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By Michael Tobias

Responsibility for the sustainability of buildings falls primarily on the shoulders of architects and engineers who design and specify a variety of systems that will lessen the impact of construction on the environment.

But, increasingly, there has been a call for interior designs to join other professionals who work in the construction industry in their global mission to make buildings, including our homes, sustainable.

To do this successfully, interior designers need to have a thorough understanding of the principles that underpin sustainable design. They also need to know how these principles should influence their choice of water and energy systems as well as the construction and/or installation methods they specify, and the materials they use.

Interior designers also need to recognize that sustainable principles can be incorporated into interiors without compromising design quality and aesthetics in any way. Sustainability does not need to affect individual style concepts, rather, it can be successfully integrated into any good interior design scheme.

The Importance of Sustainability

Sustainability is a simple concept that necessitates us meeting our current needs without compromising our future needs or the needs of the planet as a whole.

Those working in the construction industry, including architects, those offering HVAC, plumbing, electrical, or mechanical engineering services, and interior designers, often don’t realize how easily they can make a positive difference to many environmental problems through the design choices they make.

Interior designers, in particular, often work on residential and renovation projects, and simply by being in a position to select materials and finishes with care, and opt for lighting and appliances that are eco-friendly, they are ideally placed to make decisions that will help to reduce carbon emissions.

Simple design decisions include choosing recycled content, avoiding endangered hardwood species when timber is used, and refraining from using paint and sealants that contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

When refurbishing buildings, interior designers can also suggest effective ways to upgrade energy and water systems that will generate energy savings and reduce energy consumption.

When you discover that building sustainability has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by between 30% and 50% without resulting in any significant cost increases, you will realize just how important sustainability is. The good news is that it really is easily attainable, particularly for committed interior designers.

How to Follow a Sustainable Approach

One of the challenges interior designers face is the fact that many people have preconceptions about sustainable interiors, expecting them to have a kind of rustic eco style and typical “green” look. But nothing could be further from the truth. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why sustainable interior designs shouldn’t be totally modern and even avant-garde. Even natural, traditional materials can be used in a fresh, new way to create a beautifully contemporary or uniquely different look.

Unfortunately, there are many interior designers who don’t take sustainability into account when they design beautiful interiors.

To be able to follow a sustainable approach, designers must fully comprehend the universally unsustainable nature of construction and the enormity of the environmental issues it embraces. They also need to be aware of the fact that there are limitations and therefore it is often necessary to compromise. There isn’t always one perfect solution to a design problem, and on occasion, certain sustainable measures may not be 100% feasible. Also, when interior designers are compelled to work in a team, other team members might create barriers that make sustainable decisions difficult.

When aiming for a sustainable approach, interior designers need to understand the consequences of their design choices. The reality is that the impact of many projects only start after handover when the building is in use. For example, water and energy will always be required to run and maintain homes and other buildings. Harmful chemicals will often be used for cleaning and even decorating and redecorating. Inevitably, there will be some amount of waste while the interior is in use, and even more when it becomes, or is considered, outdated. So, it is essential for any interior designer to understand the implications of the lifecycle of a project and to take responsibility for its consequences.

Eliminating the concept of waste and designing to ensure there isn’t waste, is a good start. The lifecycle of the project and the products and systems used for it are vital. So, the interior designer needs to evaluate every possible effect that producing a beautiful interior will have, from the raw materials sourced to installation and beyond. Consideration of how the interior space is going to be used and maintained, and what will happen when it is no longer needed is just as important.

An unsustainable lifecycle is basically a linear model that starts with raw materials that are manufactured, then transported to where they are required, used, and ultimately sent to landfill. A sustainable lifecycle, on the other hand, forms a closed loop. So, it starts with raw materials that are manufactured, then transported to where they are required, and used, then they are recycled. Additionally, they are sourced sustainably.

Of course, sustainability is only one element of any design project and it must be appropriately incorporated according to other project-specific factors whether they are the responsibility of the designer, architect or a professional offering engineering solutions in Chicago, New York, Toronto, or whichever city you live or work in.

Ultimately, though, if an interior designer has a sustainable approach to materials, construction, energy, and water, and doesn’t compromise aesthetics or any other design concerns, the project will likely be an overall success.

Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America that also has offices in Chicago. He leads a team of 30+ mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led more than 1,000 projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He is passionate about sustainability and is a LEED AP.