Opportunities Of Sustainable Design For Interior Design Construction Essay

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Do sustainable practices in interior design limit the possibilities of attractive design? Does engaging in these practices yield a competitive advantage to the firm? This research document will seek to explain the typical challenges or barriers to sustainable design encountered by interior designers and explain what designers can do to address these for the benefit of society, the client and their practice. The report will address the three types of challenges relevant to each of the categories of the triple bottom line: social, environmental and economic (as established by LEED - Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design - the American standard for rating green buildings). In addition to these challenges and opportunities to sustainable design, a case study will be reviewed for the purpose of demonstrating how designers have embraced the challenges and gained recognition for doing so. The report will conclude with an evaluation of the competitive advantage of a design firm that embraces the challenges discussed as opposed to those firms that choose to operate under conventional practices.

Origins of a Sustainable Mentality

To fully understand the concept of sustainability it is crucial to understand its meaning. The term can be defined as "the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (Green Building Education Services, 2009).

It is important to understand that the concept of green or sustainable design did not just arise the past century as a result of concern for the environment due to global warming, thinning of the ozone, or diminishing natural resources. The truth is that from the very beginnings of time, men designed with nature in mind (p.20, Stitt, 1999). For his survival, it was crucial for a man to understand his surroundings and adapt to them. According to Stitt, such connection and responsiveness to the environment is evident through the study of our primitive religions, arts, economies and languages. However, it wasn't until the Industrial Revolution that men stopped considering the environment in their decisions. Now we are facing a world which is rapidly being deprived of its natural resources and we need to find a way to retrieve what we lost. And by this, I mean not just our resources, but our approach to the environment, our response to adaptation and ultimately our response to design (p.20, Stiff, 1999)

Role of Designers & Their Commitment to the Client

Interior designers are here to create spaces that meet their clients demand thorough a process that involves research, intelligent thinking and creative solutions. They attempt to fulfill the client's needs with the most appropriate solution and at the same time consider elements such a public health, safety and welfare. Now, if designers claim to do these last three aspects, then we wouldn't be behaving honestly to our profession if we didn't make it a requirement upon ourselves to inform the clients of the range of options they have available in regards to true health, safety and welfare. By thinking sustainably, not only would the designer be considering the effects that design has on the environment, but also the effects that design has on its users. One important aspect of green design is that it looks at indoor environmental quality. This simply means the designer will focus on increasing the productivity, satisfaction, and health of its occupants. When people unfamiliar to the field of design think of sustainable design, they might make sole associations to recyclable products or alternative forms of energy. Therefore, it's the role of the designer to inform the client of the different aspects of green design and how it can be beneficial to his/her well-being.

Challenges to Sustainable Practices

Social Challenges & Opportunities

Social challenges of sustainable design are those challenges that affect the attitudes and behaviors of those involved, whether that is the designer or the client. Within the category of social challenges there are further classifications which will be discussed: mindset, miscommunication, trust barriers, and the term "sustainability." In Listening to the Public: Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Sustainability, Rosell describes that with mindset barriers there are certain attitudes that get in the way of making "environmental sound decisions." These include: force of habit, consumerism and pressure to over consume, belief that one person can't make a difference, and the belief that sustainability issues arise from human nature and human nature won't change (Rosell, 2006). One example of this type of mindset barrier can be explained by Stephen Jolson (from Stephen Jolson Architects) on his belief that Australians not only have a broad understating of design, but are much more concerned with individual project integrity regardless of market forces or wealth.

Further, due to the established social pyramid, designers may feel the need to buy expensive products (typically because they are scarcer and hard to find) in order to reflect the client's social status (14, Birkeland, 2002). According to Birkeland's book For Sustainability: A sourcebook of Integrated Ecological Solutions, "Pyramidal forms of development correspond with pyramidal social structures, where the benefits of development are enjoyed by a few, and the cost are passed on to others and to nature." Based on this quote, it is true that many times designers guide their design solutions solely on aesthetics and do not take into account the three concepts of the triple bottom line: social, economic, and environmental benefits. They feel that design, for the most part, pertains to the display of affluence or rank of the client, which in turn brings acclaim to the designer. Supported by Doran's study of "Sustainability and Interior Design," designers use materials for their "decorative or luxury characteristics." He explains that a lot of times designers ask to expand the budget in order to accommodate expensive materials and finishes that go hand in hand with color schemes and concepts. Similar to the concept that Birkeland tries to explain with the social pyramid, Doran supports it by explaining how the budget may increase due to the client's want to impress others. In this case, it is a smarter approach to convey to the client that "the additional budget is spent on green finishes that require specialized skilled craftsmen rather than harmful finishes" (Doran 2005). It should be the goal of the interior designer to truly understand this new perspective and educate the customer on how using environmentally friendly products is not an immediate link to "cheap" design. It is important for the designer to realize that acclaim is not only linked to how aesthetically pleasing a space looks, but in today's economy, a sophisticated level of innovation is just as highly acclaimed. As you will see in the upcoming case study, eco or environmentally friendly design can still produce a high-end interior space. From a perspective of commercial design, a prevalent company which portrays an image of being sophisticated can still portray this image through sustainable interiors. The only difference would be that by paying close attention to creating environments with efficient energy systems and good indoor air quality, the company can reduce significant amounts paid to energy consumption and similarly reduce the rate of employee absenteeism "due to a more pleasant work environment." (p.15, Birkeland, 2002).

