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Interior Design for Climate Change: Part II

In Part I of this article, I wrote about the link between Interior Design and climate change, and about ways in which Interior Designers can help prevent it in the first instance. But let’s face it, renovation and refurbishment is expensive business (especially if there is an element of retrofitting involved — e.g. heating systems, glazing, insulation etc). What if all that your budget, timeframe, building status or other constraints allow is to treat the symptoms? Not the preferred option, but far from an inconceivable situation for a designer to find themselves in.

Worth recalling is this: we as humans started designing in the first instance, millennia ago, in order to provide ourselves with a level of physical and psychological comfort. It is this idea of comfort that needs addressing in the context of interiors and climate change effects. 

The surfaces, finishes, furniture and lighting used in an interior affect our level of comfort in a given space. For instance, we are used to seeing tiled floors in warmer climates, and other flooring alternatives e.g. fitted wool carpet in cooler climates. I am sure many a UK house dweller would have been cursing that dense wool carpet underfoot in the recent heatwave. Sisal, jute and seagrass are less popular but might all be more appropriate alternatives. Hard floors (e.g. wood or engineered) with rugs on top, or tiles with underfloor heating might also be more appropriate… as well as more flexible.  

Window treatments are another way of regulating whatever is going on outdoors (temperature, light etc) for the purposes of indoor comfort. Windows can account for 30% of energy losses in the colder months, and can substantially amplify the effects of sun rays in the warm months. Thermal and solar blinds are more energy efficient than conventional window treatments. They keep the cold out and the warmth in, as well as diffusing sunlight and keeping harmful UV rays out of your home. Considering the direction of your windows and the use of the space will help determine the appropriate solution. 

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A conservatory is an obvious place where solar blinds can dramatically improve comfort levels. Source: https://www.vbcpremierblinds.co.uk/made-to-measure-conservatory-blinds/

Versatile and sustainable materials such as cork (used as flooring, wall covering, in furniture, accessories and more) should be high on the designer’s list given how well it adapts itself to different climates and conditions. Less trendy, natural rubber and linoleum (a natural material, not to be confused with its synthetic equivalent vinyl) are totally under-appreciated but have many similar characteristics to cork, and numerous potential applications. Not to mention various new composite materials; this is an ever evolving field. Even wood — not a new or fancy material — is hugely versatile and can be sustainable if appropriately sourced and certified. All of these can find numerous applications in an interior, and take you through the seasons with relative ease and comfort.

Cork flooring

Cork floor tiles in a West-facing room (warm and sunny in the afternoons, cold in the mornings).

Furniture on castors, or that which folds, rotates, is light and easy to move around etc, can be helpful in case of parts of a home drastically changing temperature or natural lighting conditions throughout the day. Even though the task is the same, you may want to vary the location of where you carry it out, for maximal comfort (working from home is a good example). Adaptable furniture items with multiple uses are also in this category of climate change friendly items. In fact, I believe that flexibility is the number one criterion for the vast majority of Interior Design specifications, not the least in the context of drastically changing climate patterns.

Adaptable furniture

Adaptable furniture is practical as it has a multitude of uses. Source: http://sites.psu.edu/arch311w/2015/09/27/architecture-furniture-spatial-adaptability/

When relief from the elements is required pronto, low energy consuming cooling and heating devices, in particular those with air quality sensors and cleaning ability, can come in handy. From a sustainability point of view too these are better than traditional power guzzling aircon units. Meanwhile powerful and efficient extractor fans in kitchens and bathrooms can markedly improve the comfort of the users of these spaces. 

Other ways of dealing with the impact of climate change on our homes include variable lighting (self-adjusting, dimmers, sensors…) and seasonal home accessories. Certain materials and colours can amplify or regulate the effects of the heat, cold, drought, rain and so on. In the summer, I would prefer a cotton throw or rug over a wool one, light silk cushions over rich velvet ones, playful bright towels and tablecloths, and so on.

These are just some of the specific ways in which Interior Designers can help their clients cope better with the effects of climate change. There are others, I am sure. Importantly, new innovative interior products and materials are increasingly versatile and adaptable, helping create interior comfort irrespective of outdoor conditions. Comfort may be a trivial discussion in the context of the real issue at hand; and ideally, we would participate in prevention as well as treatment.

Interior Design for Climate Change: Part I

Is this is a bizarre topic to write on? Given most of us across Europe have spent the summer sweltering (both outdoors and indoors), it seems rather pertinent to me. Unless you are the 45th US President, you have probably noticed more extreme and less predictable weather patterns affecting your daily life. We are increasingly feeling climate change through colder winters, longer more intense heatwaves, excessive rainfall, drought and wildfires. Over time, all of these effects are predicted by scientists to intensify further, and to do so faster. 

