Interior designers discuss how clients can work toward more sustainable homes.
Interior of cozy kitchen in modern apartment with table and chairs on carpet

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We’ve said it before: Today’s young homeowners and buyers are drawn to sustainable living.

Real estate professionals who understand the ins and outs of sustainable design are positioned to be valuable sources of information for clients before, during, and even after a home sale.

But what exactly is sustainable design?

Interior design experts agree that sustainable design can be a lot of things. Refinishing an old chandelier instead of buying a new one is sustainable. Buying tiles made from recycled materials is sustainable. Passive cooling and solar energy are sustainable, too. 

“The definition of sustainability is ‘the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level,’” explains Mackenzie Collier, interior designer and founder of Mackenzie Collier Interiors in Phoenix. In other words, sustainable design is about intentionality—choosing methods and products and systems that are made to last while supporting the longevity of the environments and communities they come from.

Sustainable Design 101

Like circular design, sustainable design is a philosophy, not an aesthetic. A colorful, bohemian kitchen can incorporate sustainable design just as much as a monochrome, minimalist bedroom. 

“Sustainable design is a methodology that prioritizes environmental preservation and well-being,” says Sarah Barnard, a WELL- and LEED-accredited designer and owner of Sarah Barnard Design in Santa Monica, Calif. “Responsibly sourced materials and energy systems that focus on water reduction, use of renewable energy, and consideration of long-term environmental impacts throughout the design process are all important factors in sustainable design.”

How Homeowners Can Incorporate Sustainable Design

As previously established, sustainable design can be incorporated into many aesthetics and rooms. Depending on the client and space, you might see sustainable design come to life in several ways:

  • Reclaiming and recycling items. “Sustainable design often focuses on reuse as part of an effort to minimize waste,” says Barnard. “Reclaimed hardwoods, tiles made with recycled materials and vintage light fixtures are all popular options.” Collier adds that older pieces have already finished off-gassing most chemicals, so they won’t harm indoor air quality.
  • Prioritizing organic, sustainable materials. For Collier, that means choosing products from renewable resources like wool, bamboo and cork. “These products are not only sustainable, but they will also age better than synthetic materials,” she says. Barnard emphasizes that sustainable materials such as hemp-based insulation or mineral-based paints can be used during new construction.
  • Going local. In sustainable design, avoiding harm during manufacturing, transportation and eventual discarding are all equally important. For instance, a table made by a local woodworker likely has far less environmental impact than a bamboo table shipped from far away, even though bamboo is a sustainable material.
  • Investing in “forever” pieces. “Sturdy materials are a priority for many sustainable spaces, with design decisions around longevity often leading to more personalization,” says Barnard. In other words, a unique made-to-last table is better for the environment and sets the dining room apart from all your neighbors’ Target-sourced homes.
  • Living small(er). “McMansions are a thing of the past,” proclaims Collier. “Smaller spaces are easier and more cost-efficient to maintain, and they also minimize your impact on the environment.”
  • Emphasizing self-sustaining systems. Barnard says solar power and graywater systems, which divert sink wastewater to lawn irrigation, are getting more and more popular. She’s also noticed an uptick in vegetable gardening, which has increased client demand for pantry and freezer storage.

Sustainable Design Resources for Clients

Clients attracted to sustainable living probably have a good grasp of the philosophy behind sustainable design. Still, Barnard and Collier both hint at the importance of due diligence and even working with a professional to avoid common marketing tricks.

“Many corporations try to take advantage of consumers by using nonregulated terminology like ‘natural,’” says Collier. “It’s really important to understand how different elements of products affect the environment so that you can make educated decisions about the products you buy.”

So, what’s the best way to find truly sustainable home products and designs? Third-party verifications and recommendations from trusted sustainable designers, says Barnard. She suggests consulting designers and builders who have been accredited by LEED. The LEED rating system is internationally recognized for its high standards for green buildings. 

“Many designers and builders specializing in sustainability will have projects in their portfolio emphasizing sustainable design and will be open to answering questions about their interest and work in sustainable design,” she adds.