In this second installment of Materiality and Sustainability in the Design Process, we look at material choices in the interiors and furnishings part of your projects. Some of the choices outlined below are obvious, like reducing consumption of plastic, buying pieces that will stand the test of time, or donating & selling unwanted items when you’re renovating. Here we’ll go a bit deeper into some of the main material categories.
Before we Rambo through the bullet points, just remember, that choices can be best filtered broadly through the 4 R’s: the RESOURCES needed to make and deliver it; whether it is a candidate for REUSE; end-of-life implications that impact if it can be RECYCLED in entirety or parts; and finally, what level or speed of safe biodegradability is at play should it become RUBBISH in a landfill.
Let’s have a look by material in three categories: Fabric, Furniture and Packaging.
- Synthetic and performance fabrics are headed straight for the landfill one day. Build instead whenever possible an aesthetic focused on high-quality natural fabrics like linen, cotton, hemp, or wool. Synthetics with ‘partially recycled content’ still means new plastic has been created, and plastic can only be recycled three times, max. Anything with synthetic content is headed to a landfill unless the scrap can be upcycled into something else.
- Don’t fall into the bamboo trap. Bamboo rayon fabrics often, labeled just ‘bamboo,’ are manufactured with synthetics. Instead look for ‘bamboo linen’ as it is a truly natural material and made using zero chemicals.
- Most stain treatments contain harmful PFAs and PFCs, meaning plastics are in there that don’t break down. Look into new non-toxic stain treatments like GreenShield, which uses Silica nanoparticles to cover the fibers with similar results.
- Creative things are being done with ocean waste such as the work by Recover™and Valdese Weavers. And plant-based leathers are emerging, too, like from cactus, pineapple and mycelium, but can also be carbon intensive to produce. There will always be tradeoffs. Weigh your options.
- Get creative with vintage fabrics when going custom. Also, fabric houses have remnants of discontinued fabrics they’ll often sell for less per yard or even give away that are usable for smaller applications. Don’t throw those old samples away! Schools offering interior design degrees are often happy to take in your discarded samples for student projects.
Elegance and simplicity. Built to last. Explore the Keyhole collection by Fyrn (Fyrn.com)
- Like with wood and metals, high-quality, domestically sourced, or manufactured options are the best choices. Work with your manufacturers to use construction methods that facilitate later disassembly, especially in mixed material applications. Apply the same thinking to built-ins, choosing fabrication techniques that make access, repair, and disassembly points obvious. This allows for parts to be easily swapped out if one element breaks, or for upgrades that may be designed later. Design with end-of-life in mind.
- Move away from trends, especially in problematic materials. Instead, lean into timeless stylistic choices that can be repurposed or stand the test of time. Always use the highest-quality materials that will last.
- Incorporate antiques and vintage pieces as a standard. It takes some upfront research, but you’ll save on lead times and quality control issues compared to newly made objects. And it gives that vintage piece a second (or third) life, and keeps it out of landfills.
- For new purchases, look at ‘mindful MATERIALS,’ who promotes specification for brands focused on human/climate/ecosystem health, social equity, and circular economies. They’re currently digitizing a free database which lists resources, products and companies to source from.
- Establish more responsible sampling practices. Sample from brands that meet your standards list and reduce the number of samples requested by using Material Bank, the technology company that provides a sustainable way to source thousands of samples at a time.
- Think of the value in simplifying, standardizing, and softening your materiality approach. The days of Pantone-chip level matchy-match designing are over. Welcome to the age of diversity and authenticity. Simplifying doesn’t necessarily translate into generic. It’s an opportunity to get creative. Trust me, evolving your entire approach will end up saving you time, headaches, and our planet.
Every year, 37 million tons of packaging goes straight into landfills.
- Remodeling a wet space? Don’t throw away old tile! Most of it goes into landfills, but tile and porcelain can be ground up and used for aggregates in road and railway construction. Look up Crosseville, who handles the pick-up and processing logistics for that exact purpose.
- Don’t have time to figure out how to recycle everything you’re dumping? Connect with a local sustainable junk removal service that sorts, recycles, and responsibly disposes for you, there are often more than one in your area. Look for nationwide operations like JDog Junk Removal for projects out of your area. Renovation Angel is the country’s largest kitchen exchange.
- The packaging waste produced by a new home install is enough to make anyone who has witnessed it ill with worry. I know you feel me here. Every year, 37 million tons of packaging goes straight into landfills.
- Switch to using biodegradable, plant-based packaging over plastic (push vendors to make the switch), specify blanket-wrap shipping over boxing, or buy things locally that usually ship with tons of packing (e.g., ceramics, glass objects, or specialty finishes.) It will save on excess carbon emissions and the shipping costs are often less.
- Coupling shipments also helps. Work with hauling services that do the sorting for you and get materials to the recycling facility. Consider the online materials exchanges like Reapturit or Rheaply.
- Finally, keep your eyes peeled for future innovations. Mycocyle, which launched in 2021, is on a mission to transform the waste industry and has developed a system to decompose waste, such as asphalt or gypsum, using mycelium spores. That could mean an eventual zero-landfill waste solution that would break down even some toxic substances in a matter of weeks.
- Currently they’re focused on single stream processing on-site at waste facilities in specific regions as a pilot program. Phase 2 is in future planning which would include processing mixed material into biosoil in just weeks, all in containers that could be delivered straight to your job site. How cool is that?
For those of you still feeling like this sounds like a lot of work…
First of all, do not assume you have to do all of this for it to count. Incremental steps add up. Think of it more like a menu of options from which to choose project-by-project and only whichever ones make sense and are doable.
For those of you excited to dig even deeper into materiality and sustainability, you can learn more from the EPA’s sustainability section, a treasure trove of information and links to more info and a great place to start.
Secondly, try this idea on for size: in case you haven’t noticed the macro trend across our society, we’re in a global paradigm shift over what living well ideally means. Providing a beautiful luxurious home used to mean obsessively iterated spaces that looked ‘perfect,’ or showcasing an embarrassment of glamorous riches. These were the old norms.
Now, the world of best-in-class design is shifting towards environments that cocoon humans in the wellbeing and balance so many of us are craving.
Those at the head of the pack are offering more than ‘pretty’ or ‘authentic.’The real leaders are offering an experience of, and access to, joy, vitality, connection, and opportunities for future longevity in clients’ homes. And what does that mean ? (drum roll, everyone). It means, as the person shaping those very same interior living spaces, you are largely at the seat of power in this all. How empowering is that?! Stand tall and feel proud that you get to do this.
Get ready and psyched about being a visionary and model for generations to come. (We’ll dive deeper on that in Part 5 of this series, How to Sell Yourself as a Sustainable Designer.) For now, just know that welcoming in ‘the work’ represents stepping into a new and influential role in what being immersed in beauty now means for humans. You are the future.
Next up in Part 3, an interview with wunderkind designer Caleb Anderson, now partner to design legend Jamie Drake at their AD top 100 firm Drake/Anderson. Caleb’s spearheaded the firm’s move into sustainable everything, and we’ll be talking to him about his experiences getting in the trenches of a lower waste practice.
Additional Photo credits: Child in box, cottonbro studio; Baby on sofa, Ksenia Chernaya