At a recent design panel I cohosted with Metropolis magazine, we talked about the fact that as designers, we have a lot of power to guide our clients and projects. But we often relinquish that power, believing that our greatest purpose is to answer the client’s needs and create the most comfortable workplaces we can.
But what if right now, in 2020, that just isn’t enough? There’s a growing consensus among climate activists that if we don’t make radical progress in the next 10 or 12 years, the earth will heat beyond a point of no return and our future will be dire. Like a lot of people, I haven’t wanted to think about this—after all, what can one person do? But last fall, a California wildfire got too close to home, and I realized at that moment that no matter what, our future lives will be different from what we have known. The question is: How different?
I decided then and there that I would no longer do nothing, I would mobilize, move, do everything I could think of. I started reading more on climate change. I attended a march. I doubled down on cutting single-use plastic and unnecessary travel. It wasn’t enough—no one person’s actions can ever be enough—but it led me to the realization that where I could really make a difference was as a designer and businessperson.
Our industry is one of the largest users of resources and contributors to greenhouse gas emissions; buildings and their construction make up 36% of global energy use and 39% of carbon dioxide emissions each year. With the world facing some of the biggest challenges in human history, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to design and build projects that minimize the negative impact on climate change. Again, I will say, as designers we have a lot of power. We can guide our clients and our projects toward a more balanced relationship with the world.
All of us are familiar with, if not well versed in, LEED. The U.S. Green Building Council created the initial framework over two decades ago, a point system that made it possible for designers to make safer, healthier, more sustainable, and energy-efficient choices in their designs. Recently California has expanded on that with the California Green Building Challenge. While critics argue that some LEED buildings do not save as much energy as they could and in the end still have a negative impact on the environment, these programs have been invaluable resources and crucial indicators for where design needs to go. The new standard is “net positive,” and in 2010, the Living Building Challenge invited architects and designers to create buildings that give back more than they take to build and operate.
Last summer, the American Institute of Architects set the ambitious goal of a “zero net carbon practice” by 2030. Top of their list—to reuse buildings instead of constructing new ones. That is quite a commitment from a profession that since its inception has been defined by new building. It is a call to do less of what they do, and it essentially changes the practice of architecture. I think it is an example of the kind of radical rethinking about how we work that everyone in every industry needs to do right now.
Landscape architects similarly issued their own Climate Positive Design Challenge this past September. The profession is in a unique space to work with materials that can truly give back CO2, and their goal when designing new landscape projects is to sequester more carbon than emitted.
The interior design profession has yet to issue such a challenge. Our vitally important role in creating the environments where people live and work puts our focus on human comfort and well-being, from designing spaces that bring happiness and satisfaction to eliminating harmful materials and maximizing health and wellness. In 2014, the International Well Building Institute launched the WELL Building Challenge. In their mission statement, they stated they want to “help people thrive”
But how can people thrive in a world that might be unsustainable in the near future, regardless of how well we have designed their offices? The time has come for interior designers to set higher standards and do some radical rethinking of our own. There are many ways we can have an impact.
Furniture, for example, accounts for a large part of interior design’s footprint. A lot of used furniture goes straight to landfills. How a client’s old furniture is dealt with as we are designing and selecting the new is often ignored by the design team. It should be a mandatory conversation and part of our service package. Some large furniture manufacturers have decommissioning programs and can implement furniture end-of-life plans. Others build their products with high recycled content so if the used furniture can’t be sold, salvaged, or donated, it can be easily taken apart and sorted into reusable piles. More and more manufacturers are investing in research and swapping toxic for sustainable materials. A handful are transitioning their entire operations to be cradle to cradle, and more recently to operate within a circular economy. More and more interior design firms are recognizing the need to develop such resources and make their findings available to other designers. As a profession, we should favor these manufacturers in our furniture specifications and urge clients to buy responsibly.
With public engagement in the climate crisis growing, such actions are not just good citizenship. I’m convinced they can also be good business. Every industry—even Big Oil!—wants to be seen as friendly to the environment. If the interior design profession can become a recognized leader in fighting to mitigate climate change, hiring our services will be a way of demonstrating to an increasingly activist public that a company isn’t just seen as earth-friendly, but is actively working to make a difference.
As we begin 2020, let’s issue our own challenge—to design a world our children can inhabit with the same love and hope with which we’ve inhabited ours.
Verda Alexander is cofounder of the San Francisco interior design firm Studio O+A, whose clients include Slack, McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Nike.