Industry Experts Define Sustainability And Wellness Design For Earth Day’s 51st Anniversary
Sustainability and wellness design are two broad topics with differing definitions, depending on the perspective of the persons describing them. Both disciplines have growing public support, knowledgeable practitioners and professional certifications, but also no small amount of confusion about what they are. Where do the two fields converge and where do they differ? Why does it matter now, 51 years after the original Earth Day was celebrated?
Both sustainability and wellness design have important roles to play in conversations around equity and climate change, two current hot button topics. What we build and inhabit can reduce waste and emissions, increase human health and simultaneously advance both goals.
Local and national governments are addressing these concerns with varying degrees of intensity. After a tornado devastated Greensburg, Kansas, for example, the town decided to rebuild as a model of sustainability and resilience. California is phasing out natural gas use in new buildings as part of its next round of energy efficiency standards, which can also promote adaption of more health-enhancing induction cooktops. President Biden has invited 40 world leaders to a climate summit and rejoined the Paris Climate Accord. He has also incorporated lead pipe removal and ventilation upgrades as part of his infrastructure plan.
It isn’t just the Baby Boom generation that created Earth Day that are taking note and urging their leaders and global brands to respond. “Clients these days are educating themselves on sustainability, asking for greater transparency, more certifications, and pushing for more sustainable alternatives to products and materials they use,” observes New York-based interior designer and Sustainable Furnishings Council ambassador Laurence Carr.
Commenting on client interest in these areas, she notes, “They’re interested in developing healthier habits, reducing plastic and waste, and limiting their use of harmful materials.” She sees two thirds of Gen Z and Millennial shoppers seeking products featuring sustainability and willing to pay more for them, (to a much greater extent than their parents and grandparents that created and popularized the American eco-friendly movement, she muses). “With a coming generation of consumers who care more and more about sustainability, this could become a new battleground for market share – and for doing the right thing,” she predicts.
“Up to 80% of environmental impacts are determined at the design phase,” declares Tomek Rygalik, a Warsaw, Poland-based designer and professor, and the co-founder of ECO Solidarity, a sustainable design initiative being presented at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) next month.
Simply put, product specification and space planning decisions made by architects, interior designers and builders long before a single foundation is laid can have lasting effects on the health of their buildings and occupants. There are numerous areas of convergence between wellness design and sustainability.
Incorporating and emphasizing the natural world in building design is one of those areas. “Reconnection with nature is essential in wellness, with its pursuit of choices and lifestyles leading to a state of holistic health,” Rygalik says. This reconnection shows up in biophilia-inspired projects and spaces designed to blend indoor and outdoor living, optimize the use of natural light, and incorporate plant life throughout the home.
Smart Home Technology
Sustainability and wellness also show up in hands-free faucets, steam showers, bidet style toilets and leak detection systems, all offering health benefits while potentially reducing a home’s water use.
As North Carolina kitchen and bath designer Scott Koehler pointed out in KBtribechat, a popular weekly Twitter conversation for design industry professionals, connected wellness design-enhancing products can help save energy too, with automated lighting, temperature control and blinds that help those with mobility challenges live independently.
“As a cornerstone of holistic design, sustainability focuses our awareness on the safety and impact of the materials we bring into our homes.” Carr notes. Non-toxic finishes and materials that don’t off-gas into a room are especially beneficial for those with respiratory or immuno-suppression issues. Pipes that don’t leach lead into drinking water are especially beneficial to children and teens. “There has been an increasing awareness of how health, wellness and sustainability are intertwined,” the designer adds.
While you can fairly make the case that what’s good for the planet is also good for its residents, there are areas of difference between sustainability and wellness design. There has been a movement in the environmental movement away from recycling toward circularity. Recycling uses more energy and degrades a material’s quality, Rygalik points out. “This shift in perception allows us to truly build a sustainable society based on a circular model with natural, regenerative resources in an infinite flow. This is what circularity is all about.”
Carr explains the concept this way: “People are finding innovative ways to live more circularly — to reduce and reuse waste, or design it out of the process completely. There’s real traction in the zero-waste movement,” which she sees gaining mainstream appeal across different industries.
“Furnishings and materials made from sustainable and ethical sources, such as ocean fishnet, plastic, and post-consumer waste are picking up steam,” she says. “Designed with commercial, residential and luxury use in mind, they echo the values of minimalism and sustainability, which stand the test of time and inspire a lifestyle that thrives for generations to come.”