As a member of the GFDA you likely care about the negative impact being caused by colossal amounts of waste produced by the design-build industry. Yet “sustainable” choices are complex and dizzying, your time is pretty limited, and the endgame is that you need things in your projects to simply work

How do you untangle the confusion, minimize the overwhelm, and take actionable steps forward?

In this five-part series, we’ll start to demystify just that. Parts One and Two will lay out where and how to start thinking about new design and buying choices in ways that are relevant and digestible. In Parts Three and Four we’ll be talking to an award-winning AD100 designer and designer-turned-material scientist about their experiences applying these principles in their work. Finally, Part Five will help you reframe how to better sell your design services to your existing and prospective clients as someone mindful of sustainability and lower waste habits in your work.

In this first part, we’ll examine the choices you face in designing a home’s structure and interior architecture. Let’s start by getting down to the basics and looking at the materials designers use most, so you can start chipping away at planetary problems that keep you up at night.

Ready to roll up those sleeves?

Designing Homes

The best place to start is by approaching waste impact from two main angles. First by making material choices that produce less upfront waste, and then from the lens of dismantling, upcycling, and recycling later. Generally speaking, this involves focusing on high quality materials that maintain integrity over time, hence worth more later, as well as minimizing mixing of materials, finishes, and fabrication techniques in single applications which complicates later disassembly. Let’s look at primary building material choices in more detail, one by one.

Wood: Wood is generally a low-waste, sustainable material for all parts of the build out. Steer clear of pressure treated lumber because it cannot be recycled. Ask fabricators and contractors to confirm where they source lumber. There are a slew of domestic wood hardwood species used for construction, so there is no need to source from abroad which creates more emissions. Engineered lumber is a great choice, as it’s already made from recycled materials; and it goes without saying that reclaimed wood from your local salvage depot is a fabulous choice for components, details, and even exterior purposes for the right project.  To explore alternatives to pressure treated wood, that still offer its benefits, you can start here. If you want to geek out on details, like which species of wood grow the fastest and have the lowest carbon footprint, you can read more here.

Metal: Metal falls in the middle of the “clean to problematic” spectrum. It’s produced using carbon-based resources, but there are still better vs worse choices. Choose domestic steel for structural building components over cheaper metals and alloys. Firstly, it can be recycled forever, if designed with simple disassembly in mind. More importantly, U.S. steel is the greenest, most energy efficient steel on the planet (Chinese steel creates 2.5x carbon emissions and is made using double the energy), and uses up to 90% recycled content, far more than any other type. Domestic stainless is also a great choice for both exterior and interior applications as are brass, copper, and bronze. These last three feel rich, can last generations, and what’s more they retain high value for upcycling later.

Concrete: Now for the problem children. Concrete lasts a long time but never decomposes, uses obscene amounts of petroleum to make, and isn’t recycled much due to structural concerns after re-engineering. Alternatives for foundations include brick, ferrock, or hempcrete, an exciting new product to the market with tons of versatility. Insulation alternatives include sheep’s wool, cotton/denim, thermacork, or cellulose, and they all have many pros and very few cons. EFC (Environmentally Friendly Concrete) is a newer innovation. Don’t be misled by the name, as it’s made mostly from waste, has a negative carbon footprint, and contains no portland cement, which is the main offender in traditional concrete. You can also explore a range of low-carbon cement options from Holcim.

Drywall: Meet your other problem child. Most of it ends up in landfills, and isn’t biodegradable. Instead look at companies producing alternative drywall and soundproofing materials. Two options include MgO, or Magnesium Oxide Board drywall. It uses 50% the energy to produce in addition to being durable, fireproof, lightweight, sound-insulating, moisture-resistant, non-toxic, and 100% recyclable. Another alternative is Homasote which uses 98% recycled content, producing sound proofing options and tackable wall-paneling that is weather-resistant, structural, insulating, and extremely durable with two to three times the strength of typical light-density wood fiber boards.

Finally, a footnote on zero waste options on the horizon. Various firms (Bjarke Ingels Group, Cucinella Architects, University of Maine’s Advanced Structures’ Department) have recently built viable 3D-printed houses- the latter two using plant-based filaments. That means zero waste at both build out and end of lifecycle. Look into Sculpteo’s guide for the latest players worldwide developing large-scale 3D printing technologies.

Framing Your Approach

If you’re a small firm, create a checklist of concerns for contractors you hire and companies you buy from. Let them do the work for you! Contractors these days are more accustomed to providing a “carbon footprint calculation” when quoting. Send your waste and sustainability concern checklist to all existing vendors to fill out, and new vendors as you specify. You’ll only do it once, and then you can filter choices as it makes sense, project by project. Brands need to know you care (BEFORE you buy) to prioritize changes that cost them resources. Don’t ever underestimate the power of your purchasing dollar! Since you’re working with more limited resources versus larger firms, focus on better buying in highest volume categories: structural, flooring, walls, ceilings, cabinetry (and furniture: more to come on that in Part Two).

Increase the use of standardized core elements in your practice, leaving the custom work for smaller details so there’s less resource drain from re-inventing the wheel per project. And finally, include costs in the scope for any client who expresses sustainability concerns to help cover resources such as extra hours for consultants or overtime for junior staff that you’ll need to sort through design choices.

For larger firms, delegate the research to junior staff, contract a Sustainable Materials Consultant, or put someone full time within the firm who focuses on researching options as decisions progress. Have them evolve your material library, vendor list, sampling and buying protocols and then train everyone else. For efficiency’s sake, the whole design team needs training on which upfront choices affect what can be later recycled, upcycled, or disposed of responsibly. Make it standard practice to provide clients at project closing with an adaptation/disassembly plan, meaning build drawings, material guides, structural properties, repair access points, and relevant sources. And don’t forget to share your knowledge outside your organization to help empower smaller firms. Information hoarding and competitiveness are the enemies of progress.

Lastly, and importantly, remember that you only need to focus on a few concerns at a time, especially if you’re a smaller firm. If you’re mega-stressed trying to foster better environmental wellness, you’ve lost the program. Your clients need you to stay as healthy as the material choices you’re making for them! Two hands cannot hold the weight of the world, so instead use one hand to tweak a single dial at a time, and use the other hand to pat yourself on the back for being part of the change the world needs right now. As my old colleague Donna used to say “crumbs make a pie!” Every effort makes a difference.

In Part Two of this series we explore materiality on the interiors side of the design process.

Written by: Maha Mamish | GFDA Member and Contributor | Maha Mamish is a growth strategist, educator, and promoter for creative brands embracing excellence, innovation, and sustainable frameworks. A graduate from Sotheby’s London in European Decorative Arts & Design, she launched her career in NYC specializing in sales and strategic business development for best-in-class luxury design brands over the last 20 years, and now focuses on helping entrepreneurs expand cutting-edge ideas rooted in circular-thinking.  LEARN MORE ABOUT THE GFDA