On a different note, it is usual for designers to have an established list of contacts (suppliers, vendors, etc.) with whom they have established good relations and trust, and they prefer to keep this sense of reliance and comfort. In addition, experimenting with a strategy that a firm has never done before may bring uncertainty for both the firm and the client--a situation which the designer may wish to avoid. Furthermore, the issues of miscommunication and trust tie with the idea that many companies project an image of being sustainable while their actions point a different way.

Once designers make the effort to understand these barriers, they should embrace them by openly communicating not only their new sustainable values and philosophy, but also their actions. One way to do this is to document and publish case studies of the work to show the relevance of the sustainable trend. This will raise public awareness and ultimately trust.

Economic Challenges & Opportunities

Economic challenges are associated with budget limitation and/or financial gain for the client and interior design practice. According to Sara Wilkinson, some reasons which affect a firm's ability to be part of the sustainable field include: financial gain motive, inadequate funds, proof that tenants (or buyers) are seeking sustainable buildings, funds are allocated to other initiatives, monopolies, and tedious approval processes to name a few. The most familiar of these reasons is probably that of inadequate funds. Sustainable or green products are priced higher in the market and consequently clients are more reluctant to make investments in these materials when there are materials that can do the same job for less. For this reason, many designers still select conventional materials for their designs in order to keep the project under budget.

Cost alone should not be an impediment to the progress of a project that could be sustainable. It is the job of the interior designers to inform the client not only of the initial cost of the product but also of the additional maintenance and replacement costs associated with conventional materials (Dean, 2003). Commonly used in LEED Rating Systems is the term life-cycle cost, which basically evaluates a product's economic performance over its entire life span.

In Green by Design, Angela M. Dean states that "money can be spent unwisely whether or not you are building green. Green can cost more or less, just as conventional can cost more or less." Companies who remain with conventional practices as opposed to sustainable ones may still face situations in which they go over budget. As previously mentioned, cost alone should not be a reason for not using green practices. It takes careful study and thorough research to make a wise selection of products from a variety of aspects. If cost is a crucial aspect of the design, as it is in most projects, then taking a sustainable approach is even more pertinent. An uninformed client, concerned of the project's costs, may seem to want conventional materials, but if the designer is able to inform the client of the potential savings with green materials, then the client may become more yielding. It is good idea to inform the client of these green efforts from the very beginning. This will allow for the project to be much more efficient and have greater impact on the sustainable design (Doran, 2005).

Environmental Challenges

The current environment presents a series of challenges that hinder the progress to sustainable design. According to Wilkison, environmental barriers include: "government policy makers in the creation of recommendations, government structures that accommodate long-term decision-making…communication links with other cities…and [lack of] policies that improve choices."

For example, codes may hinder the progress of sustainable building as they seek to protect the health and safety of building users (Dean, 2003). These stringent laws and standards may sometimes keep a designer from using sustainable practices; however, one must know how to seek alternative ways to work within these laws in order to continue with the desired design. It is also relevant to say that although there are building codes that prevent certain actions, many of these codes are currently being modified to support green practices.

Opportunities: Dealing with Environmental Challenges

There are several ways to approach these types of barriers. One way is to research journals and other publications to see if the design proposed has already been done. A lot of times designers fear experimenting with new technologies or practices that have not yet gained full acceptance. Clients may also become skeptical about using products that are not widely known. However, because sustainable actions and strategies have increasingly been introduced and tested in a multitude of projects, designers have the opportunity to copy or modify these practices for their own designs. Additionally, because projects must always be approved by a local design planning board, it is important for the designer to form a relationship with the building official and inform him on any innovative strategies (p.17,Dean, 2003). From the very early stages of the design process, it is important for the building official to have a clear understanding of the proposal. Ultimately he could be more yielding as to the ideas being introduced.

