The Rise and Fall of Environmentally Sustainable Interior Design


Author – Yasmine Dehimi

Interior design is all about the relationship between people and the space in which they exist. It incorporates physical and psychological parameters, of which play on the strings of health and wealth in enhancing the quality of life. However, in recent years, interior design practice has seen a shift in strategies that now focus on providing sustainable environments for people to live, work and play. Society as a whole, are coming to realize the inter-connectedness of buildings, people and community and the creation of an environmentally responsible built environment. As a result, Environmentally Sustainable Interior Design (ESID) seeks to establish interiors that demonstrate and reflect this communal responsibility.

Environmentally Sustainable Interior Design is in line with traditional design principles of functionality, accessibility, and aesthetics; but expands to the inclusion of environmental considerations. These considerations can be materialized through planning efficient use of space, utilizing materials with low environmental impacts, reducing pollution, energy consumption and waste. The combination of traditional interior design with environmentally sustainable interior design strikes a balance between aesthetics and environmental impact.

The Rise of Environmentally Sustainable Interior Design


One of the major contributors to climate change is energy consumption. Buildings are responsible for a large proportion of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, architects and interior designers can do a lot to improve a buildings energy efficiency. This is achieved predominantly by reducing the amount of energy needed for heating, lighting and running appliances, by providing renewable, non-carbon based energy to the building.

Heating and lighting are the most crucial factors that interior designers have direct influence over. Given that heating or cooling escapes through windows in most buildings, it is crucial that the installed windows are of good quality to provide good insulation. Curtains can be used to maintain temperature by blocking cold air and the sun’s heat. Another energy saving tool at the designer’s disposal is the careful selection and use of carpets. They provide great insulation and help to retain 10% of the heat of a room. These are efficient ways to control the temperature of a building in energy efficient ways.

Light saving energy has become an important theme for interior designers. Simply choosing the right colors can assist in this method of saving energy. Since lighter colors reflect light, darker rooms require the use of more artificial and energy consuming lighting. Interior designers can use reflective surfaces and furnishings to increase the amount of light in a room. This is no novel revelation in the 21st Century and had been applied since Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb!

Yet, we now possess the capacity in materials to make more efficient use of natural lighting and to depend less on unsustainable energy. Another way to control the heating and lighting of a room or building is to install home automation devices. These smart home technologies make it possible to help residents use the building’s energy more efficiently and economically.

The Fall of ESID

What can be held accountable for the ‘fall’ of environmentally sustainable interior design? It is evident that the notion of creating an environmentally sustainable built environment has not picked up enough momentum to establish a mainstream sustainable interior design industry. Whilst it is true that sustainability still has a place in interior design, it remains to be a separate branch within the field.

ESID has positioned itself in firm grounds in interior design theory and literature; according to which, finds that the frequency in which interior designers make sustainable choices in real life practices is limited. This has been dubbed the ‘sustainability gap’ which represents the disparity that exists between the theory of ESID and the reality of practice. The lack of connection designers make between their work and the resulting environmental impact, continues to grow despite ESID developments.

Despite efforts to kickstart the ESID movement, waste has become an increasingly problematic feature of interior design and commercial interior in particular. Because they are typically changed every 6-8 years or so, they place a heavy burden on resources and generate a lot of unnecessary waste. The use of unsustainable materials comes at a high cost. As a result of redesigning throughout the year, the embodied energy of these changes outweigh the operational energy costs of the actual building over a forty-year period.

A recent survey has shown that interior designers are more inclined to select materials according to the client’s preferences, aesthetics and cost. The last criterion being the leading. As for emerging interior design students, who will ultimately shape the future of ESID, a 2012 survey found that although students perceive durability to be important, they were primarily concerned with fashion and latest trends rather than sustainability. With this in mind, there are sound grounds to believe that the future of the industry may not uphold the principles that underpin ESID.

Further, there is difficulty in sourcing sustainable interior design material even in advanced economies such as the UK and the US. It is not at all easy to find and identify Green Sustainable and Fair Trade (GSFT) products and frequently interior designers have to look through volumes of materials to determine the sustainability of the materials marketed. So there is a need for a proper marketplace for sustainable green building materials that not only validates the provenance but also promotes them.

Additional contributions to the fall of sustainable interior design include the distribution of inaccurate and lack of accessible information on the importance of sustainability. This has restricted the understanding of designers and has widened the ‘sustainability gap’. Further, client resistance, lack of knowledge, perceived costs and limited sustainable selection have all attributed to the sustainability gap.

While retailers play less of a direct role in the implementation of materials, they have a massive potential to incentivize their customers to purchase GSFT materials. However, only a small number of retailers actually do so. This reluctance, once again, is deemed to be due to the misunderstanding and under-appreciation of the benefits of GSFT materials in promoting ESID.

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