Challenges to Sustainable Practices
Social Challenges & Opportunities
Social challenges of sustainable design are those challenges that affect the attitudes and behaviors of those involved, whether that is the designer or the client. Within the category of social challenges there are further classifications which will be discussed: mindset, miscommunication, trust barriers, and the term “sustainability.” In Listening to the Public: Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Sustainability, Rosell describes that with mindset barriers there are certain attitudes that get in the way of making “environmental sound decisions.” These include: force of habit, consumerism and pressure to over consume, belief that one person can’t make a difference, and the belief that sustainability issues arise from human nature and human nature won’t change (Rosell, 2006). One example of this type of mindset barrier can be explained by Stephen Jolson (from Stephen Jolson Architects) on his belief that Australians not only have a broad understating of design, but are much more concerned with individual project integrity regardless of market forces or wealth.
Further, due to the established social pyramid, designers may feel the need to buy expensive products (typically because they are scarcer and hard to find) in order to reflect the client’s social status (14, Birkeland, 2002). According to Birkeland’s book For Sustainability: A sourcebook of Integrated Ecological Solutions, “Pyramidal forms of development correspond with pyramidal social structures, where the benefits of development are enjoyed by a few, and the cost are passed on to others and to nature.” Based on this quote, it is true that many times designers guide their design solutions solely on aesthetics and do not take into account the three concepts of the triple bottom line: social, economic, and environmental benefits. They feel that design, for the most part, pertains to the display of affluence or rank of the client, which in turn brings acclaim to the designer. Supported by Doran’s study of “Sustainability and Interior Design,” designers use materials for their “decorative or luxury characteristics.” He explains that a lot of times designers ask to expand the budget in order to accommodate expensive materials and finishes that go hand in hand with color schemes and concepts. Similar to the concept that Birkeland tries to explain with the social pyramid, Doran supports it by explaining how the budget may increase due to the client’s want to impress others. In this case, it is a smarter approach to convey to the client that “the additional budget is spent on green finishes that require specialized skilled craftsmen rather than harmful finishes” (Doran 2005). It should be the goal of the interior designer to truly understand this new perspective and educate the customer on how using environmentally friendly products is not an immediate link to “cheap” design. It is important for the designer to realize that acclaim is not only linked to how aesthetically pleasing a space looks, but in today’s economy, a sophisticated level of innovation is just as highly acclaimed. As you will see in the upcoming case study, eco or environmentally friendly design can still produce a high-end interior space. From a perspective of commercial design, a prevalent company which portrays an image of being sophisticated can still portray this image through sustainable interiors. The only difference would be that by paying close attention to creating environments with efficient energy systems and good indoor air quality, the company can reduce significant amounts paid to energy consumption and similarly reduce the rate of employee absenteeism “due to a more pleasant work environment.” (p.15, Birkeland, 2002).
On a different note, it is usual for designers to have an established list of contacts (suppliers, vendors, etc.) with whom they have established good relations and trust, and they prefer to keep this sense of reliance and comfort. In addition, experimenting with a strategy that a firm has never done before may bring uncertainty for both the firm and the client–a situation which the designer may wish to avoid. Furthermore, the issues of miscommunication and trust tie with the idea that many companies project an image of being sustainable while their actions point a different way.
Once designers make the effort to understand these barriers, they should embrace them by openly communicating not only their new sustainable values and philosophy, but also their actions. One way to do this is to document and publish case studies of the work to show the relevance of the sustainable trend. This will raise public awareness and ultimately trust.
Economic Challenges & Opportunities
Economic challenges are associated with budget limitation and/or financial gain for the client and interior design practice. According to Sara Wilkinson, some reasons which affect a firm’s ability to be part of the sustainable field include: financial gain motive, inadequate funds, proof that tenants (or buyers) are seeking sustainable buildings, funds are allocated to other initiatives, monopolies, and tedious approval processes to name a few. The most familiar of these reasons is probably that of inadequate funds. Sustainable or green products are priced higher in the market and consequently clients are more reluctant to make investments in these materials when there are materials that can do the same job for less. For this reason, many designers still select conventional materials for their designs in order to keep the project under budget.
Cost alone should not be an impediment to the progress of a project that could be sustainable. It is the job of the interior designers to inform the client not only of the initial cost of the product but also of the additional maintenance and replacement costs associated with conventional materials (Dean, 2003). Commonly used in LEED Rating Systems is the term life-cycle cost, which basically evaluates a product’s economic performance over its entire life span.
In Green by Design, Angela M. Dean states that “money can be spent unwisely whether or not you are building green. Green can cost more or less, just as conventional can cost more or less.” Companies who remain with conventional practices as opposed to sustainable ones may still face situations in which they go over budget. As previously mentioned, cost alone should not be a reason for not using green practices. It takes careful study and thorough research to make a wise selection of products from a variety of aspects. If cost is a crucial aspect of the design, as it is in most projects, then taking a sustainable approach is even more pertinent. An uninformed client, concerned of the project’s costs, may seem to want conventional materials, but if the designer is able to inform the client of the potential savings with green materials, then the client may become more yielding. It is good idea to inform the client of these green efforts from the very beginning. This will allow for the project to be much more efficient and have greater impact on the sustainable design (Doran, 2005).
The current environment presents a series of challenges that hinder the progress to sustainable design. According to Wilkison, environmental barriers include: “government policy makers in the creation of recommendations, government structures that accommodate long-term decision-makingâ€¦communication links with other citiesâ€¦and [lack of] policies that improve choices.”
For example, codes may hinder the progress of sustainable building as they seek to protect the health and safety of building users (Dean, 2003). These stringent laws and standards may sometimes keep a designer from using sustainable practices; however, one must know how to seek alternative ways to work within these laws in order to continue with the desired design. It is also relevant to say that although there are building codes that prevent certain actions, many of these codes are currently being modified to support green practices.