Sustainability: The Business Beyond the Buzzword
By Ramya Ramachandran | June 15, 2018
“Sustainability.” It’s a word I hear so often in the design world. Think of phrases like “sustainably sourced” or “eco-friendly”, and innumerable brands and designers will come to mind. But beyond “reduce, reuse, recycle,” what does sustainability really mean in the interior design industry? Are clients more interested in sustainability these days, or are designers marketing themselves as such to gain an edge? But most importantly: does it make business sense for designers to build an eco-friendly process?
As a budding designer with these questions, I turned to industry leaders and designers for answers. Here’s what I found.
Designer Kelly LaPlante says that reusing building materials is the most cost effective measure for sustainability; not only are you “contributing nothing towards the landfill or to the environmental footprint that comes from packaging and shipping…. You are also spending no new dollars,” she explains.
“Little changes go a long way,” agrees Valerie Morris. She’s a design project manager at Furniture for Business.“For example: using natural materials in lieu of man-made, low VOC [volatile organic compound] paints, materials with little to no off-gassing, specifying partially recycled products, and re-purposing all make a difference.”
Even though every designer has to meet a bottom line, striving to implement sustainable design may not only reduce the environmental impact — but the money may follow.
Clients are interested in sustainability”
Kelly LaPlante tells the story of sustainability — and, of course, she says that the bottom line is still the most important thing for consumers and designers, especially after the 2008 recession. Luckily for the planet, manufacturers made shifts toward eco-friendly products early on. “It became a back-burner concern for the consumer, but, fortunately, the wheels had been set in motion for manufacturers and they continued to pursue development that would make their products more environmentally friendly,” LaPlante says. “Today, I’d say that there is less active interest in sustainability, on the consumer, but it’s become a baseline standard. It is something they expect to have in a cost effective way, hence the bar is raised on a consistent basis, so manufacturers have to continue to innovate.”
Sustainability should be at the forefront of the design process, says Valerie Morris. “Clients are concerned with sustainability, but the major impact is still highly price-driven,” she explains — and the money follows designers who know their clients. “In my experience, successful green projects have a 5-10% margin above the traditional cost, but cost becomes a major issue at the 15% mark. Hence, it’s crucial for designers to present sustainability at the beginning of a project; to illustrate the benefits, as well as a future return on investment.”
Kelly LaPlante says she couldn’t agree more. “Consumers are demanding it, so if you’re not providing it, you’re going to find yourself running to catch up with the rest of the industry.”
…But the trend may be regional
However, Suzanne Connor of residential design firm Casatopia isn’t sure that there has been an uptick in sustainable projects where she is based, and says that there may be a regional trend. “I have not seen any increased interest in sustainability in Florida. However, Arizona is entirely different. The harshness of the desert forces humans to think through the longevity of their building systems, material selections, etc.,” Connor explains. “There is an obvious awareness and forward thinking towards energy efficiency, life cycle costs, sustainable or more natural product offerings, and even more organic and natural food offerings. I believe this to be directly linked to the proximity to CA, the most ‘green’ state by building code standards.”
Valerie Morris agrees. “I also think the shift towards sustainability differs regionally. Austin, Portland, Oregon, California, New York have embedded sustainability practices, but Florida is far behind in time.”
A safe bet
Knowing what a client wants is the linchpin of any interior design business, and that applies to any decisions a designer makes about sustainable practices. If a client in Portland, OR, wants a home or business that is not only gorgeous and functional but also sustainable, go for it; but if a client in Florida isn’t looking beyond the coming decades, it’s best to stick to classic materials and practices. All in all, though, sustainability is a topic that will not be going away any time soon — so at the very least, designers should keep eco-design on their radars.
With over nine years of professional interior design experience and a Master’s from the Savannah College of Art and Design, Ramya is a hybrid writer. She focuses her blog topics on the business side of interior design by merging the lessons learned from design professionals and our podcasts.