What is Sustainable Design?

 
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"It's not the solution itself that is necessarily radical, but the shift in perspective with which we begin, from the old view of nature as something to be controlled to a stance of engagement."

                                                               ~William McDonough and Michael Braungart, co-authors of Cradle to Cradle~

 

So, what is Sustainable Design?  Architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart are among the great minds of our time who are working diligently to re-define and discover new solutions in the ever-evolving subject of sustainable design.  If you would like a more in-depth and eloquently stated exploration of the topic, I suggest reading McDonough/Braungart's definitive pair of books, Cradle to Cradle and The Upcycle.   They look at two distinct closed-loop systems:  biological nutrients and technical nutrients.  They argue that every product should fit into one of these two categories, and at the end of its life cycle should either go back to the earth as a biological nutrient or be recycled as a technical nutrient for manufacture as a new product.  This cyclical way of approaching design creates a zero-waste way of living, which is in line with natural systems and ensures a long-term future for all.

To summarize the concept of sustainable design, I would say that the overarching idea is to design, build, create, and live in a way that ensures the long-term health of both humanity and our environment for the future.  This includes the Earth itself, its systems (soil cycle, water cycle, etc.) its inhabitants (plant, animal), and its finite resources (water, minerals, etc).

What does that mean for Interior Designers?  It means that we are in a unique position to guide clients towards more healthy and responsible choices when it comes to products, building methods, and design elements.  You may ask, what guides us in our decision making?

The Triple Bottom Line.  In their first book, Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart outline the triple-bottom-line that must be met to satisfy the sourcing side of sustainability:  this includes ecology, equity, and economy - simplified to mean PEOPLE, PLANET, and PROFIT.  When designing a product or service, it should be beneficial to the people and community making it, safe for the planet, and ultimately profitable in order to work. 

The Triple Top Line.  The triple top line is more of a conventional method of product qualification and includes cost, aesthetics, and performance.  A business must again be able to profit from the product at a reasonable price point, and offer value to the consumer.  Additionally, the product must delight the end user, and it must be functional.

Sustainable Design.   A larger global perspective on design that considers the health and welfare of global ecosystems and how they support life for all generations.

Green Building.  A more focused design perspective that addresses the health, safety, and welfare of humans as they interact with the built environment.

Local and Regional Sourcing.  Considering fossil fuel costs during procurement, while also supporting the local economy and local trades/artisans.

Fair Trade.  Ensuring that products are made by artists and craftspeople who are treated fairly, have a safe and healthy work environment, and receive an honest wage for their work.

Designers are also on the lookout for greenwashing.  This is when a company or product makes false claims about being environmentally responsible for the purpose of creating a specific brand image.  It's also important to make sure that the architecture/design/build community are upholding our end of the bargain - this is an ongoing process that involves constantly curating and checking out our own sources within the scope of each new project.

 
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Third Party Certifications

Interior Designers, Architects, and material specifiers rely on Third-Party Certifications (also referred to as eco-labels) to ensure that the products we specify and source are in fact sustainable and are not a result of greenwashing (see definition above). 

These organizations are typically independent, not-for-profit, and dedicated to screening and testing products and systems for both environmental and human safety.  While there are thousands of such certifications to look for, some notable third-party certifications that are relevant to the Interior Design Profession include: 

- Greenguard:   Certifies products and coatings based on how they affect indoor air quality.  VOC's (Volatile Organic Compounds) can release toxins into your home over time during or after installation.  There are two levels of approval:  Certified (low-emitting) and Gold (very low to no emission).

- FSC Certified:  The Forestry Stewardship Council certifies paper and wood products that are made from trees in responsibly managed forests, focusing on environmental, social, and economic impact.

- EnergyStar:  Identifies energy-efficient products

- WaterSense:  Identifies water-efficient products

- Cradle to Cradle:  Products are examined in five quality categories — material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.  For each product, each category is rated Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum certification.  The product's overall rating is represented by the lowest category mark.  (c2ccertified.org)

- Green Seal:  "Promotes the manufacture, purchase, and use of environmentally responsible products and services" (greenseal.org).

