Sustainability, climate change and the environment are hot topics around the world right now. It can sometimes feel daunting to think about what we, as individuals, can do to be impactful—and it can keep sustainability from becoming part of our daily lives. There is a great opportunity for design to lead the way in changing this narrative.
Designers are now focusing on combining the technical side of sustainability with personal wellness benefits. The technical side often includes study with data at the macroscale along with forecasts on how many tons of CO2 we produce in the world, but it doesn’t always give us a metric to understand what that means for us as individuals.
The wellness approach studies how sustainability can affect us as individuals, for example, by increasing our exposure to fresh air, natural light and connections to nature. As we put both together, we can see that it can be a win for both the planet and us as individuals.
There are market sectors that are already using design to lead the way. Tesla has changed the auto industry by making sustainability more attractive. The hospitality industry has made sustainability the focus of a growing number of resorts that showcase sustainable luxury design. They have made it accessible and very desirable for their story and for our wellness. There are a lot of choices we can make that are both sustainable and benefit us.
Synthetic carpets and rugs can produce airborne microplastics as well as off-gas VOCs and other unhealthy chemicals. Carpets made from natural fibers like wool, cotton, bamboo, seagrass, coir (made from coconut husks and sisal from leaves of the agave plant) are on the rise. These can be sustainably produced and made without pesticides or toxins.
Lighting controls that turn on when entering a room or turn off when you leave conserve energy. They can be programmed to turn off all the lights in the house with a single button or turn them on when you come home at night as a security precaution. Thermostats can learn your daily habits and adjust up or down based on your usage. Heating and cooling systems that sense the outdoor air temperature can use that knowledge to bring in more fresh air in the nighttime when temperature may drop in the summer: The user gets more fresh air, and it uses less power.
There are increasing options in modular construction where new homes are built in a factory and shipped to the job site with everything complete, from windows installed and showers tiled to kitchen faucets hooked up. They also offer minimal waste, as they are built with exactly the right sizes, which reduce landfill, shipping of materials ordered in bulk and stored for multiple projects to reduce trucking, and labor is located in one location, reducing travel times. The personal advantage to the end user is that the cost of the house can often be substantially lowered in some regions. Detail and precision of design is high, the house is not exposed to inclement weather while building, and the house could be built and installed in four to five months versus the 18 to 24 months for a typical design and construction period for a custom home.
For new home construction or renovations, one of the best areas to make the home more sustainable is by having a high R-value, which represents the insulation value. The choice of insulation is extremely important. Many products may meet the R-value but may not be good for the environment or for our health. On the other hand, products like ThermaCork use the outer bark of trees and can be carbon negative, renewable, recyclable, biodegradable and free of toxins. Denim, sourced from shredded leftover blue jeans that look like fiberglass insulation and don’t contain formaldehyde, is an
Greenhouses & Private Courtyards
Adding greenhouses to homes is sustainable and trendy. By growing their own food, people reduce packaging, processing, trucking as well as create more oxygen. In addition to fresh food, greenhouses offer the wellness benefits of spending time in natural light surrounded by plants all year round. Private outdoor courtyards in the middle of a home are another option. They are open to nature and homeowners do not have to worry about security. Additionally, this can decrease utility bills in a home, allow for more fresh air and take advantage of temperature changes that are so good for our bodies to experience.
The location of the house on the site and landscaping can also be impactful. There has been a trend of mass homebuilders to wipe a site clean of all vegetation and level it out. This is extremely disruptive to the environment and the wellness of the end user.
Lessening the impact of the construction leaves the site stronger when the house is completed. This can include designing rainwater collection and bioswales to make natural gardens as well as keep excess water from going into the public systems. The designer can put in fewer lawn areas that require maintenance with lawnmowers, fertilizer and water and replace them with native vegetation that require no maintenance. These also can create native wildlife habitats in urban and suburban areas.
Creating balance in our lives and understanding that nature is now the new luxury. That balance, between the environment and human impact, is at the core of sustainability. Small changes by a large number of people can indeed have significant results.