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Making Green

The field of green design is full of business opportunities for interior designers willing to learn some new skills and think outside the box.

By Lisa Henry

The field of green design is full of business opportunities for interior designers willing to learn some new skills and think outside the box.

At the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), there is a focus on identifying business opportunities for interior designers. Our profession has been hard hit by the ongoing recession, but there are areas of growth and opportunities to develop. One of them is undoubtedly in the arena of green design.

As material innovations, intelligent management systems and more efficient building techniques come together in new ways, the design and construction industries stand to be thoroughly transformed for a new generation of consumers who value environmental stewardship and their own bottom line. The future will reflect a new era in sustainability and new business opportunities for interior designers will emerge.

Some jurisdictions have environmental regulations for the commercial new building industry, and there are indications that the industry is not afraid of moving in that direction. However, new building design and construction is the low-hanging fruit in environmental policy terms, even though it garners a lot of PR. Meanwhile, improving environmental performance and upgrading our existing building stock is the unmentioned elephant in the room, because most of the homes and buildings we will occupy in 30 years have already been built. It’s an elephant because existing buildings represent huge opportunities to improve the welfare of building occupants, both commercial and residential; it’s an elephant because the environmental impact of existing building renovation and the opportunity to improve it is tremendous.

We know renovations present a unique environmental challenge where the refurbishment process is a repeated cycle of build, demolish, dispose and rebuild. Interior space is the purview of all this change. What an opportunity for designers to be leaders, to consult and add value to the process.

In fact, interior designers have been advocates for advancing green building education and practices since the mid-1970s, long before the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) launched the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. The number of LEED buildings certified or registered for certification has grown annually, and currently represents over 7.9 billion square feet of construction space, in every state and many countries. The LEED rating system has already met one of its key objectives, market transformation, and has brought with it a common language to describe, and a methodology to measure, green building attributes. LEED has also influenced sustainable rating system models for interior products like SMaRT and BIFMA’s level program.

Many issues still need to be addressed, including measuring, monitoring building performance standards, and training/educating those in the entire product and service “supply chain,” including providers of interior design services. That said, saving energy, creating jobs, stimulating new business, reducing energy bills, protecting asset values, and creating healthy environments all add up to a menu of massive opportunities.

A new opportunity for interior design firms lies in the area of “intelligent systems.” For example, intelligent energy management systems are being integrated into interior spaces and save energy by monitoring its use and providing actionable feedback. These systems learn about occupants’ comfort levels over time and display energy savings, as well as how much time remains until a new temperature is reached. Lighting systems that increase or decrease lumen output depending upon daylighting conditions are also being integrated into spaces, and sensors are being used to control window coverings.

Another area of potential for environmental and job innovation can be found in actual building methods. More specifically, there is a renewed interest in modular construction. Building manufacturing in controlled indoor environments allows for precision fabrication and the use of high-volume materials that cut costs, reduce waste, shorten construction timelines and maximize efficiencies over traditional site-built projects.

In 2008, a landmark project called “Project Frog” was shown at the International Greenbuild Expo. The idea behind it is that customizable, Erector Set-like components can be combined to quickly create efficient, sustainable buildings, thereby reducing expenses 10 to 25 percent below traditional building costs. What began as a venture in sustainable alternatives to traditional classroom pre-fabs has become one of the green leaders in healthcare, education and other facilities; the project has since landed over $22 million in funding from General Electric through its Ecomagination Challenge.

Michelle Kaufmann’s Smart Home and Small House innovations like Andrés Duany’s Katrina Cottages exemplify other, new types of built environments that make sense for today and offer designers opportunities to provide services that add value to these types of non-traditional spaces. The attitudes and expectations of the next generation of home buyers (generation Y) are a lot different from those of their parents. Small, smart, wired and environmentally conscious is their modus operandi. These same preferences are also reflected in the home choices of new retirees who are downsizing.

We have only scraped the tip of the iceberg of sustainability. We have made great strides in a short period of time, but mostly we have just been addressing symptoms. We need a new model of design based in a broader context of sustainability. Today, we are designing interior products and spaces for near-term and short-term use. Instead, we could be encouraging clients to consider long-lasting, adaptable solutions. Recycling and repurposing help conserve resources, but those strategies are still grounded in a disposable mindset. Designing spaces so they can be easily modified for different uses and products that can be refurbished rather than recycled is real sustainability.

Such an approach makes good design much more economical, and it creates a new role for the designer as a steward of the design and the environment, guiding a space through its evolution as needs and functions change over time. Think how much we could learn and improve our outcomes if we could switch from treating design as a closed loop (a project) and instead treat it as an open system (an ongoing relationship with a space).

This approach, as well as new and existing building options and materials, can present new business opportunities for interior designers. ASID is already taking steps to prepare our members for these opportunities. As part of our commitment to advancing our members’ knowledge and skills, ASID partners with USGBC on REGREEN®, the comprehensive green residential remodeling program that helps designers renovate in an environmentally-respectful manner with a distinct focus on energy-efficiency and healthy interiors, and offers a REGREEN Trained™ certificate for designers looking to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. In addition, to better serve our members, ASID is developing a new interiors-focused REGREEN workshop that addresses the industry-specific challenges interior designers routinely encounter. The new workshop is the capstone course in the REGREEN Trained certificate program and is expected to debut this fall.

“Find a need and fill it” is the classic formula for success. The need is real and urgent. It is up to us in the design community to create the solutions to meet it.


ASID President Lisa Henry, FASID, LEED AP is the Knoll Southwest regional architecture and design director. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or, and on the web at To download a copy of the ASID Environmental Scanning Report, go to Practice & Business at