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What is Sustainable Interior Design — And Why Does It Matter?

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Sustainable interior design isn’t just about environmental impact. It’s about creating a home environment that holistically supports its residents, their communities, and indeed the larger global community. That might sound like a tall order for a set of home design choices, but experts underscore the wide-ranging impacts of the undertaking.

If it all sounds daunting — and expensive — consider that sustainable interior design is scalable for all budgets and ambitions. With feedback from experts in sustainable interior design and real estate, here’s a deeper dive into the concept, why it matters, and how to execute it in your own home.

A remodeled room featuring sustainable interior design Reused table base in this beach house renovation.
Reused table base in this beach house renovation. Originally, it was a heavy, traditional wood tone. Simply having it professionally sprayed gave it new life. (Source: Anthony Carrino)

Sustainable interior design: What it is, and what it’s not

Sustainable design has the goal of reducing negative impacts on the environment, and the health and comfort of the building’s occupants, making for a better overall approach to design. According to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) the objectives of sustainability are to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, minimize waste, and create healthy, productive environments.

The GSA explains the core design principles’ aims as follows:

  • To optimize site potential (make the home the best it can be)
  • To minimize non-renewable energy consumption (opting instead for power sources such as solar or wind)
  • To use environmentally preferable products (like sustainable bamboo, for instance)
  • To protect and conserve water
  • To enhance indoor environmental quality (making the home as healthy as possible for its residents)
  • To optimize operational and maintenance practices (streamlining and simplifying maintenance for homeowners over time)

“Sustainable interior design means creating a space with future generations in mind. For example, this might mean selecting durable fabrics in light of what trends are expected in generations to come,” says M+A Architects Interior Designer Katherine Hunter. “Sustainable interior design also means reusing materials that are produced from waste, as well as ethically sourcing products.”

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Why sustainable interior design matters

Americans, on average, spend approximately 90% of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In addition, experts predict that we will spend more time inside with the continued rise of remote work and distance learning. These realities point to the importance of making meaningful changes that will make a difference.

That’s why the significance of sustainable interior design choices aimed at reducing pollutants and improving indoor air quality will only continue to increase. Further, making such choices helps communities much further from home, by reducing incentives for illegal forestation and exploitative labor, for instance.

Overall, sustainable interior design matters both inside the home and has wide-ranging ripples far outside of it, too.

Purchased reclaimed lumber from a barn that was dismantled to build the bunk beds in this Catskills retreat.
Purchased reclaimed lumber from a barn that was dismantled to build the bunk beds in this Catskills retreat. (Source: Anthony Carrino)

Does it matter when it comes to buying and selling a home?

​​According to a study of over 1,000 consumers by UL Environment, 70% of Americans say they’re looking for greener products in a home, citing concerns about over toxic materials and indoor air quality as heavy influences over their choices.

Indeed the EPA says that today’s homebuyers increasingly express concerns over issues like mold, radon, and carbon monoxide. Therefore, investing in these improvements is likely to fetch returns when it’s time to show and sell the home.

“Across industries, we have seen this shift towards sustainability whether related to our buying choices or our lifestyle or routine changes we can make now to lower our individual environmental impact,” says Jaclyn Tracy, founder of the eco-friendly direct-to-consumer marketplace SISTAIN. “So as this awareness increases as a society, so will this market need for eco-friendly and sustainable homes. We will also see an increase in accessible and affordable solutions for creating a more sustainable living space with what you currently have, too.”

Effects on human health for those inside the home

Consumer worries are founded. According to the EPA, irritants and pollutants can impact people living in the home in a variety of ways that might include:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Headaches, dizziness, and fatigue
  • Respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer

For instance, radon is a known carcinogen and is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Carbon monoxide is toxic, and even short-term exposure to high carbon monoxide levels indoors can cause death.

Instances of Legionnaires’ disease, a form of pneumonia, have been associated with buildings with poorly maintained air conditioning or heating systems. And plenty of indoor air pollutants are known asthma triggers, such as dust mites, mold, pet dander, tobacco smoke, and cockroach allergens.

Adobe is a sustainable product, an energy-efficient product, and a long-lasting product. Our history and our culture flows through our architecture. It has been a style that has been consistently displayed in the area for hundreds of years, and that’s what makes it so special.
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What are examples of sustainable design?

If sustainable interior design sounds high-tech or just plain daunting, consider that some of its principles have already long been at work in many typical residential scenarios.

For instance, carpeting is a great insulator, retaining as much as 10% of the heat in a room that would otherwise be lost, and this in turn results in ​​the use of less heat and saving major energy. Similarly, curtains and drapes keep both heat from the sun and cold air out of the home.

When it comes to building materials, sustainable interior design prioritizes renewable materials, like bamboo, which grows quickly. Bamboo makes great flooring, and is often found in home furnishings and accessories.

Jerome Leyba, a top-selling agent in the Santa Fe area, explains that local homes have been built with affordable, sustainable adobe for hundreds of years. “Adobe is a sustainable product, an energy-efficient product, and a long-lasting product,” he says, noting the appealing practical, sustainable qualities have made the building material so enduring. “Our history and our culture flows through our architecture. It has been a style that has been consistently displayed in the area for hundreds of years, and that’s what makes it so special.”

A room featuring sustainable interior design with repurposed furniture.
Source: (Spacejoy / Unsplash)

Sustainable interior design tips

Tracy acknowledges, “It is hard to not feel overwhelmed with the thought of overhauling your entire living space to be more eco-friendly.” But the good news is, she says, “Luckily as the industry holistically shifts towards sustainability, easy and affordable solutions are popping up that consumers can make now to generate a greater collective impact later.”

This means choosing from among abundantly available and environmentally friendly materials for furniture, flooring and rugs, and more, such as reclaimed wood, sustainable bamboo, recycled metal and plastic, and jute, which “acts as a natural heat insulator, so look for this fiber in your area rugs too to reduce your home’s energy use.”

Other simple, doable tips for making your living space more eco-friendly include:

“Resale is a huge market right now,” Tracy says.

Note that it doesn’t have to be expensive to implement a sustainable interior design strategy. “Many traditional finishes are relatively cost effective,” Leyba notes of materials such as the affordable adobe in such widespread use in the Santa Fe market.

​​Welcome Homes VP of design Anthony Carrino (who is also known for his HGTV show Kitchen Cousins), explains that implementing sustainable interior design “Can cost anywhere from a few dollars to multiple thousands of dollars depending on how large the project is and how committed to sustainability you are. Not all sustainable products are more expensive, although that is the trend. Prices are coming down as technologies and scale improve, so I encourage you to do the research.”

Conclusion

Sustainable interior design is about making an environmentally friendlier impact at home while creating a residential atmosphere that’s healthy and comfortable. It’s about incorporating sustainable, renewable designs and materials for the benefit of occupants and the global community alike — but it doesn’t have to be high-tech or expensive. So consider taking the first steps today for a beautiful, health-supporting home that will also be desirable to future buyers who are ever more increasingly seeking out these choices.

Header Image: Reuse of fire hoses found in the basement of an 1896 firehouse as a backlit art installation coming up the stairs. (Source: Anthony Carrino)