On different note, the interior design field deals greatly with the selection of materials. To reach sustainable efforts designers should specify materials with some amount of recycled content, which can still be found at reasonable prices. In such scenario, however, using a "recycled" product may bring about concerns on aesthetics, an overlap with a social barrier. The designer should be able to explain to the client that a recycled material does not necessarily need to have the appearance of its "origin", but simply be partially made of pre-consumer or post-consumer recycled content. With pre-consumer content, a material may have content from industry scraps that were diverted from the waste stream. Post-consumer content refers to a waste that is produced by the end consumer of a material stream (Green Building and LEED Concepts Guide, 2009). Refer to Images x-x for applications of recycled content products that still retain an attractive aesthetic appeal.

Case Study: Everett Marshall Building, Eastern Michigan University, USA

The Everett Marshall Building is home to the College of Health and Human Services at Eastern Michigan University. It was originally opened in the fall of 2000 with sustainability goals in mind. In addition to the sustainable goals, the designers also planned according to the principles of universal design, technology and user comfort.

From the start, material selection was key to complete the project. Flooring and furnishing materials were selected based on "their recycled content, their ability to be recycled in the future and the sustainability of their production methods" (Urban, 2005). Some of the flooring materials used include: cork, bamboo and linoleum. Cork, for example, is a good insulator, slip resistant, allows for design flexibility and contains high sound absorbent qualities. Further, it is considered sustainable because there is no need to cut down the tree in which it grows. Instead, the bark of the tree is peeled off and the tree continues to regenerate (Sustainable, 2010). Bamboo and linoleum also come from rapidly renewable sources and are strong and long lasting. As seen in Figures x-x, these materials have an attractive aesthetic appeal regardless of their "sustainable nature."

Spaces were equipped with a variety of furnishings from diverse providers including Design Tex, a Steelcase Company whose mission is to provide innovative and sustainable surfaces and solutions for interior spaces. Fabrics from Design Tex were used throughout the building. A particular aspect of these fabrics is that they use a minimum number of chemicals, none of which have negative effects on human health or the environment (Urban 2005).

Another aspect of sustainable design as described by LEED under the category Indoor Environmental Quality is indoor air quality. By using paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds, the space provides building users a comfortable atmosphere to perform daily activities.

Competitive Advantage

In Sustainable Development and Sustainability of Competitive Advantage, Miguel Rodriguez alludes that it is not out of the ordinary for a company to say that their goal is to make money, but for a company to say that their "purpose is to create economic, environmental and societal value for shareholders, customers, employees and society at large, 'everybody will be amazed'" (Rodriguez, 2002).

On that note, firms are constantly seeking ways to differentiate, innovate, and attract clients to use their services. If clients see that a company is not solely preoccupied for profits but also with the greater good, then they'll be reassured of the value of company's product.

Further, building construction and maintenance is one of the most wasteful and negatively influential industries for the environment (including not just the area of construction but also operation and equipping/furnishing of buildings). The industry alone uses between 17-50% of the world's resources, producing widespread environmental damage (University of Minnesota newsletter). By taking a sustainable internal approach as a business strategy, the design firm will notice advantageous changes in terms of the company's resources and activities. Ultimately this approach will yield a change in the firm's reputation in the form of a competitive advantage (Rodriguez, 2002).

More than a cost to society and business (as discussed under economic challenges), designers should see the introduction of sustainable practices and an opportunity that benefits all three components of the triple bottom line. The key is to use it as tool for innovation, which ultimately transforms into the competitive advantage the firm aims to obtain.


The purpose of this paper was to inform the reader of the typical challenges associated with sustainability and inform them how these can be reversed to become advantages with the use of proper planning, research, and strategic analysis. Just as important as it is to understand the benefits gained from sustainable practices, it is equally important to recognize the barriers and see how designers can use them to challenge themselves and prove their true innovative skills. Sustainable design is rapidly spreading within the building industry, especially in architecture, yet interior designers still need to take a more forceful approach. As more opportunities to sustainable design arise, designers should be proactive and take advantage of the opportunity to be the leaders. In the public eye, a company that goes the extra mile for the benefit of society, as opposed to those who wait for society to impose new rules, will stand out as leaders in their industry.