Choosing Sustainability

by Autumn McGarr

The term ‘sustainable design’ is one that tends to evoke mixed reactions – a good idea in theory, and certainly one that clients would love to pursue, but it comes with a certain expectation of a painful uptick in price to account for green-certified appliances and sustainably sourced materials.

Increasingly, however, as sustainability becomes more than just a trendy buzzword, the reality of creating sustainable designs has less to do with convincing clients to spring for pricey specialty design elements and more to do with how the client ultimately lives in and uses their space.

According to designers interviewed by Kitchen & Bath Design News, sustainability has moved away from simply specifying green products and has instead become a practice that designers themselves must commit to, a business model as much as a design philosophy.

Long-lasting design

At its most basic definition, if something is sustainable, it is designed with an eye toward avoiding or eliminating the overuse and depletion of natural resources. Notes Molly McCabe of A Kitchen That Works, in Bainbridge Island, WA, “I think a lot of designers look at [sustainable design] from a product standpoint, and it is product, but I think overall what you need to think about is timeless design, so that somebody doesn’t rip it out and throw it in a landfill.”

Conscientious product selections can be made with an eye toward aesthetic timelessness, but also, says McCabe, durability, as well as ease of cleaning and use. “People don’t really have the time or the inclination to maintain stuff, so you need to make it really durable so that the materials will last.”

In addition to creating designs and utilizing materials that will stand the test of time, designers who specialize in sustainable design do so with an eye toward how their clients inhabit their space and design with room to grow for their evolving needs.

“Sustainable design does not have a ‘look,’” says Robin Rigby Fisher. “Any kitchen/bathroom can be and should be sustainably designed and it does not have to cost more.” This project in Portland, OR features compositing in lieu of a garbage disposal, a Wolf steam oven and low VOC finishes and adhesives.
Photos: Dale Lang, NW Architectural Photography

Designer Robin Rigby Fisher of Robin Rigby Fisher Design in Milwaukie, OR begins her design process with a questionnaire that helps her look 10 or 20 years down the road for her clients – “How do you live in your home? What kind of physical limitations do you have? Are you having more babies, or are your kids going to college and moving out?” Her questioning is thorough enough that she is able to determine how and when clients might use a dishwasher now and in the future.

A healthy environment

Over the past few years, ‘wellness’ has moved to the forefront of many peoples’ minds, especially as the home becomes a sanctuary in an uncertain world. Wellness-focused design has become more than a trend and has instead, for many, become a necessity, especially where the kitchen and bath are concerned.

According to industry veteran and early proponent of green design Patricia Gaylor, wellness has become inextricably linked with sustainable design. “People are seeking sustainability in their homes, and, especially post-COVID, they’re seeking ways to improve the health of their family, their home, their lifestyle and the sustainability of the planet,” notes the owner of Eco Interiors by Patricia Gaylor. Increasingly, she observes, families are gravitating toward low-VOC products and quality ventilation in particular in order to improve air quality in the home.

McCabe also points to air quality as a must in a wellness-focused, sustainable design. “I think that’s the number one feature people are concerned about – their health. They’re concerned about molds, dust mites and things like that.” She also indicates that she uses low-/no-VOC paints in her work wherever possible.

Making the choice

According to Fisher, selling sustainable design to clients is more than a matter of persuading them to buy green and local products – rather, it’s a choice she independently makes as a designer. “[Clients] would start off saying, ‘Oh, I want my project to be sustainable’…Then, as the project went into production and we started pricing it out, they would say, ‘Well, what else is cheaper? How can I save money?’ Then we would deviate from a sustainable product to things that were cheaper,” she explains. “So what I learned to do is not define products as sustainable…I no longer talk to my clients about sustainability. I just talk about functionality.”

Fisher has, as a designer, made the choice to specify products that are not only convenient and functional, but sustainable and often locally-sourced – much like sneaking vegetables into picky kids’ favorite foods. “So it’s kind of like, what they don’t know won’t hurt them, and will actually help the environment.”

McCabe points to small, thoughtful inclusions in a design that can make all the difference. “This is going to sound so mundane, but leak detectors [are a must],” she says, sharing an anecdote about a client whose first floor flooded due to a tap being turned on by a family pet, necessitating the replacement of recently-installed hardwood floors and appliances. She believes that a leak detector would have prevented such waste, particularly one that sends notifications to users’ smart devices. “If you can minimize the opportunity for damage like that, that’s sustainability,” she adds.

This kitchen by Patricia Gaylor features flooring by Carlisle Wide Plank Flooring, milled from local forests, and cabinetry made in the U.S. The countertops were recycled from another job, and the wood plank ceiling is also from local lumber stock. The backsplash tile was made in the USA by Crossville Tile, a company that started a “Tile Take Back” program that recycles millions of pounds of post-consumer tile every year.
Photo: Jack Stadtlander

Gaylor also notes that her commitment to sustainability started with small decisions she made for her business. “I started my sustainability trip because I focus on kitchen and bathroom renovations, and the dumpster would pull up and everything would go right into the dumpster. I wanted to know how I could reduce the amount of garbage that gets taken from a job,” she recalls.

She utilizes recycled products wherever possible, and when clients demand a non-sustainable product, she specifies more planet-friendly products elsewhere in the project to compensate. “If my client insists on having countertops that are mined from the earth, like slabs imported from across the country or across the ocean, [I say], ‘Okay, that’s fine. Let’s do LEDs or non-toxic, low-VOC/no-VOC paint. Let’s do a hardwood floor that is sustainably forested material from this country.’” She adds that although nothing is ever 100 percent perfectly sustainable, the more these products are utilized, the more easily available and affordable they will be in the future. ▪

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