Guest Blog: Stephanie Phelan – Thoughts on sustainable design

Stephanie Phelan is a UK based interior designer experienced in luxury hospitality and residential projects across London and Europe. She believes that interior design is about creating experiences, unique moments and memories, through effective use of space, considered design details and layered materiality, all underpinned by a respect for the environment around us. Her desire to bring an environmental awareness into interior design was the driving force behind Beyond Matter: an online platform for sustainable and environmentally friendly interior design, including finishes, materials, furniture, lighting and interior project inspiration. Through Beyond Matter she endeavours to help luxury interiors work in harmony with the environment, assisting designers in creating beautiful and timeless interiors without compromising on style or the future of the planet. 


Change. If there’s one thing we can confidently bet on, it’s this. Change is all around us, all of the time. There are events happening all over the world at this very moment, in every shape and form you could think of, where changes and transformations are taking place. Whether this is for better or worse depends on the particular event. It should come as no surprise to the majority of us that the impact of the human race on the natural world specifically, is often more a cause for harm than benefit. For decades we have exploited mother nature’s resources, and created reckless amounts of waste and pollution with disregard for the future of the planet, let alone the future generations living on it. Some of the time we are helpless to the powers of change around us; spectators watching from the sidelines. But there are changes happening now, cogs turning in people’s minds where moments of realisation are occurring. We can change, in fact, must change, the way in which we go about our lives on this planet.

Like many people, I have long been aware of environmental damage, greenhouse gases and general excessive waste created in our societies, but it has only been in recent years that I have thought about how my role as an interior designer plays a part in this. Interior Design is a luxury industry where, in my personal experience, sustainability is rarely considered enough, if it is even considered at all. Working more specifically in high-end hospitality interiors, the design criteria are more generally centred around designing inviting yet practical spaces which create memorable experiences for the end-users. It is rare to work on a project where the design brief has a sustainable focus, which demands not just beautiful and timeless interiors but also consciously designed ones.

Due to unsuccessful and sometimes unsightly eco trends from the decades past, there is a misconception amongst the interior design world and wider public that sustainable equals ugly. However, there are innovative manufacturers out there, like Hill Cross Furniture, creating not only sustainable and environmentally friendly finishes and products, but beautiful ones too. Thanks to these efforts, perceptions about sustainable design are beginning to shift.

I’m not suggesting that interior designers do not care about the environment, in fact from experience many of my colleagues have felt quite the opposite. From my point of view, one of the greatest challenges in making interior design a more sustainable industry is bridging the gap between designers and environmentally conscious suppliers and manufactures. The interior design industry is notorious for its busy deadlines and last minute requests from clients, so when it comes down to it, researching sustainable finishes and manufactures to specify for projects, drops down on the list of priorities for designers. If the gap can be bridged making sustainable design, suppliers and manufacturers more easily accessible and widely known, interior design can transform to become an industry where luxury and sustainability work together. This is the principle behind Beyond Matter; a new online platform for sustainable and environmentally friendly interior design.

The idea for Beyond Matter formed out of a frustration at the difficulty in sourcing sustainable suppliers and manufacturers first hand during my experience working on interior projects, and aims to resolve the issue by linking designers with eco conscious manufacturers. Through showcasing a collection of environmentally friendly materials, finishes and products all in one place, the online platform removes the need for the designer to spend time researching sustainability credentials beforehand. Every material, finish, product and project featured on Beyond Matter takes sustainability and environmental impact seriously, with these values forming key parts of their ethos. An interior designer or design professional can visit Beyond Matter, knowing that the content is a sustainable and environmentally friendly option for their project.

The significance of adopting a sustainable approach to interior design plays an important role in  reducing negative impact on the environment. This is even more relevant in interior design than some other industries, due to the very nature of designing, making and building, involving the use of resources and generation of by-products. Taking a more sustainable approach can drastically reduce the exploitation of natural resources, emission of greenhouse gases and production of waste during the manufacture of finishes, furniture and interiors. When it comes to determining sustainability, I have found it useful to ask questions focused around five key themes: Materiality, Location, Process, Longevity and Post Use.

Materiality

Whether it be an armchair, a wall tile or a kitchen countertop; What exactly is it made out of? It is likely more environmentally friendly if it is composed of natural materials such as timber or stone, however these should be from certified sustainable sources. It’s helpful to look out for FSC Certified timbers, Stone Federation of Great Britain members, EU Ecolabel Certification and UL Greenguard Certification, which takes into account several factors for sustainability, including social and economic aspects as well as environmental. Regarding timber specifically, species such as Bamboo or Cork make excellent sustainable alternatives to conventional hardwoods, due to the fast growth of Bamboo and ability to harvest Cork without felling trees. Opting for recycled materials is another environmentally friendly approach, and also a great way to make use of waste. There are a growing number of recycled innovations available, taking old plastic bottles, coffee grounds or corks from wine bottles to mention a few, and transforming them into useful and attractive interior finishes and textiles. Lastly; ingredients of finishing agents such as timber stains, colour dyes and paints, should be considered, and preferably naturally derived, water based and/or low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound).

Location

Where are the raw materials sourced from? Where are these materials processed and manufactured into the end product? Where is the end product going to be situated? Finally, how will transportation occur between all of these stages? In an ideal world there would be minimal distance to cover between each stage, reducing harmful emissions during transportation. Sometimes, it is not possible to have such a closely connected production process, in which case the mode of transport is key to keeping emissions low.

Process

How are the raw materials made into the final product, and what processes are required during manufacture? The source of energy needed during the production process should use renewable sources such as wind, solar or water power wherever possible. Another factor to consider is whether the waste produced during manufacture is re-used by the same factory creating a closed loop system, sent elsewhere for recycling, or sent to landfill; something to avoid.

Longevity

How long will the completed finish or product last? High quality materials and manufacturing methods usually make a durable and robust end product, leading to a long life span. This will reduce the need for replacements after only a few years of use, which in turn will reduce the unnecessary manufacture and transportation of replacements.

Post Use

What happens at the end of the product’s life? Ideally a product would be able to be dismantled and each of the components recycled into something new. Some manufacturing companies offer schemes where customers can return products at the end of life for refurbishment and re-use of breakdown and recycling. Alternatively, if the product, or parts of it, are composed of natural derived materials, they may be able to naturally biodegrade.

Some of the points above may seem obvious, but it can be easy to overlook them if not in the correct mindset or working to a tight deadline without a sustainable focus. Questioning the processes of manufacture is key to ensuring sustainability, and suppliers and manufacturers are usually more than willing to discuss these topics. There is a growing number of design and product innovations demonstrated by pioneering companies and interior studios, showcased on Beyond Matter, which prove that change for the better is happening.

The interior design profession and connected industries as a whole, have a responsibility to choose sustainable finishes, materials and manufacturing methods, and emphasise the significance of them to their clients. Beyond Matter seeks to make this process more straightforward, raising awareness of sustainable and environmentally friendly options, and thereby increasing the demand and implementation of such designs. By bridging the gaps between interior designers and conscious manufactures, interior design can transform into an industry where luxury and sustainability interlink creating beautiful and timeless spaces.

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