Sustainable design is no longer a choice

In just over 10 years from now, we are going to need a second planet according to the WWF. And just after 2050, we will need a third if we continue to consume our resources at the rate that we currently do. Our oceans are turning into garbage dumps – the Science journal reports that 8m metric tons of plastic waste entering global waters every year which is about the weight of 25 Empire State Buildings. The good news is that we can still turn things around.

There is no magic wand – we have already done a lot of damage but sustainable design is no longer a choice. Think of it as an ethos, rather than an add-on. As interior designers and architects, we actually play a massive role. Our sector alone is responsible for about 23% of air pollution.

Buildings on average consume 40% of the world’s energy and materials, and approximately 17% of our water. LEED buildings are shown to use 25% less energy, and about 15% less water than non-certified buildings.

We need to change our perspective, and see this as an opportunity. Changing our consumption patterns is our greatest design challenge.

Where Does the GCC Stand on This?

Initiatives are being implemented across the GCC, with Saudi Arabia’s PIF launching the Saudi Recycling Company in line with their 2030 Vision, and the Omani company Be’ah successfully privatizing waste management.

The UAE government has recently introduced several environmental measures, and positioned themselves as an incubator for sustainable initiatives by committing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030, outlined in the UAE 2021 Vison, and the UAE 2030 Green Agenda. The 2021 Vision in particular focuses on improving the quality of air, preserving water resources, and promoting clean energy. Estidama, Al Sa’fat, the World Expo 2020 focus on sustainability, Sustainable City and Masdar City are all examples of a governmental commitment to change.

So, What Can We Do? Well, Let’s Clear Up Some Myths First:

1. There is a difference between “green” and “sustainable”.

A product may be green (zero VOCs, recycled content etc.), but may not have been sourced sustainably. That’s because sustainability is about responsible sourcing (either completely renewable or sustainably harvested) and considers the whole cycle. If that product was made in Europe, then transported by ships and trucks to reach here, the air pollution caused and the fuel used to transport it, actually contribute to global climate change. So, it is possible that you can have a green product that is not sustainable and vice versa.

As an example, one helpful tip is to ask the manufacturer of the product if it is GreenScreen certified. When trying to understand its life cycle assessment, ask if it is cradle to cradle. One tool to use to help while looking for materials on a project is a website called which is a global material data hub providing access to test results, certificates and standards, voc content certificates etc. for everything from adhesives, to flooring, to electrical devices and even cleaning products.

2. It’s not all about recycling.

Recycling is important but it’s the third step if you think back to the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. As designers, we have a responsibility to consider the amount of products that we specify for a project, and the quality of those products that hopefully means they will be used for 10-15 years even if the lease is only 5 years long.

3. Sustainability is affordable.

Yes, it will cost more upfront, but it will save you money in the long run – in energy and water usage in particular. Consider using daylight controls, or occupancy sensors so lights are only powered up when they need to be.

The USGBC reports that LEED buildings reduce maintenance costs by 20% as compared with traditional buildings. And those are the tangible measures. But, from a corporate perspective for example, green buildings are also proven to improve well-being, increase retention, and reduce absenteeism.

A series of studies led by Harvard in 2016 found that as compared with those working in non-green certified buildings, occupants on average had 26.4% higher cognitive functioning, and 30% fewer self-report sick building symptoms such as respiratory problems, fatigue or skin irritations. 

Questions You Can Ask Suppliers When Selecting Materials:

   1.    Where did this material come from?

   2.    How is the material packaged?

   3.    How is the material maintained and operated?

   4.    How healthy are the materials?

   5.    What do we do with them once we are done with these materials?

5 Key Tips to Make Any Design More Sustainable.

There are a couple of considerations during the design process that can make it more sustainable. I’ve narrowed it down to 5 key tips you can incorporate into any space:

  1. Promote use of a digital library in your office for all catalogues and magazines. Encourage the suppliers you work with to send their digital catalogues to you and when required, order samples specific for the projects you’re working on.

  2. Reduce printing wherever you can – a lot of clients actually prefer to look at a drawing digitally on a large screen. When designing spaces for your clients, consider Enerystar equipment, and printers that only release a print with an employee badge. Consider printing points as an opportune location to install recycling bins.

  3. Avoid specifying plastic water bottles. There are many filtration products in the market today that will actually give you cleaner water than what you find in a plastic water bottle. If you’re using the 20 litre bottled water coolers, consider that the long supply chain means risk for contamination before it reaches you and the container is not necessarily BPA free whereas the filtration systems often have multiple stages of filtration and antimicrobial protection.

  4. Investigate reuse of existing items, buy back or donation programs. Survey your client’s existing space to see if there are any items that can be reused. Speak to the furniture suppliers you work with to see if they will offer buyback programs, as they sometimes need to supply other clients with furniture to rent on a short term basis, or could potentially ship back furniture en masse to be recycled.

  5. Encourage clients to recycle by designing recycling points, including electronic waste points.

This is actually a very exciting time for our industry.

As designers, we are problem solvers – and I personally am really inspired by the amount of innovative products that are entering the market.

For instance, a company in India has created a leather like material made using the bacteria naturally derived from coconut water. This material is totally biodegradable, water resistant and vegan. Fabric manufacturing houses are using material offcuts to manufacture felt. Biodesign laboratories are investigating strains of organisms that can be used to produce natural dyes, which also heavily reduce the amount of water required in the process.

A designer in Holland has developed a biological solution for softening the discarded leaves of Palm Trees, resulting in a plant-based material that is flexible and resembles the feel of leather. All of these examples indicate that the interior of the future will not be dull.

Let’s Push Further.

If we are currently living in a world where our buildings consume 40% of the world’s energy, rather than reducing this to zero, let’s make our buildings self-sufficient, or even better – give back.

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