustainable design practices. One day, the path to environmentally responsible design may be a breeze after all.
Wanda Lau, LEED AP, is a senior editor at Hanley Wood Media, Inc., where she covers products and technology for Architect, Residential Architect, EcoBuilding Pulse, and Architectural Lighting magazines.