Nicola Holden Designs – Contemporary Interior Designer, London.

Tomorrow is Earth Day – the day when the world focuses on driving meaningful action for our planet.  I can remember a few years ago my husband’s Swedish family were visiting and wanted to take part in Earth Hour as a symbol of their commitment to the planet.  At the time, my mother lived in Zimbabwe, but was visiting me here in the UK.  At 8:30 we turned out all the lights and continued cooking our Swedish waffles by candlelight.  My mother commented how she was so sick and tired of having no lights as she lived with frequent power cuts in Zimbabwe, so to her, having electricity was something of a luxury!

So, whilst living with just candles for lighting is all wonderful for a short period of time, how can we design our interiors to be sustainable on an on-going basis?  Here are five ways that you can bring sustainability into your home:

1. Design for energy efficiency

Energy consumption is one of the major contributors to climate change.  Whether you’re refurbishing an existing building, or creating a new building, think about what you can do to improve your building’s energy efficiency by reducing the amount of energy and water needed.  Add window treatments that enable you to control the building’s temperature by opening and shutting them as needed.  Choose floor finishes that are cosier for cold climates (wooden floors, carpets), and cool for hot climates (tiles).  Ensure that your lighting scheme is energy efficient.  And finally look at installing home automation to enable heating and lighting systems to be controlled remotely.

2. Design for healthy environments

These days, humans are increasingly spending up to 90% of our lives indoors and there is a growing body of scientific evidence showing that how we design our indoor spaces, has a direct impact on us psychologically and physically, and therefore on our overall health, happiness and well-being.  It’s important to think of the bigger cost, aside from monetary value, when you purchase interiors products.

Public Health England attribute between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long-term exposure to air pollution.  Indoor air pollution is over three times worse than outdoor air pollution, due to the number of air pollution particles trapped inside!  Indoor air pollution is largely caused by the invisible off-gassing of toxic emissions from products (furniture, carpets, paint, wallpaper, adhesives, etc).  So look for materials with low emissions of VOC (volatile organic compounds) and other air pollutants.  It’s also important that the air in a room can regularly circulate and remain fresh. Plants also act as natural air filters.

Biophilic design (designing a connection to nature) in our spaces has been proven to reduce the production of stress hormones, improve feelings of happiness and stimulate creativity, as well as lower heart rate and blood pressure, boost the immune system and accelerate recovery from illness.  Exposure to natural light is another beneficial aspect for both physical and psychological health.

It’s also important to consider the acoustics in a space and ensure there are enough materials that will absorb sound vibrations.

3. Design for waste reduction

The mentality of discarding products as soon as they go out of style and replacing them with those that are currently trendy is no longer justifiable.  Instead of discarding ‘’old-fashioned’’ objects while they are still functional, try to come up with creative ways to give them a new life.

Go through what you already have and repair or upcycle it before you buy something new.  Can a sofa be reupholstered?  Can furniture be painted, or sanded and refinished?  “Shop your house” to see if you can move items between rooms for a new look.

If you need to source additional items, start by looking in second-hand stores or flea markets.  Vintage pieces add a historic presence to a space that new objects cannot, giving a home warmth and complexity.

Alternatively, try to look for items made from recycled waste or, for pieces that can be renewed/recycled at the end of their life cycle.  When waste becomes the raw material for new products, a circular loop of manufacturing is formed, effectively minimizing or even eliminating waste all together.

4. Design for low environmental impact

If you need to buy new items, make it conscious.  Always ask yourself what has been sacrificed to get this product cheaply?

Do your research and find out what materials have been used and what is their environmental impact?  Is the wood FSC certified and comes from renewable bio-diverse forests?  Have they been extracted in an environmentally responsible way?  Where is it produced and how are the producers treated?  Has child labour been used?  Is the cotton organic, or are farmers being forced to work with toxic chemicals to produce their cotton more cheaply?  What manufacturing methods are used?  How long will the item last?  And finally, is the item repairable?  Be sure to check the certifications too.

Today our understanding of the natural environment has changed dramatically, and many companies are starting to implement processes that look after the environment – from resource management to the products they make and the way they make them.  Sustainability also considers the way companies manage their workshops and surroundings as well as how they look after their employees.

