It’s been widely reported that the building and construction industry makes up about 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, but interiors have largely been thought to make up only a small part of that percentage. Common statistics estimated that the interior FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment) of a building would account for only 7 to 10 percent of its overall carbon footprint. But a new report conducted over the past two years by Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF) and Seattle-based LMN Architects, the results of which were published in the latest issue of Metropolis, suggest something quite different: Over the course of an average building’s life span, the carbon footprint of its interiors will equal if not exceed that of the structure’s construction.
Using the LMN office as case study, the CLF along with LMN associate designer Jenn Chen and director of sustainable design Kjell Anderson deduced that the space had been renovated about every nine years since the firm arrived in 1984. Given that, the cumulative embodied carbon of the interior renovations (i.e., the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the harvesting, processing, manufacturing, transportation and installation of the materials) actually surpassed the emissions of the building.
“It isn’t just that you complete a building and then the carbon footprint stays the same for the 60 years it’s used,” says Anderson. “People are renovating the interiors much more often than that, and that has its own impact each time. Overall, when you combine the A&D industry coupled with the building industry, it has the same impact on climate change as the oil industry. That’s a massive footprint, and we need to take responsibility for that.”
In the commercial space, some major players are indeed attempting to take some responsibility. This year alone, Microsoft pledged to become carbon negative by 2030, while in June, Amazon announced that three major partners (including Verizon) had signed on to its existing carbon neutrality commitment. Salesforce has also committed to undertaking zero-carbon certification for all its workplaces. “Corporate clients are becoming more sophisticated about their climate impacts and their climate commitments,” CLF executive director Kate Simonen told Metropolis.
According to Chen, FF&E tends to have the shortest life cycle of any aspect of a building, as well as the highest amount of embodied carbon. “Refurbishing existing pieces or sourcing vintage items—locally, if you can—can add tremendously to the life cycle of furniture and cut down on a product’s overall carbon footprint,” says Chen.
She compares the shift in thinking about how to source sustainably to going vegetarian. “When I first stopped eating meat, I was worried I was limiting what I could eat—and of course, I was, in one way—but it also opened up my palate to so many new things because I had to be more creative,” she says. And while a decade ago there was perhaps a “granola” aesthetic associated with green design, that’s simply not the case anymore, says Anderson. “Most major companies are on board with sustainability and offering options that meet greener standards,” he says. “You can think of any responsibility as a negative, but pairing the concept of responsibility with design is something our industry needs to do.”
Avinash Rajagopal, the editor in chief of Metropolis, was talking to designers in a roundtable discussion about sustainability earlier this year, when someone mentioned LMN’s study. After reading the findings, Rajagopal felt compelled to share the results with readers, making the topic the cover story for the magazine’s November/December issue. “For some people this feels like new information, for some it confirms their suspicions, and for others it leaves them trying to figure out what they can do,” he says. “My view is that anyone with influence should be trying to change this, and it’s important for designers to realize how much influence they do have in this fight. Maybe as an individual, you think you don’t have the power to change this, but together as an industry, we do.”
To help the industry come together and find ways to move forward, Metropolis is pairing CLF’s report with the magazine’s Sustainability Next initiative, which aims to assemble a task force made up of interior designers willing to help develop a pledge for sustainable interior design, grounded in actions like responsible product specification. “We think that making a commitment to do better is a good place for the industry to start,” says Rajagopal. “We’re hoping that with the help of the designers who take the pledge, we can work together to create a pragmatic framework for the future.”
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