There is no doubt that sustainable interior design can play a vital role in addressing serious issues relating to the built environment, particularly in relation to carbon emissions.
While we are dependent on the construction sector, the reality is that the very nature of construction is unsustainable. Every type of building activity is, to some extent, damaging to the environment. The same applies, in general terms, to interior design because it uses natural resources, energy, water, and creates waste and commonly pollution during the installation phase, while it is being used, and when it is demolished or dismantled and removed.
Sustainable design, on the other hand, is a complex, crafted approach that considers the environment and aims to minimize the negative impact it makes.
The key issues and sustainable design choices designers need to consider are related to:
- Energy efficiency
- Water systems
- Materials and building or installation techniques used
Energy in Sustainable Design
The production of energy, particularly when fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas are used, results in the emission of greenhouse gases and contributes to climate change. Conventional consumption of energy also results in the depletion of resources (coal, oil, and natural gas) that cannot be easily replenished – if at all.
The answer is to reduce energy use by employing passive design techniques, using energy-efficient products, and choosing renewable energy sources.
Passive design is remarkably simple and incredibly effective. What it involves is taking advantage of the sun, wind, and outside temperatures by focusing on the orientation, shape, and layout of the building and its thermal envelope (which, of course, is a vital element of the overall design.)
Passive design incorporates:
- Solar gain that uses natural heat from the sun to warm interiors.
- Solar shading, which controls solar gain, is provided in the form of solar-control glazing, deep overhangs, blinds, or external louvers.
- Thermal mass, created by using dense materials with the capacity to store high heat and coolness, is used for natural heating and cooling.
- Thermal insulation, which reduces the rate of heat transfer from the outside and reduces the need for mechanical heating and cooling.
- Natural ventilation that makes use of windows, air vents, roof vents and so on, encourages fresh air to flow naturally around internal living spaces.
- Air-tightness that helps to avoid unwanted draughts and heat loss.
- Natural day-lighting, governed by glazing, other transparent materials, and the depth of rooms and used to reduce the need for electric lighting by optimizing the availability of natural sunlight.
- Living walls, which are a very useful passive design measure that can be used inside the house. Techniques include using soil to provide the thermal mass and plants to absorb dust and air pollution.
Of course, passive design has its challenges, and professionals will usually need help to ensure that any passive energy strategy is successful and effective. It may not involve all these elements, and it will, in any case, be necessary for the interior designer to look at energy-efficiency too, particularly in terms of lighting, the use of appliances, and energy-efficient building services for heating, ventilation, and cooling.
Passive design is even more effective – and a lot cheaper – than renewable energy systems that require a substantial input of various professionals, for instance, those who offer electrical, plumbing, or mechanical engineering services.
Renewable energy systems produce energy from sources that, unlike fossil fuels, are renewable and may be produced in relatively small amounts on site. The most common systems are:
- Solar thermal heating for water
- Photovoltaic cells for solar-powered electricity
- Heat pumps for heating and cooling
- Wind power for electricity
- Biomass for heating
Water in Sustainable Design
We need to conserve water to avoid water scarcity, particularly in dry regions. But apart from this, the transportation and processing of water for use in the construction industry also contributes to carbon emissions.
The most obvious ways to conserve water is to harvest rainwater and recycle the gray water from bathtubs, washing machines, and dishwashers. Water-saving fittings and appliances are also effective, and water meters enable occupants to monitor usage.
Materials in Sustainable Design
Materials are varied and their effect on environmental issues is a lot broader, ranging from the depletion of resources and loss of biodiversity to impacting health and creating waste. While the exact impact on various environmental issues varies, the energy needed for manufacture and through the lifecycle of materials and products made from them is unconditional. It happens all the time.
Materials also affect the way spaces function from their thermal performance to overall durability, which also affects the impact a construction project and resultant structure has on the environment.
The best way to mitigate damage is to reduce consumption of materials wherever possible, use materials that are made in a sustainable manner, and to re-use and recycle whenever we can.
Ultimately, interior designers need to reduce, re-use, and where possible recycle materials. Additionally, they need to use renewables as much as they can. They will also need to consider the potential environmental impact of materials, processes, and products at every stage of the building project, including the phase when the building is occupied and later, if and when it needs to be demolished.
Of course, there are always codes and regulations that need to be considered and so it is always advisable to work with professionals from the city or area where you live – for instance, New York or Chicago engineers, architects, or interior designers, sometimes the full spectrum, especially when it comes to the wide variety of construction method options. A good team will work together and share their knowledge of the key issues of sustainable construction and design in their quest to achieve environmentally friendly results.
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.