So what can and should Interior Designers do? Why should we care and how can we help? Buildings — the very fabric that Interior Designers work with — are substantial energy consumers (while being built, when in use, and once demolished). BP estimates that globally, Buildings consume 29% of total energy; in comparison to 20% consumed by the much maligned Transportation sector. BP also predicts that the relative energy demand of Buildings will grow further over time. 

The statistics are even more alarming in the world’s largest economy, the US, where Buildings currently account for 48% of the total energy consumption. Direct energy use includes heating, cooling, lighting and the use of electrical appliances within buildings. Indirect energy use is more complicated: how and where was everything that is in my home made? How did it get here? There are many nuances (and unknowns) to answering these questions. 

I appreciate that the practice of Architecture and the standards and regulations associated with new buildings are increasingly focused on Sustainability. The field of Interior Design is, in my opinion, light years behind. Little thought is paid to genuine environmental considerations, greenwashing is rampant, and frankly, there is very little understanding of this complex topic (understandably so, I suppose). 

I think of the issue at hand, and Interior Designers’ involvement with it, similarly to how I think about an illness. You can either treat it, or make efforts to prevent it in the first instance. So Interior Designers can either propose ways of making interior environments more comfortable and enjoyable to occupy, despite climate change. Or indeed they can contribute to preventing it from happening in the first place. 

Part I: Prevention

Members of the Design community are increasingly, if slowly, becoming aware of their responsibility to consider climate change throughout their work. Most of the building stock globally, and certainly in the UK, is old and inefficient. The refurbishment of a home, office or commercial space provides an opportunity to not just make it look better and in tune with the latest trends, but to also make it more efficient and sustainable. For an Interior Designer, the 3 R’s of Sustainable Design are a good starting point: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. 

In my book, Reduce refers to specifying less, not more. I make a point of focusing on the essentials in a space. My design ethos, MAXIMAL minimalism, is about employing fewer items (less 3D), but creating more impact by 2D means. This may be through colour, pattern, texture or detail. Any or all of these, even when used sparingly, can have a big impact. Using fewer finishes, or specifying materials and items that can serve a dual purpose is good both for a client’s budget and for our planet. 

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This gets a MAXIMAL Minimalism tag from us. Clean and simple lines, oozing comfort, with beautiful colour and a few quirks. Source: https://furnish.bg/en/news/esenni-tendencii-obzavejdane.html

Reusing can mean repurposing existing items within the same space, or going down the salvage and reclamation route. There is no easier way to create original interiors bursting with personality than reusing a 50 years old school desk, original Victorian doors, Edwardian ironmongery etc in new and unexpected ways. As I recently wrote, reselling bathroom fixtures, kitchen cabinets and the like can be easy and lucrative.

Recycle is the 3rd R. Both recycled content and recyclable materials and items are becoming more common. There is a clear (business) opportunity here given the nature and speed of consumption in today’s world, not the least in the sphere of interiors. As people grow ever more aware of the problems associated with landfill waste, recycling efforts in this sphere are bound to grow over time. The use of post-industrial waste is fairly common; but I have also come across materials and products made of recycled tyres, carpet, yoghurt pots and more. Needless to say, providing recycling opportunities when designing spaces goes under this heading too. 

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DESIGN_Waste is one of several innovative waste processing projects taking shape today. The ethos of the project is viewing waste as a resource… and why not! Source: https://www.archilovers.com/stories/3330/waste-glass-transformation.html

Energy efficient LED lighting is widespread nowadays, and further innovations in the area of lighting are emerging all the time. Energy efficiency of appliances is a big selling point, and ever improving. Various smart controls and home automation methods are also helping address some of the issues by e.g. controlling cooling and heating more efficiently, as well as automatically switching off unused lights. Other interior elements are catching up — if slowly — with what has happened in the sphere of electrics.  

There are numerous ways of integrating sustainable elements and practices into interior projects. However, sometimes prevention alone is not enough. Come back soon to read the sequel to this article, Part II: Treatment. 

Health benefits of using natural materials in interiors

When writing, I like approaching a topic within a problem-solution framework. If the problem part of the equation is something people can relate to, then chances are they will read on. For my latest post in Designer Kitchen and Bathroom Magazine I was asked to write about natural materials in interiors. There is an obvious link between natural materials and my very favourite interiors topic – Healthy Spaces – which is what I explore here. The problem I present is poor internal air quality (important, seen as we spend some 90% of our time indoors!)

Natural materials can be a solution. I am ever more convinced that there is more to Interior Design than meets the eye. E.g. such as described in my article, the potential benefits to the health of the users of a space from the materials specified by the designer. Not to mention the principles of the fascinating and inspiring Biophilic design movement, which I am also becoming ever more attuned to. Watch this space!

