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Clients might not specify environmentally friendly materials, but it’s the duty of interior designers to enlighten them argues Pamela Buxton

Specifying sustainable contract interiors is still a niche activity, despite 20 years of mainstream debate on environmental issues. ‘My clients aren’t really into that’ or ‘Can’t help you there’ are typical responses from designers who, while maybe willing in theory, don’t feel empowered to challenge client attitudes and promote sustainable materials and approaches.

For designers working on low-margin projects with little knowledge of sustainability, the idea of considering thorny issues such as toxic content, energy input, recyclability and the material content of what they specify may seem beyond the call of duty.

However, with a wealth of product information now just a click away on the Internet, plus sustainable building and product supermarkets such as Construction Resources, ignorance is becoming a poor defence. And assumptions that sustainable materials are hard to find, will cost more, and will look and perform worse must be tackled by both designer and client, according to Miles Park, course leader in sustainable futures at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design.

‘The perception is that eco-products have to conform to a certain aesthetic – [they have to] be rustic, with a homely, friendly, crude aesthetic associated with being natural,’ says Park. ‘We want to challenge that and say you should be buying it on product performance because it’s better all round.’

Designers have to put in the time and effort to find out about sustainable options, says interior designer and Changing Rooms presenter Oliver Heath, who writes for the Friends of the Earth magazine and believes that recycled materials are one of the most exciting areas in design today.

‘It’s up to everyone to do their bit – a conscious effort by the client saying, ‘I care about the environment’ and if the client isn’t asking the questions, it’s up to the designer to inform them,’ he notes.

It’s clear, however, that if sustainable materials are to have a mass-market appeal, they’ll have to meet aesthetic and performance criteria before winning Brownie points for their environmentally friendly qualities. That’s the approach being taken by the Waste & Resources Action Programme, which is exhibiting a home constructed entirely of recycled products at this year’s Ideal Home Show.

‘We’re going for a hi-tech look,’ says a WRAP spokeswoman. ‘You must demonstrate that recycled materials aren’t necessarily poorer quality and higher price. The idea is to make the products mainstream, so people want to buy them,’ she explains.

While this is not a problem for materials from sustainable sources, such as wood accredited by the Forestry Stewardship Commission, it is more of an issue when dealing with products made from recycled materials.

But it can be done. One material whose attractive and durable qualities have brought it considerable success is ttura, a surface material made from recycled glass and specified widely by established designers such as Thomas Heatherwick and Ben Kelly. Ttura supplier Eight Inch is in no doubt that it sells the product on aesthetic grounds, as it boasts an attractive twinkly finish.

‘Most designers specify it because it looks great and it’s a bonus that they feel warm inside because it’s sustainable,’ says Eight Inch founder Gary Nicholson. Checkland Kindleysides has just specified it for a major fast-food chain because of its looks and the fact that it can be produced in long spans without joins – a quality that appeals to clients who have to worry about hygiene. Fusion Design & Architecture used it for Pitcher & Piano interiors because it was interesting and unusual as well as recycled, and turned out to be cheaper than new materials such as marble and glass.

Smile Plastics has found that its biggest selling surface products made from recycled materials have been those that are least overtly recycled in appearance – the ones made from yoghurt pots. Instead, the priority is looking good. ‘It’s almost an added bonus that they’re made from recycled product,’ says Smile’s Colin Williamson, whose products have been specified by The Body Shop and Nokia.

Specifying sustainable soft or resilient floor-coverings is far trickier than sourcing sustainable wood. While Interface has introduced a pioneering re-entry scheme for its own Heuga and other carpet tiles, where the company collects and reconditions used tiles for use again in lower-spec applications, the carpet industry has yet to come up with a broader recycling initiative. Carpet adhesives are now far more likely to be water-based than potentially toxic and solvent-based, but there are other issues, says a Contract Flooring Association spokesperson, such as whether you specify wool or synthetic fibres, which use oil as a starting point. But while wool and its jute backing is renewable, it may have a longer supply chain and with its higher pile, may well cost more than nylon options.

With smooth flooring, materials made from renewable natural sources such as linoleum, rubber and cork generally get the thumbs up from Greenpeace. It also advocates ceramic tiles, marble and terrazzo and carries an on-line database of alternatives to materials containing PVC, which it ranks as the most problematically toxic plastic. Some vinyl manufacturers including Tarkett Sommer and Amtico do offer PVC-free products made from other polymers such as polyolefin.

Materials are just one facet of sustainability which is basically just good, efficient design, according to Jeff Kindleysides, principal creative director of Checkland Kindleysides. He has noticed a rise in the number of briefs with sustainable design approaches, especially among multinational corporations with an eye on Corporate Social Responsibility.

‘We know it’s an issue and we do address it if we can, using plywood instead of MDF, or aluminium rather than plastic-framed windows. The client doesn’t necessarily need to know that it has sustainable materials,’ Kindleysides explains. But he believes the group’s sustainable approach is even broader than this. It entails value engineering to reduce material wastage and transport costs and an emphasis on flexible, re-usable designs in areas such as retail and exhibitions, which have traditionally short lifespans. The challenge for the designer is to come up with something that expresses the brand but allows for change within the same interior framework. It may be cost-driven, but the end result can be more sustainable.

No-one’s suggesting that designers should solely bear the burden of spreading the sustainability message. ‘What needs to happen to effect real change is for the Government to make some positive differences to policies which affect the making and disposing of stuff,’ says designer Michael Marriott.

But designers are well-placed to do their bit, believes Heath: ‘This is the equivalent of our industrial revolution – looking at what you do with the end effect of our consumption of design. As designers we have the ability to spread the word.’ Specification: what to look out for

Wood – Aim for Forestry Stewardship Commission-certified goods to be sure production is sustainable.

Paint – Look out for VOC (volatile organic compound) levels, the lower the better. Water-based paints are generally, but not always, less likely to be a problem.

Furnishings – Avoid fabric with BFRs (Brominated Flame Retardants).

MDF – Allegedly dangerous because of free formaldehyde content and risks from fine dust during drilling.

Carpet – Watch out for toxic glues. Interface offers a retrieval and recycle scheme for carpet tiles.

PVC – Extensively used, but the most problematically toxic plastic there is, according to Greenpeace. Some PVC-free vinyl flooring is now available.

Lighting – Consider low-energy options.

Plumbing – Consider dual-flush lavatories and condensing boilers.Contacts

Association of Environmentally Conscious Building

Construction Resources

Eight Inch

Forestry Stewardship Council

Friends of the Earth


Smile Plastics

Waste & Resources Action Programme

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