5. Design for longevity and flexibility

Consider the lifespan of any material you plan to use, especially for those elements that experience a lot of wear and tear (such as flooring).  Easy maintenance is an important part of designing for longevity; when spaces are hard to maintain, regular changes are inevitable and result in more resource consumption and waste creation.  Creating flexible spaces that can be easily adapted to fit the changing needs of people who are using them means there is no need to demolish and renovate it in its entirety.

Try to create timeless spaces by choosing quality over quantity, classics over trendy, and simplicity/functionality over embellishments.  Timeless, well-made pieces will last a long time, and can be recycled for future generations.  Less is definitely more!

“The best way to reduce any environmental impact is not to recycle more, but to produce and dispose of less.” 

Robert Lilienfeld and William Rathje, Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are

As the world embraces taking responsibility for the environment, interior design is finally starting to become more environmentally conscious.  And our homes are becoming safer places for us to live in!  And as a designer I try to make it my business to know which companies are striving to produce sustainably, and to work with those companies. 

Contact me if you would like help creating a more sustainable, safer home for you and your family.



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Paint is one of the most transformative changes you can make to your home.  However, choosing paint for your home that is safe for your family and indoor air quality can seem like a mystifying quest.  And, if you choose the safest kind of paint, will it stand the test of time?

Like all products that are marketed as “environmentally friendly”, it’s important to understand exactly what it is you’re getting and whether or not the product is as “green” as it claims to be.  Choosing which paint to decorate your home with is no exception!

Although lead was phased out as an additive in ordinary paint meant for the general public in the 1960s, lead is not the only paint additive that is bad for your health.  Most paints today contain chemicals — known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — that can negatively affect your health.  When you enjoy that “new paint” smell, ironically you are inhaling dangerous VOCs. 

VOCs are carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate into the air at room temperature.  They can include fungicides, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, and benzene.  Although the majority of VOCs leave the paint as the wall dries, not all of them do. In fact, paint can release VOCs into the air for years following the initial painting, a process known as off-gassing, putting your family at risk.

The end result is that the average indoor air quality of our homes becomes more contaminated than outdoor air, leading to a general decline in health and well-being.  Indoor air pollution is currently one of the biggest environmental threats to public health. 

Harmful VOCs are not always acutely toxic, but they have compounding long-term health effects. 

They have been proven to contribute to conditions including cancer, breathing difficulties, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and blurred vision. In addition, the VOC-rich air in your home over subsequent years can put you or a family member at a higher risk of developing asthma, sinusitis or allergies.  Pretty nasty stuff! 

Thankfully, due to stricter government regulation and more awareness on the part of the consumer, nearly all household paints are water-based meaning that they have lower VOCs.  This means that they off-gas much less than traditional paints.  The EU limit on VOCs in emulsion paint is 30g/L.  However, there are many paints available on the market today that contain lower, or no VOCs.  And from a health perspective, the fewer chemicals, the less off-gassing, the better!

Like many healthier alternatives, no- and low-VOC paint usually costs more than regular paint, but is definitely worth the added expense.  This additional cost is due to the increased content of natural pigments in the paint, which are more expensive to extract from the earth than petrochemicals.  But it is this increased pigment content that gives walls a real depth of colour, absorbing light so that the colour appears to glow from behind.  In addition, higher-quality paint will go on smoother, take longer to dry (meaning brush strokes are less visible), and last longer, demanding fewer retouches down the line. 

An inexpensive brand of paint might make sense in the short term, but we have to ask what is being sacrificed to produce this cheaper paint, and is it worth the so-called saving when our health and our planet is at stake?

Here are some of the paint companies whose products I specify for my client projects, based on their eco-friendly credentials.

(VOC figures extracted from the companies paint charts / websites)

One more tip – don’t overbuy! Paint can be difficult to dispose of properly and this ensures that you won’t end up with too much extra paint to get rid of.

I hope I have helped to clear up any confusion?  Happy painting!

