Creating Sustainable Interiors: turning commitment into action

Last year’s COP26 saw an encouraging number of companies from the built environment sector committing to a reduction in carbon emissions – but what does this mean for architects and designers in their everyday lives? How can they specify spaces that prioritise sustainability? 

As part of Interface’s programme of events at this year’s Clerkenwell Design Week, we hosted an expert panel that discussed the reality of the challenges, the impact of collective action and practical tips that designers can implement to help accelerate positive change for the planet and people.  

The panel 

Host: Oliver Heath, Biophilic Designer and founding signatory of Interior Design Declares 

Oliver leads his own biophilic design practice and was an initiator of Interior Design Declares, an initiative that aims to bring interior designers together to tackle the climate crisis.    

During the discussion, Oliver highlighted the crucial need for architects and designers to put climate change and biodiversity at the top of their agendas to ensure they’re actively supporting companies to reduce their emissions through new and existing buildings.  

Claire Potter, Circular Economy Designer and Lecturer  

Claire is the founder of her own design and consultancy practice and a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex. She is passionate about the need for designers to start thinking about the true value of products and materials, and not only where they come from, but how they impact the planet throughout their whole lifecycle.  

Her mission is to disrupt the idea that products are at the end of their life, simply because they’re no longer wanted. 

Becky Gordon, Regional Sustainability Manager at Interface  

Becky acts as a representative for Interface’s sustainability strategy in the UK, Ireland and the Middle East and advises customers on the role of carbon in creating positive and sustainable interiors. 

Becky explained how environmental product declarations (EPDs) can assist architects and designers with understanding the full carbon footprint of the products they are specifying and provide the crucial data that clients need to apply for sustainability certifications like BREEAM and LEED.  

She also explained that some pioneering products can be used to help hit a sustainability brief. For example, backings like Interface’s CQuest™Bio help to reduce the product’s carbon footprint versus a traditional bitumen backing, as well as being designed for reuse and recycling at the end of life. And for clients with even bolder carbon goals they can look to innovations such as Interface’s carbon negative (cradle to gate) carpet tiles. 

Chris Webb, Head of Sustainability at TP Bennett  

Chris heads up sustainability at TP Bennett, a leading UK-based architecture and design practice. With the company’s sustainability team, he supports the firm’s designers on how to meet and develop sustainability briefs and helps clients to implement robust sustainability strategies in instances where they are not already doing so.  

Chris highlighted that the materials used in an office building can account for around 67% of its total carbon footprint – a sobering fact. However, he went on to explain how this gives architects and designers an opportunity, as well as a responsibility, to specify products that reduce this impact and create positive change.  

Chris also highlighted that the average lease duration for an office is about seven years, while the average building has a lifetime of 70 years. If each new tenant refurbishes the space at the outset of their lease, this very regular cycling of materials is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Architects and designers can influence both the circularity and  specification of sustainable materials, so it’s essential, Chris explained, that they use this as an opportunity to help their clients understand the role that materials can play in helping these clients deliver their wider sustainability goals and strategies.  

Q&A session  

 Q) Oliver: How do you prioritise sustainability over design when you receive a brief?

Claire: The key is asking questions. A good designer should take the brief apart and put it back together with mindfulness, thinking about the most important factor for the client, the best possible spend and outcome, while reusing as many things as possible and reducing emissions. 

Becky: I’d agree it’s all about understanding what the main priority is to them. Once you understand a company’s sustainability aims, you can then ask sales representatives and account managers to support you with getting the relevant information you need about products to make informed choices about what you’d like to specify.  

Chris: Architects and designers also have the ability to challenge briefs. If you think targets can be more ambitious, then push for this and commit to delivering a truly sustainable project that lowers emissions and has a positive impact. 

 Q) Oliver: Interior Design can be perceived as being behind others in the industry with sustainability – what is the reason for that? 

Chris: In interiors, we have previously focused on how products look. It’s now up to the community to start putting purpose at the forefront of everything, and that starts with how we approach briefs – regardless of whether or not sustainability is outlined as a key priority. 

Claire: One reason that the architectural community is behind is because it often has a limited selection of products to choose from. Designers, meanwhile, often have the opposite problem, in that there’s so much choice available. This can often make it more difficult to choose sustainable options, such as recycled products.   

It’s worth noting that we’ve seen some really positive changes. Clients are less focused on trends and more concerned about the longevity of products, which shows a move towards circular thinking.  

 Q) Oliver: How can architects and designers expand their knowledge of sustainability and the impact of products?

Chris: One of the best ways to find out more is to join learning groups like LETI, which is made up of over 1000 built environment professionals working towards a zero-carbon future for London. They have some fantastic resources on carbon. There are also lots of free online courses such as those offered by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. 

Claire: Another option is to go directly to the websites of manufacturers and suppliers. Take a look at their reports and resources on what they’re doing and their commitments to reducing the emissions of their products in the future. This provides a good foundation for knowing what to ask other manufacturers and suppliers about when it comes to products and sustainability credentials.  

Becky: It’s worth noting that architect-led events are still really relevant for interior designers too and can provide so much relevant information – Architects Declare and Interior Design Declare both have particularly good resources.  

The ambition and desire of architects and designers to create change is what is needed to really make a difference. There are loads of solutions and products that already exist, so it’s not about changing everything about what we do or finding new solutions, it’s a change of mindset.

Find out more about Interface’s sustainability journey. 

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