By Kristine Hansen
As recently as the 1990s, sustainable design took on primitive forms—like mud slathered between straw bales. This form of insulation aimed to save homeowners money when heating and cooling their properties, while turning to renewable, earth-born materials instead of synthetic fibers.
Today’s definition of sustainable design—whether for the exterior “bones” of a building or interior decoration of a small space—is vast. It’s also of higher design, no longer limited to farmhouses or personal residences. Corporations are regularly asking architects to weave eco-friendly methods into large scale designs.
There is no right or wrong way to construct or adorn a structure or space with preserving the earth’s resources in mind. New techniques and tools are continually embraced in the architecture and design world, no matter how quirky or off-beat, and often viewed as acts of genius. For example, plastic destined for landfills transformed into furniture or glass chips cast into kitchen or bath countertops (such as Curava’s commitment to using 60 percent recycled glass—paired with 30 percent quartz and 10 percent resin—in its countertops). One other innovative example is Interface’s rugs, weaving in fibers culled from discarded fishing nets from the Philippines and Cameroon.
Another mantra of sustainable design is to create a seamless aesthetic. Many argue it shouldn’t always be apparent to the naked eye when objects are repurposed or recycled, or if a structure captures rainwater or solar energy. Still others fold this philosophy into the overall design and waste no opportunity to educate visitors about the sustainability. According to the 2018 Sustainable Furnishings Council report, 92 percent of consumers would not hesitate to buy an environmentally safe furnishing if it costs and looks the same as comparable options. Even better: the survey reports that 76 percent of respondents would actually pay more if presented with earth-friendly selections.
What’s currently trending in sustainable design? Let’s take a look.
A key tenet in sustainable design mirrors the farm-to-table diet. In other words, source locally, particularly with commercial, highly trafficked spaces where a connection to the neighborhood can be gleamed…and might even be expected. Maybe it’s chairs or pews salvaged from a since-shuttered local elementary school or church, and now hosting hungry guests at a trendy restaurant. Relics that no longer have a use, such as card catalogues at libraries, glass door knobs in an office building (swapped out for security bolts) or discarded shipping containers (these formed the shell of buildings for the appropriately named Container Bar in Austin, Texas).
Repurposing Historic Buildings
Whether it’s a couple’s new abode in a former post-office building or a coffee shop tucked into a former water-pumping facility (as is the case with this Milwaukee coffee roaster’s lakefront café, inside the 1888 Milwaukee River Flushing Station since 2002), or even slick condos in a retired office building in a city’s former meatpacking district, people love to hear stories. As one is waiting on a latte order, isn’t it better to view the shell of, say, this Victorian Romanesque Revival-style building than a drab space within a strip mall? And what better story to tell than a structure’s roots.
Getting back to materials, a top trend in sustainable building design is incorporating materials that do not harm the earth. Further defined, this means using materials that are renewable such as quick-growth trees, including bamboo or cork flooring (both are non-toxic, too). While most trees can take an average of 20 years to mature, bamboo requires just three to five years. Rubber is another option for flooring, especially in places that need sound insulation like a gym or music studio, as rubber trees are 100 percent renewable and a better option than synthetic rubber.
Design projects that tap into reclaimed wood are equally popular, especially if a “distressed” look is desired and, like adaptive reuses of historic buildings, also tell a tale. Maybe the flooring once adorned a bowling alley or vintage schoolhouse.
An up-and-coming, rarely used but still remarkable example is flooring born out of coconut trees. When the trees reach between 60 and 80 years old, they no longer bear fruit, and are often chopped down. By using the timber for flooring, this is also renewable. Its hardiness is akin to timber and mahogany, working well in outdoor spaces with severe weather patterns.
Maximizing natural resources
As anyone who has sat in a sunlight-drenched room knows, walls of windows mean you are not flipping on light switches and using energy. Today’s projects that preach sustainability often employ this technique. Another benefit is that users of the space are more easily integrated with the outdoors—because all that separates them is a pane of glass. Fostering appreciation for green spaces and coaxing a mantra to not damage the environment is a no brainer when you are not cut off from it. While office workers are going about their day or homeowners fixing dinner if they can see nature, they will no doubt respect it.
Another way to capture nature is by collecting sunlight (through solar panels) or rainwater (through a garden roof). Builders of both commercial and residential projects continually employ these techniques.
Projects that are cutting-edge
Each year, the American Institute of Architects gifts 10 projects with its COTE (Committee on the Environment) awards, highlighting those architects who think outside of the box to protect the earth while still designing and constructing spaces that are beautiful and functional. In 2020, the projects include Etsy’s headquarters (transforming a 200,000-square-foot building in Brooklyn’s Dumbo that was once the Jehovah’s Witness printing press), Austin Central Library (a mostly daylight library in Austin, Texas, with a six-story atrium and rooftop pollinator garden) and a 10,000-square-foot Environmental Nature Center and Preschool (blending indoor and outdoor spaces in Newport Beach, California, while teaching kids about the natural world).
Residential spaces are not excluded from the list. In Los Angeles’ Skid Row district, an area of the country’s second-largest city currently exploding with construction projects, The Six is a 52-unit apartment building containing 45 studios and seven one-bedrooms, all priced affordably, proving that good design isn’t solely reserved for those with deep pockets.
In support of sustainable design
Whether it’s shopping at farmers markets, walking to errands or salvaging an object into something “new,” the trend to keep a tight footprint and minimize harm exists throughout life. But it’s also an important tenet of design, linking environmentalists, decorators, builders and architects under one theme. With new product releases and manufacturing techniques unveiled every month that make it even easier to adopt sustainable design, soon it will not be a trend, but a way of life.