“Colour is what gives jewels their worth”
Christian Dior

It is difficult to escape the current calls to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.  David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have seen to that!  And this topic has been amplified through the Covid pandemic.  As the world shut down, so nature came back to life.  Birdsong became sweeter and softer as the birds no longer had to sing above the city’s background noise. And satellite images showed a dramatic decrease in air pollution around the world.

But how can we become more sustainable in our interiors choices?  This is a huge topic to delve into, and I can only scratch the surface in this blog post, because becoming truly sustainable involves looking into a materials’ intended application, aesthetic qualities, environmental and health impacts, availability, ease of instalment and maintenance and initial and life cycle costs.  And more often than not, this information is not readily available. 

Early industries relied on a seemingly endless supply of natural resources.  For all its good, the industrial revolution has also resulted in billions of tonnes of toxic material being expelled into the air, water, and soil, requiring thousands of complex regulations to keep people from being poisoned too quickly, as well as eroding the diversity of species and cultural practices. 

Many of the raw materials used in modern manufactured products are actually harmful to humans, and the off-gassing from these products (appliances, carpets, wallpaper adhesives, paints, building materials, etc) results in the average indoor air quality being more contaminated than outdoor air, leading to a general decline in health.  Indoor air pollution is currently one of the biggest environmental threats to public health!

Today our understanding of the natural environment has changed dramatically, but modern industries still operate according to early models, with a cradle-to-grave mind-set.  Resources are extracted, shaped into products, sold, and eventually disposed of in a ‘grave’ of some kind, usually landfill or incinerator.

Now more than ever I am finding that my clients want to be part of the design journey.  They want the pieces within their homes to reflect their own belief system, to have integrity and narrative and, most importantly, to be sustainable.  And as a result, our homes are becoming safer places for us to live in too!

The mentality of discarding products as soon as they go out of style and replacing them with those that are currently trendy is no longer justifiable.  Instead of discarding ‘’old-fashioned’’ objects while they are still functional, we can (and should) come up with creative ways to give them a new life.

Here are a few suggestions about how you can sustainably give your home a fresh look:

REUSE AND RECYCLE

Go through what you already have in your home and ask yourself if it can be repaired or renewed before you specify something new.  Can a sofa be reupholstered rather than buying a brand new one?  Can furniture be painted, or sanded and refinished?  Shop your house, moving things between rooms.  And if there is furniture that is still useful but that is no longer needed, donate it to a second-hand store.

This sofa was recovered for my client

BUY SECOND-HAND

If you need to source additional items, start by looking at second-hand stores or flea markets. Visit your local auction houses and seek out hidden treasures.  Vintage pieces add a historic presence to a space that new objects cannot, giving a home warmth and complexity.  They are imbued with nostalgia and memory.  Look at websites that sell used items, where you can easily search for exactly what you are looking for without having to go to many stores.

Vintage chairs from second-hand site Vinterior

BUY CONSCIOUSLY

If you need to buy new items, make it conscious.  Ask the supplier what materials have been used?  Have they been extracted in an environmentally responsible way?  Where is the item produced and how?  What manufacturing methods are used?  How long will the item last, and is the item repairable?

Choose materials and products with the lowest environmental impact.  Products made using renewable resources are those that belong to the natural environment and are replaced by the natural processes that occur in that environment as part of an ecosystem.  Biodegradable products can be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms, thereby avoiding pollution.  Try to avoid using materials that come from non-renewable resources, where there is a risk of depleting these natural resources.  And be sure to check the certifications!

Sustainable lighting by Tom Raffield

BUY RECYCLED

There has been a recent surge in the availability of products that are made from recycled waste or that can be renewed/recycled at the end of their life cycle.  When waste becomes the raw material for new products, a circular loop of manufacturing is formed, effectively minimising or even eliminating waste all together.

Claire Gaudion creates rugs made from 100% Recycled (PET) plastic

Let’s hope that 2021 will mark a more permanent move away from the quick fix of instant interiors fashion to a sense of longevity and considered consumerism.  A move towards the handcrafted and personal; of investing in pieces that will grow with you and become a part of our home’s life story over time.

I am constantly updating my library of sustainable products. Contact me if you’d like to discuss creating a more sustainable home for your family.

“The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.”
Albert Einstein