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The “other” 90%, or why interiors matter

Last time I wrote, I promised to post soon on the value of Interior Design. If you’re wondering what on earth I am on about, read on.

Here’s a stat that might surprise and shock you in equal measure. On average, we spend 90% of our time indoors (no, there is no typo there). In other words, we spend most of our lives interacting with some form of interior (yes, we even interact with some form of interior when we sleep). It follows that what we do with our interiors has a significant effect on us, certainly bigger than I had imagined.  

The state of our built environment and interiors affects our wellbeing, mood, health, productivity, interaction with one another, comfort, safety and more. Not many regard Interior Design as overarching as this, but as the inspirational Shashi Caan argues (a guru Interior Design thinker and practitioner), Interior Design is the design discipline that is “most profoundly connected to human concerns” (http://www.sccollective.com/profile/publications – this book is my bible!) 

I first came across the 90% statistic when researching the concept of Healthy Spaces (more on that soon, in a different blog post); and have never looked at the built environment quite the same way again. Let’s break down the argument and look at some examples. 

MOOD

Can you recall a time you entered a space and your face lit up? A swoonsome new restaurant, a cool and relaxed co-working space, or the most amazing hotel bedroom you have ever slept in in your life. By the same token, you probably remember some drab spaces that have made you feel down in the dumps, wanting to turn around and leave. A miserable old-fashioned office, a cluttered and dingy home, or perhaps a drab function hall with ridiculously high ceilings, freezing temperature and cold lighting. In these instances, you will note that the state of a given interior has had a direct influence on how you felt. Well, this happens all the time, with every single space that we enter. It happens so much that we don’t even think about it, but perhaps we should?

Perrachica Madrid

Uplifting restaurant interior (Perrachica Madrid) – how would you feel entering this space? Source: http://perrachica.com

HEALTH AND WELLBEING

As for health and wellbeing, don’t even get me started. I’m sorry to say, but I have recently found out that more often than not, interiors contribute to making us physically unwell (in addition to making us less happy and less productive!) There is a growing body of authoritative evidence suggesting that indoor air quality can be more seriously polluted than outdoor air, even in the largest most industrial cities. E.g. the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates indoor air quality to be 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air, on average (https://cfpub.epa.gov/roe/chapter/air/indoorair.cfm). I will go into the detail of why this is the case, and what can be done about it, in a separate post. Do make a mental note to check back soon and read it, if interested. The bottom line is, that just like healthy food and healthy lifestyles are becoming mainstream, something similar is sure to happen in the sphere of the built environment. The transition will take time, and will be uncomfortable for many in the industry (but it will happen). 

Symptoms of Indoor Air Pollution
A less cheery topic: indoor air pollution.
Source: https://www.aplusinspections.net/indoor-air-quality-mold-inspections/

INTERACTION WITH ONE ANOTHER, COMFORT

Moving on to interaction and our dealings with one another. I cannot help but notice how much these are affected by the way our interiors are set up. Example. I take my children to a gymnastics class, and the organisers have been clever enough to separate a small part of the hall for parents and children to sit in before and after their class. Now unfortunately the cleverness ends there, as the chairs are always arranged in long rows, all facing into one direction. In addition to being uncomfortable and impractical (oh, and you are literally staring at a wall), the arrangement also discourages interaction. How about putting them in a circle, into clusters, or even scattering randomly around the space. This is just one example. Time and time again, I notice people: A) not interacting with one another when they could be; or B) being visibly uncomfortable when dealing with others, in settings where interiors have been poorly designed. At reception desks, commercial counters, offices, you name it.

Cartoon of man at office desk

Comfort (or lack thereof) in an office setting. Source: http://www.hysdfurniture.com/?p=2984

Sure, these are just little things and situations, but they all add up to a bigger problem. When interiors are poorly designed, their users suffer (I’m not trying to be overly dramatic, to be clear this may be literal or metaphorical!) I know that some people will be sceptical, suggesting I tone down my cheerleading for Interior Designers. But maybe try this thought process. Most of the housing, commercial, institutional and retail building stock that we will come across in our lifetimes has already been built, i.e. it exists. It follows that what we do with these existing buildings and their interiors, the very definition of Interior Design, can make a meaningful difference to our lives (and our planet – more on this in another forthcoming blog post). Interior Design is at its most useful when it concerns itself first with people, and second with spaces (not vice versa). 

What is Interior Design, again?

This post was meant to be called The value of Interior Design. However, as I was writing it, I got too carried away with defining Interior Design, and so I am afraid you will have to come back soon to read said post on the value of Interior Design. Rest assured, this one is at least as important.

Honestly, there are so many misconceptions out there about Interior Design that I feel there is a need to clarify what it really is. By and large, Interior Design has become known as a luxury sector, associated with lavish lifestyles, picture-perfect room sets in glossy magazines, and bloated budgets. In this blog post, I set out to rethink and redefine Interior Design as what it is at the core.

