Last week I did a live webinar on green interior design on a virtual trade show website called GreenExpo365.com. I’ve done presentations and seminars at trade shows, but this is the first time I’ve done one sitting in my office in my jeans, so it was pretty cool. The presentation was called “Sustainability with Style” and I discussed how far we’ve come in the realm of green interiors in the past few years.
Green design in its infancy was all about bamboo floors and fluorescent light bulbs. And as far as finding green furniture and interior products, it was all very modern looking, linear stuff that was arguably very pretty, but wasn’t for everyone. Today’s green furniture and cabinetry has many different looks and designs, from the modern to the traditional so there’s no compromise in terms of style.
Also, defining ‘green’ 10 years ago was very different that it is today. We’ve learned along the way that it’s not only about alternative products like bamboo, but it also addresses indoor air quality, sustainable forestry initiatives, water conservation, and more. The green ‘playing field’ keeps changing every day, as manufacturers are changing the way they design and produce their products. This is all good news, but trying to keep up with what’s going on out there can be confusing. For example, here are some questions that I’ve been hearing lately:
If bamboo flooring is so much better than using hardwood flooring, how come it’s okay to have it shipped half way around the world? If we used local hardwoods, wouldn’t we also save by not burning more fossil fuel to get it to us?
If I see a pesticide free organic cotton sheet set that’s made overseas, should I buy it? Or should I buy one that’s made in this country, but isn’t organic? How do I know it’s organic anyway?
If I buy a water saving toilet that’s made in Australia, am I really saving anything? What about the fuel it takes to get it here, and the CO2 emissions?
Many manufacturers are quick to tell you that their product is green, even though you have no way of knowing that it is. How do you find out? Navigating through the maze of green products that are out there can be so confusing that you might just give up and stick with what you’ve done in the past, green or not.
In my opinion, it’s all about trade-offs. We are in the business of selling products, green or not. We are all trying to make a living, and it certainly is challenging in the current economy. It’s NOT a perfect world, and being perfectly green may or may not happen. What I try to do is achieve some sort of a balance between what I think the client should have vs. what they want vs. their budget. It’s that simple.
Let’s look at a ‘not so perfectly green’ kitchen remodel:
MDF doors on maple plywood boxes painted with low VOC paints- The MDF and plywood have no added urea formaldehyde
Cabinetry is made locally
Soapstone countertop is a natural product, but comes from Brazil
Fluorescent pendants over island
FSC certified hardwood floor, waterborne finish
Energy Star appliances
Here’s the tradeoff: The client always wanted soapstone top, which is a mined product (not renewable) from Brazil. So it’s not only about the fact that the countertop is taken from the earth and doesn’t ‘grow back’, but that it’s also shipped from a long distance, burning fossil fuels and adding to CO2 emissions.
But that’s OK. It’s a natural product, one that can be re-purposed after its initial usefulness is over, and won’t leach out any toxic chemicals into a landfill. It’s sealed every 6 months with food grade mineral oil, so there’s no chemical additives, which is great for the user, and also doesn’t off-gas fumes and contribute to poor indoor air quality.
Also, because it was something the client really wanted, I asked her to try to use the highest tier EnergyStar appliances available as a trade-off to the imported countertop. And the FSC certified wood floor, fluorescent lights, etc. So, one non-green item isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker.
We may never be able to achieve perfection in green design. I honestly feel that anything that’s well designed, enduring, high quality and well built is halfway there anyway. As far as I’m concerned, the worst thing you can do is the ‘quick fix’. Too many of the TV shows you see on design involve quick, temporary fixes, satisfying the user for a short period. Then what? It’s the trip to the landfill, and buying more STUFF to replace the stuff you just threw out.
My advice is to THINK – just think about each product and what its impact will be, and decide from there what you want to do. It’s not that difficult if you tackle it that way.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy what’s ahead. It’s all good.
The other day I was listening to an hour long webinar on the Green Expo 365 website by my friend and colleague, Sarah Susanka. I have known Sarah for several years now, and in recent years have designed the interiors for two of her show houses at the International Builder’s Show.
When I was first introduced to Sarah and her philosophy of building smaller, well designed high quality homes, I felt this immediate kinship and a sort of sense of relief that there were actually a lot of people out there that felt the same way I did about the current state of building in America. The McMansion was a fixture on the building scene, and it always bothered me that people actually liked the idea that they were walking into what I believed to be a bus or train station instead of their foyer or living room. As an interior designer, there’s nothing more challenging than trying to take a room with a 20 foot ceiling and making it not only livable but cozy.
More than ten years later, we’ve come a long way and there are millions of people who actually GET IT and understand the value of good building and design, and what it means to live sustainably. What I am still confounded about is the number of people who DON’T get it.
A good example of what I mean is something that came up last week with a contractor friend of mine. His clients are embarking on a kitchen renovation, and he asked me if I would look over the new design and layout and render an opinion, as he had concerns about it. Now I normally do not ever critique another designer’s work, so I told him I would look at the plan, but any comments I made were confidential, and he could decide for himself if his concerns were valid, and then inform his client.
The new design wasn’t very good, and had a couple of really bad flaws, like placing a 36 inch refrigerator directly behind a cook top, so whoever was cooking would literally have to move out of the way to let someone use the refrigerator. I think it’s pretty scary that a design professional with several affiliations (ASID, USGBC, etc.) and the like could make such an error. I don’t blame the homeowner at all, as dumb as that sounds. I think they figured if they pay someone with credentials a considerable fee, and get a glitzy 3D dollhouse rendering of the kitchen, that it’s a “good plan”. One of the other problems with the design was the appliance selection. The homeowner had selected very high end appliances, and a LOT of them. In a 14 x 13 space, there was a double oven, peninsula downdraft cook top, 36 inch single door refrigerator, 27 inch full height freezer, microwave, and a warming drawer. Hmmm. Apparently there are people out there who still feel it necessary to buy every expensive “status” appliance available that has every bell and whistle, and try to jam it all into a space that’s way too small.
I think it’s so important that the design professional, whoever they are, take a step back and evaluate exactly what the heck they are doing for their clients. I understand that there’s money to be made on expensive design packages, but letting you client know that they simply cannot fit all those appliances into such a small space should be the FIRST thing they do. I’m not saying that they’ll get a good response, some homeowners are stubborn and immoveable, and quite honestly some are downright irritating. But having a client spend well over 60,000 dollars on a kitchen renovation and not having it function properly at all can be a real liability. I don’t know if there would be any legal recourse when it comes to accepting and implementing a bad design, but I do know that if I paid that kind of money for a renovation that didn’t work well, I’d be really angry.
So what am I getting at? There are design professionals who are going to make a mistake, and clients who will pay no matter what. But we, as those design professionals, have an obligation to our clients to try to deliver not only a good strong design, but advise them if you feel what they want simply will not work. And try not to let a large sale blind you to the obvious bottom line- delivering the best, most professional design possible, even if it means that compromises have to be made. You can still make money, even though the number of appliances have been reduced. By using high quality cabinetry, lighting and materials, and eliminating just a couple of appliances, your design can still be a high end one. But first and foremost, it will be a GOOD ONE.
On June 16th, I hope you can join me on the GreenExpo365 website for a live webinar on sustainable interior design. I promise you it’ll be interesting and thought provoking. I’d love to get a great dialog going afterwards with some good questions and thoughts from you. What YOU are doing is so important, and I’d love to hear from you and find out what you’re working on.
All the best,