Neumann Monson has made sustainability a top priority. According to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the built environment accounts for nearly 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, solidifying architects’ responsibility in the fight against climate change. While “sustainable design” usually conjures up images of solar arrays and green roofs, interiors also play a key role in reducing a building’s carbon footprint. By vetting the lifecycle, sourcing, and recyclability of materials, interior designers create environments that benefit both the building’s occupants and the planet.
Consider the Lifecycle of Materials
Long-lasting, durable materials are at the heart of sustainable interior design. Materials with a short lifecycle often end up in a landfill, especially flooring. Sheet vinyl needs to be replaced every 20 years and Vinyl Composition Tile (VCT) every ten years, depending on the quality of the product and foot traffic. These materials also require constant maintenance, including the use of hazardous wax sealants. In comparison, low-maintenance materials like porcelain tile or polished concrete can last over 40 years. Terrazzo can even last nearly a century with proper care.
Every material has a lifecycle, including lighting. Energy-efficient LED lights last much longer than fluorescent bulbs, helping reduce a building’s energy consumption and material waste. Often, materials with a longer lifecycle have a higher initial purchasing price. Although it is tempting to use inexpensive materials with a shorter lifecycle to reduce construction costs, this decision will likely add to the long-term expenses of building operation as owners pay to maintain and replace materials. Ultimately, investing in high-quality materials dually benefits the owner and the environment.
In addition to lifecycle, it is important to consider how materials are produced. Every material that goes into a building contains “embodied energy,” or the energy consumed during its production, including mining, manufacturing, delivery, and installation. Sourcing locally is one of the best ways to reduce embodied energy. For example, a material produced in the US will have a smaller carbon footprint than a material produced overseas simply due to shipping. Regional or local products will have an even smaller footprint, making them the best option.
For the health of the building’s occupants, a product’s chemical makeup is equally important. Designers frequently refer to the “Red List,” which outlines harmful chemicals to avoid. To find Red List free products, designers can use the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) Declare Label, which transparently outlines product ingredients for a range of materials, including flooring, adhesives, and furniture. At Neumann Monson, we are using the Declare Label to find products for the Stanley Center for Peace and Security, a Living Building Challenge development in Muscatine, Iowa.
Utilize Recyclable (and Recycled) Materials
Interiors face plenty of wear and tear, and inevitably, some materials need to be replaced. However, interior designers can greatly reduce material waste by choosing recyclable products. Many carpet companies offer recycling services for old carpet, spinning the fibers into new yarn. Typically, building owners must pay for the expense, but some manufacturers are starting to offer these services free of charge. One carpet manufacturer, Interface, takes these efforts a step further by partnering with poverty-stricken communities to recycle materials like fishing nets into carpet fibers.
Other innovative companies make materials from recycled plastic. J&J utilizes recycled plastic bottles for their Kinetex flooring line, a durable and low-maintenance carpet tile product often used in offices and schools. Each carpet tile of Kinetex is made from 27 recycled plastic bottles. Plastic can also be used to make acoustical felt ceiling panels, like those found in the Tuesday Agency. Recently, furniture manufacturers have been joining the recycled plastic trend. For example, Emeco partnered with Coca-Cola to produce the Navy 111 Chair, which is made from 111 recycled Coke bottles. Other companies, like Designtex, are creating textiles from recycled polyester. With more manufacturers prioritizing sustainability, the options for recycled materials are immense.
Consider Occupant Health
Sustainable interior design requires an expanded purview that considers the health of a building’s occupants. Design features like large, operable windows provide occupants with access to daylight and fresh air while moderating indoor temperate. Likewise, garden walls and urban agriculture spaces provide occupants with healthy meal options while reducing our dependency on global food production. Designers can also utilize paints and flooring materials that are free from Volatile Organic Compounds to improve indoor air quality while reducing embodied carbon consumption. Sustainable design works in tandem with occupant wellbeing, encouraging designers to prioritize human health.