WHY I CARE ABOUT THIS SO…

I recently retrained at KLC School of Design, completing an Interior Design Diploma course. In my previous life I worked in the completely unrelated world of Investment Banking (a hotbed of creative talent it is not!) and studied International Relations at the London School of Economics (well, another place that is not a hotbed of creative talent). 

When I decided to retrain as an Interior Designer, my intentions were met with some scepticism. “What exactly is there to study? Aren’t you just going to be matching curtains with cushions?” Etc etc. I don’t think my friends are the only ones out there who think this is all it’s about, and I don’t really blame them.

Interior Design is often confused with the related, but different, practice of Interior Decoration. In fact, many projects will involve both processes, and many professionals will wear both hats [puts hand up]. To be clear, I am not saying that Interior Decoration is inferior to Interior Design. However, many people think that Interior Decoration is all there is to Interior Design, and that is not the case. 

Interior mood boards and plans

Examples of some of the Interior Decoration and Interior Design elements of a project

SEMANTICS, SEMANTICS

It’s in the dictionary, so it must be true. Actually, not always. A cursory look at online dictionary definitions of the concept Interior Design yields a range of answers, all of which look incomplete to me, if not outright incorrect. Let’s see…

Cambridge Dictionary:
The art of planning the decoration of the inside of a building such as a house or office. 

[The art of planning? What’s that about? I thought planning was very nearly the polar opposite of art! Not just the art of planning, but the art of planning the decoration. How about the art of decoration; or perhaps planning the inside of a building etc. I’m not sure about this one. From personal experience, I can say there is definitely more to Interior Design than planning the decoration of a space.]

Collins Dictionary:
The art or profession of designing the decoration for the inside of a house. 

[Firstly, Interior Design does not solely concern itself with houses i.e. people’s homes. Far from it. The most important Interior Design interventions, in my opinion, involve much larger buildings – schools, hospitals, airports, you name it. Secondly, listen to this: designing the decoration. I thought you are either designing or decorating, or perhaps doing a bit of both, simultaneously. However designing the decoration is in my opinion strangely and confusingly worded. Well at least this definition goes beyond art, and also suggests there might be a profession in it. Phew, I didn’t retrain in vain.]

Merriam Webster Dictionary:
The art or practice of planning and supervising the design and execution of architectural interiors and their furnishings. 

[So we’re still stuck in this idea of art, referring to the creative aspects involved in Interior Design, but at least the word practice is introduced here. I like the use of the words planning and supervising, as they do give a little more weight to the role a designer plays. However it falls short, as the subject of the intervention is deemed to be architectural interiors (technically there is a separate profession of Architectural Designer, but let’s leave that out of this discussion) and their furnishings. Better, but we are only talking about the most obvious elements of Interior Design. How about space planning, ergonomics, building regulations etc…there is more to it.]

Other online dictionaries offer more definitions along the same lines. The bottom line for me is – these are all incomplete and somewhat confusing definitions. (No disrespect to whoever wrote them. I mean it.) I found some better ones…

IIDA (International Interior Design Association) is more familiar with the matter, thankfully. Here is what they have to say:

The profession of Interior Design is relatively new, constantly evolving, and often confusing to the public. [My underlining.] NCIDQ, the board for Interior Design qualifications, defines the profession in the best way: The Professional Interior Designer is qualified by education, experience, and examination to enhance the function and quality of interior spaces. 

Not only are we now talking about a profession and qualifications (as opposed to the vague art of something), but we are also moving away from decorative elements and towards function and quality. I feel this is much closer to the day-to-day reality of an Interior Designer’s work. 

However here is my favourite one, by the people in the industry who I personally respect a great deal and can relate to the most: IFI (International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers). The BIID (British Institute of Interior Design) in the UK also adopts this definition as their own:

Qualified by education, experience and applied skills, the professional Interior designer accepts the following responsibilities:

  1. Identify, research and creatively solve problems pertaining to the function and quality of the interior environment;
  2. Perform services relating to interior spaces including programming, design analysis, space planning, aesthetics and inspection of work on site, using specialized knowledge of interior construction, building systems and components, building regulations, equipment, materials and furnishings;
  3. Prepare schematics, drawings and documents relating to the design of interior space, in order to enhance the quality of life and protect the health, safety, welfare and environment of the public

Wow. Are we really talking about the same concept as the dictionaries are describing, as above? Research, problems, quality, programming, design analysis, specialised knowledge, building regulations, schematics and most importantly: enhance the quality of life. It’s to do this that I retrained. Not to practice some vague art of decorating (as much as I enjoy the decorative elements of a project). 

Come back soon to read part II of this discussion: where I think the real value of Interior Design lies.