Sustainable Design. What Exactly is It?

Interior design

‘Wisdom is not that you can live sustainably, if you help the natural world, the world becomes a better place for everybody’ David Attenborough

Shockingly the United kingdom, alone, creates 200million tonnes of waste each year.  It is estimated 12 million tonnes of household waste is actually thrown away for recycling. So, what is sustainable design?  Sustainable design is, designing in a manner which is not detrimental to the environment, socially and economically; Architects and Interior Designers, both have a responsibility to design sustainably.  This is not a new concept that, but it has been present since the 1990s.    Now however, sustainable living is seen by the majority of people as a global need, to protect the planet for future generations.  This growth in the need for sustainable design has been proliferated by the internet and social media.  But my research of the very social media channels that raise awareness of sustainable living seldom describe how sustainable designs may be achieved without the comprehensive (and often expensive) services of an Architect or Interior Designer comprehensive.  So, how can you create sustainable designs?

Traditional practices of built environment development, both architectural and interior design, adopt a linear approach, which comprises a throw-away culture, take-make-waste.  The good news is that new concepts align to the circular economy.   Not only the latest buzz-word in design, circular economy requires a totally different mindset to the linear method.  This involves re-thinking how we design.  Designing with a mindset, which when selecting materials, these products can be re-used when they are finished with.  Therefore, avoiding waste and the development of large landfills.  As the Eleanor McCarthy Foundation cites, its aim is to ‘design out waste (designing for durability); keep products and materials in use (design for reuse and remanufacturing); and the regeneration of our natural systems’. 

Therefore, designing in a manner, whereby materials can be re-used requires us to consider the ‘Life Cycle’ (cradle to cradle) of all materials required in a project.  This includes not just the products, which are visible in the design of a space, but the materials beneath these.  For instance, in the construction of the walls, floors and ceilings, and the products used for fixing products, like tile adhesives.  The life cycle view includes identifying the following:

  • Extraction of raw materials out of the ground (what are these?).
  • The manufacturing process of the product (how and what it entails, does it require lots of energy, water and addition of toxic chemicals?).
  • Transportation of the product (where is it coming from?  If it is coming from overseas this will increase the products carbon footprint.  Can you buy it locally?).
  • End of life, (is the product bio-degradable or recyclable/re-useable?).

The lifecycle view is a great tool, which can be used by anyone when designing a space.  But another consideration should be ‘do I really need it?  What will it add to my design?  Does it work within my design?   Additionally, sustainable design involves looking at how we heat and light a space.  The aim being, reducing the energy needs of the building, which can be achieved by a number of methods. For instance, light and thermo sensors.   Therefore, decreasing its effects on the environment.  Daylighting is a great method of lighting our home and work spaces, when implemented correctly.  Not only will it reduce your energy consumption, but it is a softer and more subtle form of lighting.  Don’t forget water.  Reducing water consumption is also another key factor, which needs to be considered, when designing/re-designing a building.  There are a number of different things, which you can included to help you reduce your water consumption.  Methods of conserving energy and water are constantly changing.  An extreme but surprisingly realistic option is to go off grid and to create your own energy for heat and light.

If you are using the skills of an architect or interior designer, there are international systems, depending where you are in the world, which they can guide sustainable designs.  This includes the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), an American system.  In the United Kingdom, BREEAM, which according to BREEAM ‘is a sustainability assessment method for master planning, projects, infrastructure and buildings’.  

In creating sustainable spaces will also help to improve the internal air quality of our homes and workspaces.  Shockingly, Oakes Englishman (2020) writes, ‘in the United states of America the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes the effects of volatile organic compounds (VOCS) are about 2-5 times higher indoors than outdoors.   VOCs are found in many products like paint and furniture finishes.  It is not just VOCs, which are the issue in causing poor internal air quality, other chemicals may be contained in your home’s materials like formaldehyde.  Therefore, the internal air quality of spaces can be lower than outside.  In designing sustainably, not only are we protecting the planet, but further promoting and protecting the health and wellbeing of family, friends and work colleagues.  Below are some tips on designing sustainably:  

Top Tips:

  • Adopt a circular economy approach, rethink design methods, reuse and recycle.
  • Look at the lifecycle of all products (including how they are sourced.  Is it from sustainable sources?  For instance, wood sourced sustainably will be certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council).
  • Don’t forget to look at the finish of a product (lacquers etc)
  • Be sure to know what is in the product.  If not available on the tin/label contact the manufacturer directly.
  • Include Light emitting diodes (LED lighting).
  • Utilise as much day-light within the design.  Look at ways this can be implemented/increased within the design (for instance sunlight transportation systems).
  • Include sustainable methods, which will help insulate a space.
  • Look at alternative methods for making electricity, solar panels etc.
  • Include methods which will reduce water consumption.
  • Buy second-hand products for instance furniture.  Second hand furniture will not create as much off-gassing, depending on the age of the furniture.  
  • Hire furniture.
  • Reuse existing materials into the new design.
  • Buy locally.
  • Use local services.
  • Don’t throw things away, donate to charity or second-hand stores. 
  • If building your own home, why not consider going off-grid?

To Conclude

There are lots of great products and methods now available, which can help you create sustainable and healthy buildings and spaces.  The points included above should offer some initial guidance to help you achieve your sustainable design.  Sustainability is about protecting the environment and yourself.    Once you lift the lid and start exploring what products are sustainable, I think you will be surprised by what you find, especially when you discover some of the things that are contained in traditional materials.  I know that I haven’t mentioned animal-friendly design, but this will be featured in my next article.  However, you can find additional information on animal friendly and sustainable products in previous articles blogs, located on the features page of my website.

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