With the 2050 net carbon zero emissions target looming and with buildings being responsible for 40% of total carbon emissions, it is crucial that all professions involved in construction focus their attention on sustainability.
Sustainable design works on the mantra of ‘Reduce, reuse and recycle,’ modern sustainability adds a fourth R, rethink, we need to approach projects in entirely new way, minimising waste, creating flexible spaces with longevity and designing for disassembly.
Selection of materials is perhaps the most crucial part of designing a sustainable interior; research has shown that there are currently limited sustainable choices made within interior design practice, a “sustainability gap” (Steig) but that in recent years there has been a shift where designers are beginning to focus on creating environmentally responsible spaces. Often deterring clients is the perceived cost of sustainable design, but equally a lack of reliable information from suppliers and manufacturers. In my own experience, selecting sustainable products and finishes is a complex process requiring much research, the current interest in environmental issues has led to most manufacturers speaking of the sustainability of their materials or manufacturing process but there is a complete lack of transparency in this information and therefore knowledge on the subject is required to make informed decisions.Trade-offs further complicate these decisions, where a product may have higher embodied energy but dramatically outperform the alternatives; one example of this is sheet insulation. In addition to the raw materials, the sustainable designer must also investigate the manufacturing process, which may be polluting or potentially abuse human rights, the life cycle of the product, concerning its longevity and if it is reusable or recyclable. Packaging and transportation of the products must also be considered.
It is of course straightforward for the designer to take small steps towards being environmentally responsible, low energy fixtures and fittings, water-saving fittings and low VOC materials or finishes are easily specified with little research or cost implications. Whilst these initiatives assist, in reality they are way too little to have any real impact on carbon emissions.
An additional issue for the interior designer is waste, not simply from construction of the new design but from the removal of the old. A kitchen refit regularly involves 4 or 5 white goods going to landfill, these collectively “make up around half of the electronic waste generated globally” (Regenerate-Renew-Revitalize-Whitepaper). The lifespan of these machines is on average 10 years and “while a repair is almost the same price as a trade-up” (Regenerate-Renew-Revitalize-Whitepaper) it is unlikely that this waste will reduce. France recently became “the first country in the world to define and criminalise the practice of planned obsolescence” (Regenerate-Renew-Revitalize-Whitepaper), a measure that has already pushed designers to work more creatively “transitioning from a linear disposable goods-based economy to a circular economy based on repairable and recyclable goods. In the UK around 100 million tonnes waste are created every year by the construction industry with 25 million tonnes going to landfill.