Last night I attended Kelling Designs’ inaugural sustainability evening at their flamboyant shop in Langton Street, London. It was a cosy, lively affair with their founder Emma Deterding probing three panel guests on their thoughts on how to embed sustainability in the building and interior design world. The three guests were:

  • Edward Bulmer: natural paint specialist and restorer of historic buildings;
  • George Saumarez Smith: architect delivering classical, traditional design in a modern context; and
  • Marie Cudennec: co-founder of the Goldfinger Factory, a social enterprise crafting sleek objects from materials diverted from landfill.

Photo: Kelling Designs, Langton Street, London

So what answers did the knowledgeable panelists come up with? How can interior design be made more sustainable?

Take time and don’t make rash decisions

One of the central tenets of sustainability is to use and consume less of the world’s resources. Edward Bulmer believes that you should only do up a room when the budget is there to do it properly. This inevitably means that we won’t be able to do everything at once but we’ll make fewer mistakes and the stuff we do do will last and we’ll love it all the more.

Aim for permanence

This applies across the whole spectrum of house building and renovation: from the roof, to the windows, to the choice of paint we put on the walls, to the furniture we buy to fill our homes. When my grandparents renovated their house in Ireland after the war they never expected to do anything else to it again. It wasn’t until 60 years later, when my mum turned it into a B & B, that the formica worktops and the faded, bedraggled curtains were replaced. This might be a bit extreme but, as George Saumarez Smith suggested, interior design needs to re-embrace the very English charm of worn, faded elegance rather than aspiring to make rooms look perfect and glossy all the time.

The counter-argument to buying things that are designed to last is that they are so much more expensive. But they’re only more expensive relative to their cheaper, less durable alternative, if we’re expecting to replace them in 5 years. If the economy can switch to valuing old things, then if we do need to change them we can sell them for a decent price rather than send them to landfill. Every week auction houses are selling Georgian or Victorian chest of drawers for less than the price of Ikea ones.

Embrace the circular economy

The circular economy is the concept of designing out waste from our system and keeping products and materials in use. Rather than the current model of extracting-utilising-disposing, the circular economic model designs products that are ‘made to be made again’. As Marie Cudennec explained, at the Goldfinger Factory their remanufacturing of waste is not only keeping materials in use and out of landfill but it leads to societal regeneration by teaching people abandoned skills of repurposing and repair.

Photo: Goldfinger Factory, Trellick Tower, London

Do your own lifecycle analysis

Lifecycle analysis is incredibly complicated but it’s basically an assessment of the environmental impact of a product’s life from the point when it is extracted to the point when it can no longer be used. There are databases such as the BRE’s Green Guide to Specification which give ratings for hundred’s of different building materials. There are also smaller companies, like the Goldfinger Factory, who are developing their own rating systems for assessing the environmental impact of their products. Although accurate lifecycle analysis is best left to the experts, it’s not rocket science to realise that if a piece of oak comes from North America it’s going to have a worse environmental impact than if it came from down the road. As Edward Bulmer pointed out, there’s always a human story behind every material that we use. If a piece of marble from India is cheaper than a piece of marble from Italy then that’s because someone along the supply chain hasn’t been paid fairly and, with marble extraction, that could easily have been a child.

Coffee table made by the Goldfinger Factory from Victorian parquet flooring salvaged from the Science Museum

There were other interesting issues raised including the need to label paint for allergy sufferers in a similar way to food and how it’s a no-brainer to make the component parts of houses in factories rather than outside, at the mercy of the British weather. But these are for discussion on another day.