by Guest Blogger, Jennifer Davidson, Allied ASID, LEED AP
By now you’ve heard about the “green design” movement – the idea that interior designers and architects can design and build in a way that is more in tune with nature; healthier, and more sustainable. While it still is not possible to completely avoid industrially-produced products that are made with chemicals, it is possible to make smarter choices, both as a designer and as a consumer. Here’s how to work with your designer to achieve a healthier, greener interior for your home or office.
First, if you haven’t read my earlier post about working with a designer, you should. It will help you make an informed decision for what will be a long and involved relationship. When you are seeking a sustainable designer, in addition to all those things that I already covered, you also want to inquire about your potential designer’s credentials and education in green design.
Ask these questions: Where did he or she study? Is their degree from an accredited program or school? When did they pass the exam or graduate? How many projects have they worked on? Did their projects achieve a certified status? Can they provide references?
Once you are satisfied with your designer’s qualifications, you can begin to explore the specifics of green design for your project with them. Keep these things in mind:
Sustainable design is not a pass/fail result; rather, there are a range of choices from ‘less bad’ to ‘extremely beneficial’. It’s important to make the choices that feel authentic for you, and meet your criteria based on a personal value scale.
Cost is one factor that will affect your choices. While there are many more green choices in the marketplace now than ever before, it is still true that you will have to pay more for more sustainable options. Your designer can evaluate how to present these options to you when you tell them what your price range is.
Light green versus dark green is another consideration: Some materials and products will be better than others, even within the sustainable product marketplace. Some will be manufactured using a more sustainable process, perhaps mitigating the fact that it is man-made instead of a natural product. A great place to find out information on green design products is the Cradle-to-Cradle Certified Products Registry. This site evaluates not only building and construction products and furniture, but also home cleaning and care products, so you can maintain your healthy interiors throughout their lifecycle.
Another important factor to consider when designing is location. Because of the amount of resources required to move something from one place to another, the closer that material or product is to your project site, the more sustainable that choice is. So if you can choose something made at a local factory or by a local craftsperson, instead of having it shipped from another country or even another state, you’re already making a more sustainable choice, as well as supporting your local economy!
Of course, you should choose natural products whenever possible, they provide great benefits. For example, a wool rug is naturally fire-retardant, which means you can avoid using chemicals to meet fire code standards. Wool is also anti-bacterial, helping to ward off infections. It’s produced in a low-impact method, by shearing a living animal and then spinning it into strands instead of using chemicals in a plant or killing an animal to take its hide. Wool is soft and warm to the touch, creating a sensual environment that’s enjoyable. And it’s hard-wearing and easy to maintain without additional chemicals.
If you can’t use a natural product, re-use something that already exists. Buy moulding taken from a home that was torn down; find kitchen cabinets that someone else has removed; score a metal railing from a scrapyard. If you can’t re-use something directly, then choose an item that is repurposed. Wood from a former barn used as flooring; a door turned into a table; create a seat from an old wine barrel – let your creativity loose and it can be really fun! And if you can’t re-use or repurpose, then choose products that are made from recycled materials. This contributes to a more sustainable environment overall as well as a healthier indoor environment.
What are some other sustainable design factors that contribute to healthy interior environments? I’m glad you asked!
One of the most important factors in a healthy interior is air quality. To create or maintain healthy indoor air quality, your designer should include plenty of fresh air by providing working windows that can be opened and closed at the comfort of residents, or they can ensure that your heating and cooling system includes regular ventilation with fresh air. A closed system that recirculates interior air without allowing fresh air in and used air out will quickly become unhealthy and leads to problems such as sick building syndrome.
The biggest factor besides ventilation that affects air quality, and is the main reason you need ventilation in the first place, is off-gassing. Off-gassing is the release of gasses from inside a material that were trapped when frozen or absorbed into the material. This happens to both man-made and organic materials, and off-gassing is constantly occurring. You may have noticed that if you place an item into a box or closed container, when you open it later, you detect a distinctive smell. That smell is off-gassing. It’s the reason for new-car smell, the reason that furniture smells when it’s new, and all other materials including flooring, wallpaper, paint, fabrics and textiles, wood, everything around you is constantly off-gassing, though the rate slows as the item ages, and materials such as stone have a much slower rate to begin with. For this reason, you may wish to choose antiques or pre-owned furniture or materials, to reduce the effects of off-gassing. If you do choose newly-manufactured items, you can mitigate the off-gassing by regularly flushing the interior air for a period of days to weeks after your materials and furniture is installed. Your sustainable designer will be able to give you advice on how to achieve this.
Going back to the idea of dark green versus light green, here’s how that value range might present itself, and how you might make choices using your new-found knowledge of sustainable design. If you really want the look of Goncalo Alves wood, also known as Tigerwood or South American Zebrawood, harvested from the jungles of Brazil, and desire to use more sustainable design practices, you may want to use an engineered wood instead. This will involve a series of additional choices that are more or less green. While engineered wood does use a combination of glues and high pressure to create layers, you can seek out a company that uses low-VOC (volotile organic compound) glues to mitigate the off-gassing. Even better if that company is locally-based. Better still if they use greywater in their factory processes instead of potable drinking water.
Another factor that contributes to a healthy interior environment is controllable lighting. The ability to turn lighting off and on for specific tasks, and to provide a basic standard of lighting that is not wasteful of electricity, is very important in interior design. Each state has specific minimum standards that your designer must achieve in order to meet code, but I suggest that they should do more than just the minimum. They should strive to maximize the benefits while minimizing the energy usage in all instances, which means throughout the home or office, not just in the kitchen or bathroom. This is where you will want to work closely with your designer, helping them understand what your needs and desires are, and how you will use the spaces. Energy use reduction is one of the biggest contributors in more sustainable design.
So now that you are armed with an understanding of what your options are, how to make the best choices for you, and how to work with a sustainable designer, I hope you will consider making your next renovation or home improvement project a sustainable one. We spend 90% or more of our time indoors, so the indoor environment needs to be valued equally as the outdoors. Your health is just too precious to ignore!
JENNIFER DAVIDSON is a LEED Accredited Professional and holds an M.F.A. in Interior Architecture and Design from the Academy of Art University. She is the Social Media Chair for ASID California North Chapter and consults with interior design professionals on their small business needs. Contact her via makesocialmediaeasy.squarespace.com