How to be a Truly Sustainable Interior Designer
Find out the key things you can do to reduce your and your client’s carbon footprint both during and after a project
We asked three experienced interior design professionals for their tried-and-tested tips to help you up your game when it comes to designing sustainably.
Making sustainable choices can add time and work to a project, so it’s crucial to find ways to stay motivated.
“The first thing I suggest all designers do is change your own incentive,” Yoko Kloeden of Yoko Kloeden Design says. “Charge the design fee for your expertise and experience, and keep the mark-up on furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E) enough to cover the administration of ordering and payment. If your primary source of revenue comes from the mark-ups on FF&E, incentives are always there to increase the value of FF&E, rather than doing what’s good for your clients and the environment.”
If you want to cut waste, it pays to be proactive right from the start of a project. “Begin by looking at which existing furniture or materials could be reused, re-covered or refashioned,” Lisa Lewis of Lisa Lewis Interior Design says. “Could the existing kitchen be repainted? If the carpet is stained or threadbare and going to be replaced, could it be used as insulation in the loft?
“It’s also worth looking into trying to sell or give away items,” she adds. “There’s a good secondhand market for used kitchens, for example, which will stop it going to the scrapheap. As part of the process, an interior designer has to consider what to do with any items not required in the new design to ensure they’re recycled properly.”
“We always use Freecycle to clear sites,” Cat Hoad of Absolute Project Management says. “It’s a perfect example of reducing waste going to landfill in an effective way. The recipient collects, so you aren’t sending items to landfill or paying for them to be transported. We’ve Freecycled loads of furniture, appliances, bathroom fittings, lighting, kitchens, external door sets and even a beautiful reeded glass panel (sent in the wrong size), which was used by a guy to build a hutch for his tortoise!”
It’s tricky to ensure zero leftovers from material orders or samples, but there are things you can do to minimise the waste. “Specify quantities carefully and check with the specialist who’s going to be fitting them to reduce actual waste,” Cat says.
“For samples, consider working with Swatchbox, which is aiming to provide samples in an efficient way and, in the meantime, is taking old samples and recycling them,” she says. “Sometimes, a local school or university will appreciate fabric samples for their art class, for example.”
All of the pros we spoke to for this article are members of a network called Interior Design Declares, which is committed to addressing the climate and biodiversity emergency. “We need to take responsibility for the impact our industry has on the carbon footprint of buildings and the wider environment and I want to be part of the solution,” Lisa says.
Yoko says she joined up predominantly to educate herself. “Interior Design Declares is a huge resource for us, as it points us to exactly what is relevant for our profession and steps to take,” she says. “We now use sustainability as one of the criteria in setting quarterly goals and much of the actions come from what I learned at Interior Design Declares.”
Cat was a founding signatory of the network and is now an active member of the steering committee. “By collaborating, we can spread the message to more people and work together to produce common resources, so we aren’t all ‘reinventing the wheel’ each time we try anything sustainable,” she says. “It continues to be very fun and very inspiring and thought-provoking to work with designers with different backgrounds towards a common goal.”
Greenwashing (where a firm’s sustainable credentials are less than those that are advertised) can make it difficult to know which suppliers to choose, but it’s worth making the effort to build up a directory of brands you can trust.
“Some manufacturers and suppliers have become much better at transparency, explaining where products come from and the production process, but it’s crucial to consider this for each element of the design scheme,” Lisa says. “It’s important to investigate each company’s position on sustainability, because it’s surprising how many mainstream companies do not address it.”
“We had a previous client who instructed us to source everything sustainably and no products or finishes were to be associated with things such as child labour, slavery, animal cruelty or illegal forestry,” Yoko says. “We felt we got hit in the head by a brick, as the project contractor was already on-site and was asking us to provide plumbing and electrics plans the following week. I’m so glad the client asked us though. I now know that we have to update our suppliers directory with the types of eco credentials they have, so we have that information in advance before clients ask us.”
“Choose suppliers who package their products sensibly and feed back to suppliers who don’t, for example those who send one tile in a ginormous box with acres of bubble wrap,” Cat adds.
She recommends looking on the BIID’s (British Institute of Interior Design’s) sustainable specifying guide as well as the Interior Design Declares resources page. “Interior Design Declares is about to launch a template ‘supplier questionnaire’ to elicit information from suppliers,” she says. “The aim is for this information to be centrally collated, so that, after a supplier replies, the response is available ‘open source’ and suppliers don’t get the same questionnaire from all their clients.”
“We like using natural materials, as they age better than lots of artificial counterparts, which look at their best when they’re installed,” Yoko says. “When we do this, we make sure they come from sustainable sources, such as FSC-certified timber.”
“The choice of materials and finishes obviously has a big impact,” Lisa says. “It’s a complex decision involving production, type of material, and location of production, to name a few. There’s research that’s already been done to help differentiate. Simple steps to take are to ensure all timber is FSC accredited, all paint is VOC free, and fabrics are natural or recycled manmade materials.”
“Don’t specify materials made from non-renewable sources, such as petrochemicals,” Cat says. “Choose organic cotton and linen rather than standard cotton, and recycled polyester rather than ‘virgin’ polyester. There’s a debate about using recycled polyester, but my view is that, if it’s recycled into something else, it isn’t in landfill.”
Cat recommends bringing up sustainability at the briefing stage of a project. “Ask what aspects are important to a client, and whether they’re aware of the various choices available to have more sustainable options in the design of their project. We have some standard questions in our client brief questionnaire dealing with sustainability,” she says.
“If you’re involved early on in the ‘infrastructure’ stage of a project, you can encourage clients to consider renewable energy options, such as air source heat pumps, solar panels or improved insulation,” she continues. “Incorporating insulation (ideally made from a renewable resource such as wool or paper) is expensive to do, but, with rising energy prices and supply insecurity, it’s getting easier to persuade clients.”
Lisa agrees and adds, “In terms of reducing a property’s overall energy and environmental load, it’s really important to look at insulation, natural light, solar gain, low-energy appliances and lighting, and water-efficient appliances and sanitaryware. If you get the bones right, this will help to reduce the long-term negative impact.”
There’s no point completing a sustainable project only for it to be redone a couple of years later.
“Design with longevity in mind, using good-quality materials, in a style that’s likely to last,” Cat advises. “Don’t follow trends too much and don’t build very expensive joinery for a nursery or young child’s room, which realistically will have to be changed as they get older.”
“Most of our projects are family homes, so we ensure rooms can evolve as families grow and clients’ needs change,” Yoko agrees. “We advise keeping children’s rooms not too age- or gender-specific. We prefer to design bespoke joinery to be fairly versatile and multipurpose, rather than designing shoe storage that only fit a specific shoe size, for example.”
“Well-considered design and good-quality materials will mean a scheme will outlast fashion fads and styles,” Lisa says. “I also believe that, by incorporating old favourites, vintage pieces and family heirlooms that have been handed down, the space will be personal and timeless.”
How do you design sustainability into your projects? Share your ideas in the Comments.