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Taking the Pulse - Sustainability and the Interior Design Practice

Today’s designers have an awesome responsibility to design environments that are healthy,
flexible and environmentally sensitive. Sustainable design principles promote these positive
attributes while improving the way tenants feel and perform within a space. In addition, studies
are now emerging that prove tenants’ well being directly benefits the client’s bottom line.
While designers agree that improving the interior environment for tenants is a critical part of
their discipline, many current projects do not incorporate sustainable design elements.

Locally, there have been many discussions about sustainable design within the industry, but no
documentation to assess the current level of understanding of sustainable concepts. Green
Building Services (GBS) wanted to develop a true picture of what interior designers know about
sustainable design and how frequently they incorporate it in their projects. To do so, GBS
surveyed regional interior designers to get a pulse on these issues.

In order to collect information, GBS created a questionnaire and distributed it to interior


designers in firms of various sizes and core markets. The survey asked respondents to gauge
their knowledge of sustainable principles and the impact of green design on their practice. It
also sought to learn what barriers exist in order to implement green design practices into
projects. The questionnaire encouraged detailed comments from participants while assuring
their anonymity.

Survey Results

The survey results showed that respondents’ knowledge of sustainable design principles fell at
one end of the spectrum or the other. Several participants said that sustainable design is a
significant focus of their practice, but most respondents indicated only a moderate
understanding of green design concepts such as indoor air quality, water efficiency, energy
efficiency and resource efficient materials. Participants knew very little about building systems
commissioning.

Multiple barriers to incorporating green building practices became apparent through the survey.
Client resistance was a reoccurring factor in the designers’ ability to implement sustainable
interiors. Respondents also acknowledged that their lack of detailed understanding of
sustainable design concepts and a lack of information makes it difficult to educate their clients.

Participants also pointed to difficulty in accessing the appropriate informational tools in order
to demonstrate the value of sustainable interiors to clients. Some firms are fortunate to have in-
house experts, but those without that resource must work hard to stay on top of the latest
green building information. In addition, professionals struggled to obtain accurate information
on green products from manufacturers in a timely fashion. Designers said they could do more to
help clients achieve sustainable goals if they had the knowledge and access to information to
educate their clients.

Challenges in bringing green materials to the client’s project included the perceived cost of
materials and schedule implications. Participants did not necessarily believe that green design

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Taking the Pulse – Sustainability and the Interior Design Practice
February, 2003

costs more, but they noted that research on sustainable projects requires time. Informational
pieces demonstrating financial implications to the project, and product life cycle assessments
were viewed as instrumental in presenting clients with a strong case for green design.

Respondents rarely budgeted post-occupancy evaluations into projects, although this is one of
the most effective ways to determine if the space is working effectively and demonstrate the
design’s benefits to the client.

Lessons Learned

Drawing on case studies and personal experiences, GBS found that clients’ attitudes are in the
process of changing. Many clients already demand the inclusion of sustainable design concepts
in their facilities. Norm Thompson shareholder Jane Emrick had strong convictions about the
company’s corporate headquarters’ design. “We believed a dramatically lower impact was not
only possible, but economically feasible and ethically imperative.”

In addition, clients that have had sustainable principles designed into their spaces are noticing
genuine benefits. Debra Brockway, manager of marketing for the King County’s King Street
Center, believes employee productivity has increased and absenteeism has decreased since
moving into their offices that incorporated sustainable materials and practices. Personnel
records for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District Customer Service Center showed a 30
percent reduction in absenteeism among 600 employees one year after of operation. Facility
Manager Brian Sehnert attributes this to increased daylighting within the space. Sehnert also
believes the enhanced daylighting contributes to fewer on-the-job errors.

Sustainable design offers the potential to greatly enhance the interior environment, but
requires forethought and planning for proper integration. Greg Acker, designer for the City of
Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development in the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center states,
“Basically, if you are willing to search, there are plenty of green options that don’t cost a dime
more than the conventional option and, in some cases, are less expensive.”

There are also cases where designers and clients are working together in new ways. The
Certified Forest Products Council (CFPC) staff and SERA Architects worked together during the
design development of the CFPC offices in design charrettes. The CFPC staff created metaphors
of different landscapes, such as the forest and the prairie, for the different ways in which they
work which influenced the way in which their space was designed. SERA Architects designer,
Leslie Eastwood-Bray, speaks of her experience with this process: "CFPC is a client that every
designer dreams of having. They loved the idea of pushing the envelope by having a
collaborative and different design process along with creating a totally different way of
thinking about their workspace. All of this while having sustainability as their number one goal.
It's something that I had never experienced."

Next Steps

As clients become more aware of how their operation affects the environment, and how
creating a high performance interior can increase their bottom line, they will increasingly look
to designers to guide them in the selection of materials and strategies that protect natural and
human resources. Interior designers must prepare themselves to take the lead in guiding and
educating their clients on the right choices for their organization.

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Taking the Pulse – Sustainability and the Interior Design Practice
February, 2003

There are many ways to get up to speed on new technologies. Hiring a consultant may be one
of the best ways to streamline the educational process. Design firms commonly rely on
professional consultants for advice about the best sustainable strategies and technologies for
specific projects or educational in-house seminars. Other educational opportunities are
Continuing Education Unit (CEU) courses. Interiors and Sources Magazine at ISDesignNet.com
offers CEU classes and professional organizations such as the IIDA, AIA and ASID may offer
additional courses and information. In addition, companies that design systems furniture, such
as Steelcase and Herman Miller, post research papers on their web sites.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Commercial Interiors (CI) is another
tool that can be used as a framework for sustainable design. LEED CI is a rating system that
addresses the specifics of tenant spaces primarily in office and institutional spaces. It provides
the opportunity for building tenants to design high performance, healthy, durable, affordable,
and environmentally sound workplaces.

Emerging technologies and the changing practice of interior design offers designers many
opportunities to learn and to raise the bar of current practice. Designers now have the tools
available to provide their clients with a new level of service and design. This is an exciting time
for designers to accept the challenges facing them with intelligent and creative design solutions.

For more information regarding the topics discussed in this paper, please contact Elaine Aye
IIDA, LEED Accredited Professional at 503.603.1626. elaine_aye@pgn.com

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