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How to Be a New Millennium Interior Designer

Note: The following is from an essay I was required to write on sustainability at the end of my unit on materials in interior design school. I find it helpful to go back and remind myself what I learned, to continue to aim to conduct myself according to my findings.

I also try to encourage others to do the same, where I can.

green plants in shabby room interior

Positive deviance means doing the right thing for sustainability, despite being surrounded by the wrong institutional structures, the wrong processes and stubbornly uncooperative people.

That is what sustainability-literate leadership means today.

Surrounded by evidence of rampant un-sustainability it is not possible to say ‘I did not know’.

–Sarah Parkin, Forum for the Future (2010)

A Historical Perspective

From the advent of our species’ history, we have required shelter. We have continued to seek better, safer and more convenient accommodations across the ages, resulting in many of the luxuries that we now take for granted–from building materials such as concrete and plastics, to engines that run our cars, blenders and refrigerators.

Ever since the first man-made material, synthetic polymer celluloid, was invented in 1862 by the late Alexander Parkes, humankind has continued to push the boundaries of science. In a vacuum for new materials with the desirable attributes of greater strength, elasticity, durability and lighter weight values, a world of plastics and composites was born.

Driving this seemingly endless experimentation and subsequent successes at creating these man-made products is Big Industry, without which the built environment, our homes and dwelling-places, our infrastructure and our cities would not be possible.

Alexander Parkes is considered the father of plastics.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Modern Perspective

For most of us, it is easy to forget how much simpler life is for us than our forebears.

Simultaneously, it is now also impossible to forget that the daily manufacturing of ever-cheaper and often toxic products is polluting our beautiful earth and creating a monumental crisis.


a) Global warming

b) The disposal of our own waste products

c) The desecration of natural resources

d) The pollution of our air

e) The thinning of the ozone layer

f) The disappearance of habitats on which the other species of our world depend

These are travesties that will only continue to affect us as we head into an unknown future.

The Role of the Designer

The interior designer, in their career spanning possible decades, will be responsible for the specification and selection of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of products and materials from a seemingly unlimited number of sources. These products are tools with which to create spaces fit for human use and have the power to affect many. They must be safe and foster health and productivity.

Our spaces should nurture us, not poison us.

Every day new products are introduced on the market. Many of these allow us improvements upon the old methods of planning, designing, fitting and building, but whatever conveniences they provide must always be weighed and measured against their impact on our fragile ecosystem and human health.

“First do no harm” is a good principle, yet challenging to live up to in the face of budgets, client demands and time constraints.

man holding shovel

Carbon emissions from the building industry account for more than a third of all CO2 emissions globally, reaching their highest peak at 38% in 2019 according to the UN Environment Program.

Interior Design: Industry or Service?

Although the interior design profession falls under the ‘service’ category, the design profession is very closely tied to construction, especially in commercial and contractual projects, where greater quantities of materials are required.

The problems faced as well as the solutions at hand to the construction industry need to be taken very seriously by the designer, who will need to employ construction professionals and specify material products to the benefit or eventual detriment of the environment.

Waste Management

In the UK alone, waste generation from construction comes to a staggering 70 million tonnes of waste per year, according to the Department of Civil and Building Engineering at Loughborough University.

It amounts to almost twenty-four kilograms per week for each person in the UK and accounts for four times more waste than is produced by a regular household.

The British government, like many other authorities concerned with the implications of this situation, have put forth suggestions for dealing with construction waste.

Best to Worst Practices for Construction Disposal

The hierarchy of waste management from most to least desirable

1. Sustainable developmentThis amounts to keeping the principles of Eco-conscious design forefront and center throughout the design and building processes.
2. PreventionFinding ways to avoid creating waste in the first place.
3. ReductionUsing less, designing with locally sourced products and utilizing smart strategies to make efficient use of all resources.
4. On-site reuse Finding ways to incorporate existing parts of the design into the new
5. On-site recovery Repairing rather than disposing of material which may be recycled or ‘up-cycl
6. Off-site reuseAllowing for recycling once removed from the site by disposing of waste judiciously.
7. Off-site recoveryEnabling restoration of items removed from site through proper disposal.
8. Landfill The worst case scenario in which our refuse and rubble sits without decaying for hundreds of years, polluting the environment in the process.

Taking a look at the above points it makes sense that the interior designer is best able to effect change in the first category, sustainable development.

Through thoughtful design, with attention to sustainability, durability and maintenance, the designer can help to avoid waste problems preemptively.

The Natural vs. Synthetic Argument

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Eco-friendly design should do minimal damage to the environment at every stage: from sourcing to installation and even beyond

The idea that ‘natural is better’ is a common oversimplification encountered in the ofttimes controversial arena of green design proponents. It is very important to be well educated with regard to production of all material resources, be they naturally sourced or manufactured somehow.

For example, plastic is demonized for being a petroleum product, which, due to poor management and its low cost factors, has become a frightening pollutant globally. It is derived from oil, which is a finite resource. Raw cotton, on the other hand, is a natural plant product, widely considered to be sustainable and ethical for general use.

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The evils of plastic are well known and documented around the world

Case Study 1: Synthetic Plastics

In the case of plastics; despite their obvious evils, there are many areas of modern science and medicine that would cease to function without the use of plastics. Their most unique and valuable feature is their ability to be custom molded into virtually any shape.

Without the invention of plastics, safety helmets, seat belts, flotation devices, airbags, bulletproof ‘glasses’ and Kevlar would not exist. It is worth mentioning that plastics are also enjoying ‘reinvention’ as biodegradable material engineered from plants like corn, through the efforts of scientists developing bio plastics.

Case Study 2: Natural Cotton

Looking at natural cotton, on the other hand, we discover that it is the most important textile globally, accounting for 48% of all textile production. The problem with this natural material lies in the massive amounts of water and pesticides required in its production. Just the amount of pesticide utilized in productions actually equals the weight of the cotton produced, gram for gram.

Shockingly, less than 1% of all cotton is organically farmed.

Unfortunately, ‘natural’ does not automatically equate ‘better for the planet’. The issues are a lot more complex and nuanced than that.

What we see is that we cannot make across the board judgments about materials based only upon their fabrication or source. It is often in the production, procurement and transportation of a material that the environmental consequences incurred are most notable.

One important discovery I made is that materials and products should be evaluated across the entirety of their life cycle, which includes the period after their disposal.

Solutions for Greener Design

From my materials studies I am convinced that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution.


  1. The designer must refrain from prejudice or bias in their thinking, and explore a useful code of conduct.
  2. Each material must be evaluated, and the specific needs of projects weighed against the results of selection and installation.
  3. The Designer must continue to educate themselves.
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How green we choose to be is in our hands in the tiny decisions we make every day.

As we have more complexity of choice than ever before, so too, do we have more information available to us and more incentive to be ‘green’. Besides adhering to local codes and regulations, the designer may take measures such as consulting online resources such as sustainable materials databases.

Above all, sourcing quality products and services locally is likely one of the singular most important ways of “being green’, and further, sustaining local economies and communities.

The use of vintage, salvage and reclaimed materials, also, should not be overlooked.

I believe that the future is green and that should the designer choose to ignore this, they will be left behind. There is only one way forward, and that is to choose sustainability.

Sustainability in the design-build process from start to finish is undoubtedly “the way of the future”.

Do you agree with my old school essay? What do you see as being good first steps to take with regards to making positive changes in the design industry?

Comment below!

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