Designers make some of the most important decisions about the spaces we live in. The wooden floor, the carpeting, the wall cladding and windows, the bronze kitchen hardware and tile backsplash and leather couch – all exist based on choices made by designers long before they became part of interior spaces. There are many ideas about what the role of the designer is, at its essence, many schools of thought that claim to hold singular answers. Some say design is about creating with intent, addressing needs and solving problems, improving people’s lives, and even orchestrating material, spatial, visual, and social experiences and interactions.
But the truth is, being a designer is a transdisciplinary role. It’s not just one thing or another – it’s at the crossroads of technology, business needs, culture, sociology, aesthetics, and more. Today we’ll home in on the role of the designer as an agent of change, as someone in a position to help shift the industry towards a more sustainable, lower-impact future. The climate crisis necessitates urgent action from all industries, but the building industry is certainly one of the most taxing on the environment – buildings and construction account for 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. We need to reverse course as quickly as possible and everyone must play a part, but designers are positioned uniquely to improve the indoor environment for the planet (and building occupants) by choosing products, materials, and technologies that are higher performing, with lower footprints. This article will answer some questions about why architects and interior designers should be invested in sustainable, healthy design and why they should push to reduce the footprint left by projects, whether through the materials used, the raw resources extracted, the energy expended, or the health of material ingredients.
The Potential of the Design Stage
For starters, a project’s most important sustainability benefits are implemented at the design phase. In their book, Frugal Innovation, Radjou and Prabhu argue that “over 70 percent of a product’s life-cycle costs and environmental footprint is determined during its design phase.” At the design stage, decisions are made about aesthetics and functionality, but also about the model or production, its durability, the steps and locations of production, sourcing, and the material ingredients. Designers decide how to combine different materials, what’s used to adhere them, and whether they’ll eventually be able to be taken apart, reused, repaired, or refurbished. These decisions dictate what will happen at the end of a product or building’s life cycle. Will it be demolished and sent to landfills? Or will it be disassembled and used in another building? Once these decisions are made, it’s hard – in some cases impossible – to reverse their impacts down the line.
If designers make decisions about projects according to a linear take-make-waste model, that’s how they will be used, and at the end of their life cycles, the various materials and products will become waste. This means not only that they’ll go to landfills and incinerators and likely be partially leaked into the environment, but also that we will have missed the economic opportunity to keep valuable materials in circulation. We will have lost the work and energy that produced them.
The Power of the Ask
Many changes begin to gain momentum and spread across the industry in great part due to something that many green building companies call “the ask.” For every designer who asks or starts a conversation with a manufacturer about an EPD, CDPH/CHPS 01350 compliance, red list status, or anything else, manufacturers are more likely to begin to make changes and to provide the information that’s requested. These changes are market driven – when manufacturers see demand, they’re willing to address new criteria. So when designers, on a large scale, begin to ask for the changes they’d like to see, the purchasing power of “the ask” starts the wheels turning. In their Material Protocol Handbook, the AIA notes that the number of projects completed with product transparency initiatives has increased 100-fold over the last five years, in large part due to “the ask.” If all designers started asking for product transparency information, they say, the impact would be massive. One carpet manufacturer spoke to the importance of the ask in starting conversations about transparency and material health at his own company: “Transparency can become so powerful. ‘There’s this inherently toxic chemical in the product. Why is that there? Maybe it has some irreplaceable purpose, but maybe it doesn’t and there are ready substitutes, or maybe there aren’t, but you don’t know unless you have the conversation. And you can’t have the conversation without the transparency starting point…The request for transparency helps the internal change agent.”
The other side of “the ask” is sharing information with clients. As the intermediary between manufacturers and clients, designers also have a responsibility to pass on the information that they find – about the market, the best options available, and what it means to choose high performing materials, both in terms of energy expenditures and cost. (Remember that often the savings for a product with lower operational emissions are seen accumulatively, in the long term.) There are a lot of misleading ideas about the cost of implementing sustainability measures, and it’s the designer’s role to set the record straight and provide information about their economic value and viability, whether because of reduced energy costs, increased productivity, greater client loyalty, or a number of other benefits.
Because designers liaise with both manufacturers and clients, they can challenge clients’ preconceptions about certain materials, technologies and systems, and provide accurate, up-to-date information. This means that they need to stay up to date on information, new approaches and materials, cutting-edge technologies, and research about performance and sustainability. They need to be able to impart a nuanced, thorough understanding of the projects they work on and the industry as a whole. In many cases, this requires learning more about the client’s organization, its values, structure, and management style, in order to better communicate the design process and its objectives.
Designers have the power to shape customer behavior, and to enact lasting, significant changes that will greatly reduce the impact of the building industry – and make people’s lives better. There’s no way around it. All of this means a bit more work on your end. But you don’t need to run a cost-benefit analysis to see that the health of the planet and of the people who’ll spend time in the spaces you design is worth it.
While this article provides plenty of reasons why designers should work towards sustainable, transparent, healthy practices, Knowledge Bank already has quite a few resources on just how to go about that. Check out our articles on Material Health Specification Strategies (parts one and two), the pros and cons of using plastics, and some strategies for moving towards a circular economy. Clear up any confusion about terminologies like pre-consumer and post-industrial recycled content, embodied and operational carbon, and biomimicry and biophilia. Unpack “local” or “biodegradable” claims and learn about certifications and green building standards. These tools provide important context so you can engage in deeper, more meaningful conversations and relationships with manufacturers, suppliers, and other professionals in the building industry, and be a force that helps to propel the industry forward.