As the economy recovers, the good news is that demand for sustainable design and products in the interiors markets will accelerate even more.
Most government or large institutional clients already require compliance with third-party rating systems such as CHPS (Collaborative for High Performance Schools) or LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). This has helped to create and solidify a growing industry of LEED experts and product purveyors. The know-how of crafting sustainable interiors is being advanced.
To be sure, the private sector has been slower than civic customers to embrace sustainable design practices for interiors projects. But there is room for optimism in the private-sector as well. For better or worse, many local jurisdictions and some states are requiring private-sector projects to obtain third-party green certification, or to build projects that meet equivalent levels without formal certification.
The number of LEED-certified commercial interior projects nationwide has been exploding; there were 1,258 certified CI projects in 2009, up from 766 in 2008, and just 298 in 2007 (see related chart).
It is anticipated that private-sector demand for green design will also increase as funding loosens up, and as sustainable strategies become more deeply embedded in general industry practices. Advocating for sustainable interiors may be difficult in a dollar-tight down economy, but hard times do not last forever. Not only should there be more projects going forward, but a higher fraction of those projects, blessed with a little more cash, should be receptive to sustainable design strategies.
Yet, even now, there are some notable trends in the office-market sector. In some markets, prospective tenants—who have the leverage these days—have been pushing landlords to provide sustainable build-outs and other interior office improvements. Sustainable tenant improvement packages have become a market differentiator for some building owners in this highly competitive commercial real estate environment.
Additionally, the recession has sent many building professionals back to school to learn about sustainable practices and to acquire LEED AP credentials. Observing the growth of the USGBC’s LEED program, it is reasonable to infer that there will be more LEED projects in the future. The expanding pool of trained professionals required to execute LEED targets will be available.
Moreover, designers are finding it easier to locate sustainable materials, due to the increasing number and depth of sustainable product offerings. Just a few years ago, sustainable materials were limited, often expensive, and sometimes did not perform well, especially for non-residential projects requiring higher durability. Now, sustainable, high-quality, competitive materials are becoming more durable and mainstream, although price issues still surface.
Sustainable interior design is also becoming a more engaging field—new materials are being put on the market more rapidly, allowing design professionals greater latitude in aesthetics and performance, if requiring more effort to stay abreast of changes. But for all of the homework, there is the undeniable excitement of being part of a growth industry, where science and engineering meld to create new options.
Unfortunately, the expanding sustainable industry does have some wrinkles to be ironed out. In terms of products, there are still no industry-wide standards in place to objectively measure sustainability. As a result, some manufacturers either inadvertently or intentionally “greenwash” their product line.
The good news is that there are independent impartial sources for detailed reports and ratings on product performance, such as Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), which addresses all areas of sustainability, including food and forestry in addition to furnishings. Another resource for designers is Building Green, whose Green Spec Directory includes more than 2,000 EPPs (Environmentally Preferable Products). One can hope that industry self-policing will obviate the need for more-intrusive governmental measures.
Without industry-wide standards and verification processes for products, the credibility of the green movement could be limited.
Lastly, while we in the United States regard the green movement as young, that may only reflect our time and place. Europe is further along in this movement than are we, and is showing little sign of slowing down.
And traditional cultures have erected sustainable buildings since before the dawn of recorded history. For example, the stilts, sharply peaked roofs and lack of solid walls that define much early tropical architecture today might be described as the artful deployment of “daylighting,” “natural ventilation” or even “minimalism.” Likewise, the heavy adobe walls of the American Southwest today are renowned for their “thermal mass,” or the ability to hold daytime warmth on cold nights, and vice-versa.
Meanwhile, studies bear out that people and employees perform better in built environments that include sustainable elements, such as daylight. A recent study by the University of San Diego and brokerage CB Richard Ellis Group found greater worker productivity and lower absenteeism was correlated to green buildings.
Thus, the opportunity ahead for the sustainable movement is to continue to bring down the costs, while highlighting the monetary upsides to financial decision-makers. In time, we suggest that “win-win” sustainable propositions will be a reality—greener and more-profitable interiors are coming.
Marc J. Cohen, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is Director of Sustainability at MVE Institutional (MVEI), an affiliate company of MVE & Partners. Deeply experienced in guiding major projects through green certification processes, Cohen has been faculty member for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) since 2005. He received a Bachelors of Architecture degree from the University of Southern California.
Robert Puleo, Associate IIDA, Director of Interiors at MVE & Partners, has more than 25 years of professional experience in functional space planning, building utilization and layout studies, interior design and project management. Puleo has a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Arizona, Tucson.