 

Now that we've covered some basic terminology, let's explore why sustainability is so important, why we should all care about it, and most importantly how we can in fact do something about it!

 
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Why is sustainable design important?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Building Sector consumes nearly half (47.6%) of all energy produced in the United States*. Seventy-five percent (74.9%) of all the electricity produced in the U.S. is used just to operate buildings. Globally, these percentages are even greater. [...]
The building sector was responsible for nearly half (44.6%) of U.S. CO2 emissions in 2010. By comparison, transportation accounted for 34.3% of CO2 emissions and industry just 21.1%
— architecture2030.org
 

Yikes!  Those are some powerful statistics!  The good news is that many of these buildings will either be remodeled or rebuilt in the years to come - it's not all doomsday.  In 2002, architect Edward Mazria founded the Architecture 2030 Challenge, a non-profit organization that encourages a path toward carbon-neutral design for buildings, city planning, and products.  The aim of the organization is to advance regional infrastructures to be more sustainable and reduce fossil fuel consumption with an overall goal of carbon-neutral buildings by the year 2030 (architecture2030.org).

How cool is that?  Just by making a conscious effort to design and build differently, it's possible to make a huge impact.  Many advances have already been made in commercial building design, but we're not there yet - there is also still a great deal of improvement to be made in the residential sector.  I hope to see a continued increase in demand for sustainable architecture and design in the Nashville area as well as throughout the southern region of the United States.  The technology is there, and homeowners have the power to ask for something different and change the way residential buildings and neighborhoods are being designed moving forward.

 
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Why should we care about sustainable design?

 
ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH   A view of the Bridger Mountain Range near Bozeman, Montana where I grew up.  The mountains are formed on the edge of Gallatin Valley, where at 4,000 feet above sea level the Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson Rivers converge to form the Headwaters of the Missouri River.  I spent many childhood weekends with my family hiking, camping, and communing with nature in general, and learning to appreciate what the environment has to offer.  The forest was also our preferred source of heat during the winter, so I experienced just how much energy it involves to cut down a tree, carry smaller pieces down (or up) the hill to the truck, and eventually convert that wood into usable heat energy back home.  My dad made sure that my brother and I were aware of the critical difference between clear-cutting an entire patch of forest and respectfully removing a tree that had already reached its expiration date.  I learned that with thoughtfulness and patience, both the forest and the fireplace can have what they need to maintain through another winter.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

A view of the Bridger Mountain Range near Bozeman, Montana where I grew up.  The mountains are formed on the edge of Gallatin Valley, where at 4,000 feet above sea level the Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson Rivers converge to form the Headwaters of the Missouri River.  I spent many childhood weekends with my family hiking, camping, and communing with nature in general, and learning to appreciate what the environment has to offer.  The forest was also our preferred source of heat during the winter, so I experienced just how much energy it involves to cut down a tree, carry smaller pieces down (or up) the hill to the truck, and eventually convert that wood into usable heat energy back home.  My dad made sure that my brother and I were aware of the critical difference between clear-cutting an entire patch of forest and respectfully removing a tree that had already reached its expiration date.  I learned that with thoughtfulness and patience, both the forest and the fireplace can have what they need to maintain through another winter.

 

We all have our own reasons as to why we should care about sustainable design.  For me, growing up in Montana and living in Tennessee as an adult taught me the value of the ecosystem and its fragility.  It is our responsibility as inhabitants of this planet to take care of it, and we have everything we need to make a difference today.  Right now.  It all boils down to individual choices that lead to tangible results on a larger scale (i.e. - on a societal level).

Everyone must find their own personal reason to champion sustainability.  Because it is personal.  Our world is made up of a multitude of delicately balanced relationships that we call biodiversity.  It is this balance that must be maintained in order for all systems to run smoothly.  I'm sure you have a place that you'd like to preserve - somewhere you can catch a wave, feel the wind, dip your feet in the surf, or ride the powder...where do you go to escape and recharge?  How can we use the tools of design to infuse that "...ahhhhhhh..." feeling into our daily lives and connect with nature at work, home, and play?

