Sustainable Interior Design

Sustainability is more than just a buzzword these days: it affects public policy, supermarket norms, marketing campaigns and innovation. It’s probably harder to think of industries where this agenda hasn’t impacted the culture in a big way.

One gap I have seen in the New Zealand interior design industry recently is related to the ethos of sustainability. There definitely are designers, products and design movements that push us in this direction, but there seems to be a lack of a wider discussion within the local interior design field about how we can be designing in more sustainable ways. Just try a google search for sustainable interiors in NZ…the list is short before it starts listing architects, and most posts are from Auckland firms.

What actually is sustainability? Environmental Science states that “sustainability looks to protect our natural environment, human and ecological health, while driving innovation and not compromising our way of life.” It’s about future-proofing by altering our habits now. 

How can interior design be unsustainable? Here are some common ways Kiwi interior design solutions keep us living unsustainably and solutions for changing our behaviour for a better future.

KXN Kitchen by IMO Group

Joinery | MDF  (medium density fibreboard) is the material used for cabinets in most kiwi kitchens, resource rooms, laundries and wardrobes. This is not a sustainable option, as it wears down quickly over time, often includes toxins that are released into the air when damaged, takes lots of energy to produce, and is near impossible to recycle, according to Wood Guide. Solution: Select solid timber cabinetry or steel options, such as the incredibly sexy IMO range (image above).

Rustic Solid Timber Floors – image by Home is Home

Flooring | Solution dyed nylon carpet is the top floor covering for New Zealand homes, yet emits VOCs (volatile organic compounds) into our air over time. Not only this, but a used carpet often goes into landfill once replaced, adding to the growing problem of waste. Another flooring we kiwis love are the wood-look vinyl planks that are PVC backed. The production of these tiles emits toxic chemicals into the atmosphere and can be deadly when burned. Green Peace terms PVC as “The Poison Plastic” clearly something we want to avoid putting in our homes. Solution: Selecting solid timber floors, bamboo floors, tiles or polished concrete are all durable, sustainable options. Choosing local manufacturers that can endorse that products are sourced sustainably, such as dedicated sustainable tree farms, is a great start.

David Shaw’s Flynn Modular Sofa – Made in NZ

Furniture | Just like the fashion industry, furniture floods the market from Asia, which is not a terrible thing, but the high carbon footprint should be a consideration. Understanding the exact composition of materials helps the client ensure quality and longevity of the product. While talking about materials, how can we be sure that the materials sourced are done so sustainably and ethically? Often when products come to us from overseas, there is a lot of guesswork into the background of the item. Solution: Choosing to purchase custom-made furniture from onshore manufacturers decreases the carbon footprint dramatically, ensures full discloser and even selection of materials, while allowing for more transparency on the sustainability of the raw materials.

Textiles |  I adore fabrics, but there are definitely luxury products out in the market that are at the peak of fashion that are very unsustainable. I might be very unpopular for bringing this up publicly, however, NZ wool textiles processed overseas in Europe and then brought back to NZ is a great (or terrible!) example of an incredibly large yet unnecessary carbon footprint. I realise that textile mills worldwide do offer more competition compared to the few we have in Oceania, however, I think we need to begin to support our local mills so that more homes boast true NZ wool products that are processed on-shore (by Inter-Weave, for example), or at least nearby. Awareness of composition is huge, and choosing natural fibres over synthetic might mean compromising on budget and performance, however, we need to responsibly consider the environmental impact of the textile disposal once they will be replaced, ei replacing drapes, recovering a sofa, etc.

Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre Seat textiles by Inter-Weave NZ wool manufacturers. Image by Inter-Weave.
Utensil Holder by J S Ceramics in Tauranga

Decor | William Morris said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” And personally, I feel like the criteria for decor should be that it is both beautiful and useful. Some examples of useful ornamentation are baskets, candles, vases, books, framed photos for memories, clocks, lamps, cushions. Examples of not useful decorations are bowls with decorative balls in them (yikes!), figurines (if not deeply sentimental), artwork that simply “fills a gap on the wall” and often souvenirs. The goal with sustainability is to minimise the unnecessary and harmful. Selecting decor from local sources, like a locally made basket from nearby resources, such as local flax or reeds is a great step. Meeting the artist or craftsman who actually hand-made the item of decor you are purchasing is a way to make it more meaningful, and you can be sure they are making a fare wage.

How can the industry change? Sustainability needs to start with an agenda from both the client and the designer. Understanding where products are sourced, that every hand that touches the raw materials in processing and transit are paid appropriately, treated fairly, and with a low carbon footprint are all aspirations that will often make the end result more costly. Understanding where to source more sustainable products and how to effectively communicate that value to clients is the prerogative of the designer. But the client also needs to want this change enough to invest more money. In a competitive market where clients gain multiple quotes and pit design companies off each other to drive discounts even further, there doesn’t seem to be room for this kind of price increase. We need to shift our priorities to include impact on the planet alongside the look, feel and our bottom-line.

cb10dd830d5ccc51239b3140a03d4f11Why should I pay more? Bottom lines are tough. Paying more for the same service seems foolish. But realise there is more to what you are buying than the product itself. Sustainability guru Anna Lappe said it well when she said, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” You should pay more because you should care what raw materials enter into your home, whether textiles for upholstery, resin for decor or timber for furniture. You should care that no one in the supply chain of your products is systematically being taken advantage of or abused. You should care that your item hasn’t travelled back and forth across the ocean several times for different processing stages and testing.


Who locally is designing sustainably in Christchurch, NZ?

Bob Burnett – Bob is a seasoned architect with a passion for pushing the standards of homes in NZ. Check out his page on the Super Home Movement which is dedicated to helping middle-class Kiwis afford energy efficient homes. Book a tour through the 10 Homestar show home for all the details.

Tom Norman – Tom is an incredibly gifted commercial interior designer in Christchurch who has recently finished project managing the building of his family’s home as sustainable as possible. Check out Tom’s instagram for insight into the project.

Interested in sustainable interior design advice? Let’s talk.

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