Existing buildings and interiors should be seen as depositories of useful materials. Shown here is the exhibit A Valuable Collection of Things created by Stantec during Milan Design Week 2023. Photo courtesy Michelle Nastasi.

How Can We Chart a Sustainable Future for Interior Design?

Discover what leaders in the profession envisioned for the future of interior design when they gathered at the METROPOLIS Sustainability Lab this past June.

Sustainability was top of mind at the inaugural Interior Design Leadership Summit held at NeoCon last year. METROPOLIS convened leaders from ACT, ASID, CIDA, Gensler, HDR, HOK, HKS, IA, IDC, IDCEC, IIDA, Material ConneXion, mindful MATERIALS, NKBA, NEWH, Shimoda Design, SmithGroup, and the Wallcoverings Association who took the opportunity to contemplate the implications of the Interior Design Pledge for Positive Impact, and hash out some of the key obstacles in designing for climate, health, and equity. The summit was organized in partnership with 3formBentley, and Ultrafabrics, with representatives from the three companies bringing the perspectives of product and material brands to the discussion.

The discussion flowed around three presentations: Annie Bevan, CEO of mindfulMATERIALS, took the group through the ins and outs of the Common Materials Framework, while Dr. Andrew Dent, executive vice president, research, at Material ConneXion and chief material scientist at Material Bank, showcased new developments in material science. Co-moderators METROPOLIS editor-in-chief Avinash Rajagopal and editor at large Verda Alexander also put forth four provocations for the future of interior design.

Here are the major themes that emerged:

As the negative health impacts of many materials commonly used in interiors come to light, groups like the Parsons Healthy Materials Lab are showing the path to industry transformation. Photo courtesy Nicholas Callcott.

A Common Language

Sustainable interior design relies on the selection of sustainable materials. But with over 100 certifications and eco-labels in the A&D industry, and 650 factors to be considered in product specification, this is extremely complicated even for the most motivated designer.

Interior designers need to adopt a common language to manage this complexity so that they can focus on the impact of their choices.

The Common Materials Framework from mindful MATERIALS provides this common language. It organizes all the commonly used certifications into the five buckets of the AIA Architecture & Design Materials Pledge:

• Human health
• Social health and equity
• Ecosystem health
• Climate health
• Circular economy

This methodology could greatly amplify the work of interior designers and accelerate the impact of the profession.

“Thank God for the Common MaterialsFramework. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and the root cause preventing sustainability from moving forward [has been that] nobody understands it. Even the design schools and the educational programs need to have this rooted in their curriculum so that we can learn to have that conversation with our clients.”

— Brett Gardner, senior associate, project director, and Ecos Studio director at IA Interior Architects

Circularity is a Priority

The negative impact of interior design derives mainly from the successive, rapid renovations of spaces. Products and materials are discarded before they wear out, racking up carbon emissions, clogging up landfills, and causing harm to communities.

The interior design industry needs to find ways to strengthen circular thinking and processes.

Recyclable products, design for disassembly, and designing with reused and reclaimed materials need to become part of designers’ repertoire.

Designers, contractors, and manufacturers must use every incentive provided by local regulations to reuse materials, and connect with local salvage facilities and materials warehouses to keep products out of landfills.

“We did a research project last year with a couple of pilot projects that we encouraged to adopt certain initiatives for circularity. Some of it involved looking at take-back programs, which you’re seeing in ceiling tiles and flooring, at recycling doors, at adaptive reuse. But the single most impactful thing that allowed our project to succeed was reducing and reusing furniture. If you look at all of the different measures that we did on these pilot projects, furniture is still ten times more impactful than all of the other initiatives combined together. If we could really focus on that with the manufacturer’s assistance, we could find the profit there.”

—Lisa Adams, principal, HKS

Reaching Out and Branching Out

Within the interior design profession, knowledge and methodologies around sustainability must be shared among designers specializing in residential and commercial projects.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t speak for 60 to 70 percent of our membership that is on the residential side. They want to have these conversations with their clients, but because they might be a four-person firm, they don’t have the bandwidth to decipher this incredible list of data.”

— Khoi Vo, CEO, American Society of Interior Designers

Tools like the Common Materials Framework can also be leveraged to speak to clients or stakeholders outside the profession, to help them understand the impact interior design can make.

“There are thousands of medium and small projects with unsophisticated clients that do one project every 20 years. They don’t even know what any of the certifications are and they certainly aren’t asking for them. The framework is very, very promising. I think that might be our way through for those thousands of projects.”

— Elizabeth Von Lehe, design and brand strategy principal, HDR

Interior designers need to get involved in developing policies and regulations that affect the work they do—especially when it comes to regulating harmful chemicals or incentivizing circularity.

“Collectively we have to be advocates for what we know is right. We need to change ourselves, and that’s a long haul, but we also need to organize for lobbying and start to actually influence the policymakers.”

—Jennifer Busch, vice president, business development, Officeworks Inc.; member, board of directors, Council for Interior Design Accreditation

Since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted business as usual, the interior design profession has been challenged on many fronts. But it has also led to a flowering of creativity and inquiry: A+I’s design for a new workplace for Le Truc this year upended many conventions of commercial interiors. Photo courtesy Magda Biernat.

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