 
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How can we do something about it?

The bottom line is that we have a limited amount of resources, and the pressure is on to make sure there's enough to go around.  In order to ensure the future, however, do we really need to use less resources?  I am not alone in believing the contrary - nature is a system of abundance!  In nature, growth is a good thing and every end leads to a new beginning.  It's an old adage, but it rings true in natural systems;  can that cyclical way of thinking be applied to the built environment?  Of course it can, and that is the heart of sustainable design

    New products and building methods are constantly being developed by examining the full life-cycle of a material and asking the right questions: 

    • Where does this material come from?  Is it safe?
    • Do the sourcing and/or manufacturing processes cause harm to people and/or the environment? 
    • How does this product get to where it's going?  How far does it have to travel to get there?
    • What will happen to it when it is no longer in use? 
    • Could it be used again later in the same capacity?  In a different way? 

    Architects, designers, engineers, and city planners are also asking:

    • Can we build structures that can be 100% recycled when they're demolished? 
    • Can we eliminate waste during the building process through smart design? 
    • Can we use only non-toxic materials in the built environment?
    • Can we connect people to nature - even while they're at work, or on the bus, or sleeping at home? 

    These questions must be asked in order to achieve better design, to live and enjoy more, and to exist abundantly while contributing to that natural cycle of replenishing what we take from the Earth.  Each project must be viewed as an opportunity to think outside the box, devise new solutions, and continue to clear the path toward smarter design.

     
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    Smarter Design...

    Sustainably designed products and homes lead to long-term profit for businesses and create happy customers.  Workspaces that consider natural light, indoor air quality, and views to the outdoors result in happy, healthy, more productive employees and less turnover.  In the sustainably designed home, incorporating these principles elevates  day-to-day existence by creating an environment that cultivates wellness, peace of mind, and interconnection.

     

    I like to look at sustainable design as a broad spectrum; there's so much you can do within your own home without embarking on a complete overhaul.  Making sure your home has a sealed building envelope, for example, can greatly reduce your energy consumption and increase the effectiveness of your HVAC systems, resulting in a more comfortable and efficient home. 

    Sustainable design is not necessarily a 100% off-grid, LEED Platinum certified home (although it certainly can be...and we love those!) but sustainable design is ALWAYS thinking differently about your approach to design and doing as much as possible to minimize your environmental impact while creating your own system of abundance.

     
    https://en.vogue.fr

    NETFLIX and builllld...

     

    If you love architecture, design, and nature - check out "The World's Most Extraordinary Homes".  I found this mini-series on Netflix this month, and they are so well done that I admittedly binge-watched all four episodes in one night.  Beautifully shot, and very entertaining hosts!  Link below...

    "Award-winning architect Piers Taylor and actress/property enthusiast Caroline Quentin travel the world to tour unconventional homes in extreme places." (Netflix.com)

    https://www.netflix.com/title/80213025

     

    Something to leaf through...

    Read more from two of the top leaders in thought on Sustainability.  FUN FACT - The books themselves are technical nutrients, printed with Melcher Media's DuraBook technology.  They are waterproof, very durable, and recyclable.

    Cradle to Cradle:  Remaking the Way we Make Things (2002) by Michael Braungart and William McDonough.  Available on Amazon.

    The Upcycle:  Beyond Sustainability -- Designing for Abundance (2013) by Michael Braungart and William McDonough.  Available on Amazon.

     
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    That concludes the April 2018 edition of the MOTIV Monthly!  Comments are encouraged below. 

     

    Next Month...

    Join us May 1st for an exciting recap of the 2018 Dwell on Design Conference in Los Angeles, California - celebrating innovation in design and architecture, as well as products and technology for the modern home.  We will also focus on indoor/outdoor living and include a few pro tips you can use in your own outdoor space.

    Cheers! 

    Anna M. Caro

    Owner/Interior Designer, MOTIV Interiors LLC

    Design with Intention.

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    Comment below...

    Creating a discussion is an key element of the sustainability movement!  Please comment below, and we also welcome your suggestions for topics of interest.