Cover Story: On the Right Path

By Robert Nieminen | Cover and portrait photography by Gittel Price
Designer; speaker; consultant—all of these words describe one of the many hats that Holley Henderson wears on a daily basis as the founder of her Atlanta-based firm, H2 Ecodesign. What they don’t adequately illustrate is the passion for sustainability that led her down an unknown path—a calling to  affect change and leave a legacy larger than just ‘an isolated moment of design.’


Holley Henderson isn't one of those people who naturally fell in love with interior design. In fact, the founder of Atlanta-based H2 Ecodesign says that as a child, she had a keen interest in becoming an artist, but her mother suggested she pursue a practical career in the arts that would be more lucrative. Henderson now looks back on her mother's advice and wonders, half-jokingly, if she would have made more money as an artist after all.

"The truth is, I struggled for a while with interior design, and it's interesting how you don't always know the reason for your path, but it becomes revealed to you at some point," explains Henderson. "And it took awhile for that to happen to me." She worked for 10 years in the Atlanta office of TVS Interiors, seven of which were spent designing convention center interiors, when suddenly the impact of her work began to sink in. Having worked on projects such as McCormick Place in Chicago, which is one of the largest convention centers in the world, Henderson began to ponder the scale and magnitude of her work and thought to herself, "There's got to be a better way to do this."

Fortunately for her, TVS Interiors was willing to let her explore other options, so she began to do some teaching outside of the studio. It wasn't long before Henderson realized that teaching wasn't what she ultimately wanted to do. TVS Interiors had been very supportive of fundraising for the United Way, so she began public speaking for the non-profit organization thinking, "Maybe that's my path." But it wasn't until she began looking into environmental issues that Henderson started to see the direction her career path was taking.

"The more I started looking into it (sustainability), the more I thought, 'This is the field of the future,'" recalls Henderson. At the time, the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Rating System hadn't yet penetrated the market, although she says there was some talk about it, so the concepts of doing green design were still relatively new. But the pivotal moment for Henderson came when she heard Ray Anderson, of Interface, give a presentation on sustainability. "When he (Anderson) was speaking to us, it was like he had had his own personal epiphany about things he hadn't been developing correctly relative to manufacturing. And it wasn't that we weren't trying to do the right thing at TVS—we were doing that on specific projects—but I wanted to take it to the next level," she recalls.

Undeterred by the potential consequences of her next steps, Henderson wrote a two-page paper on her latest career interest and brought it to Roger Neuenschwander, the president of TVS, thinking she might get fired or he might point out that her idea was nice but that she had a lot of unfinished billable work back at her desk.

"I was nervous," admits Henderson, "but sometimes you get to a certain point in your career when you're willing to take the chance no matter what the answer might be." Much to her surprise, Neuenschwander was very supportive and said they had been waiting for someone to step up to the plate in terms of developing a sustainable design studio, and he asked her to develop a business plan. Hardly knowing where to start (let alone knowing exactly what a business plan looked like), Henderson was able to step away from her billable work to develop what would become TVS Interiors' sustainable design studio—an event she describes as "a pretty big deal."

Fast forward two years. Henderson is now working for TVS on the InterfaceFLOR showroom in Atlanta, which eventually earned a LEED-CI Platinum rating, when her career path takes another unexpected turn. Before the project was complete, she went to work for Interface in its marketing and creative department, although TVS allowed her to continue working on the showroom while she transitioned to her new employer. Admittedly, Henderson wondered what it would be like working for the company whose president had ignited a fire in her to pursue sustainable design. "Are they really going to be as sustainable as they say?" she wondered. "I was amazed that they really were."

In contrast to a design firm, where Henderson says the billable framework isn't set up to be very flexible, Interface was a completely new experience. Working for a global company, often from home with a laptop and making conference calls, was "a whole different mentality," explains Henderson. But it was because of her experiences at TVS and Interface that she was able to take the next step in 2004 when she founded H2 Ecodesign. "I couldn't have walked from a billable framework and thought I was capable of working on my own. But because of those two experiences combined, I realized I was able to go out on my own."

It's not just that Henderson had the ability to start her own firm, where she remains the sole employee; there was also a clear need in the market for someone with her unique experience. "There was a need for more sustainable assistance, and I could see it in three distinct areas: design firms needed it, manufacturers needed it, and owners needed it," she explains. "And I had the unique perspective of having my feet in the design firm, having my feet in a manufacturing company … and both of those things are supplying what owners need. I felt like I had this unique perspective of all three of those things."

So around the time of Greenbuild 2004, H2 Ecodesign was launched and Henderson's path had come full circle. "I really just want to be a catalyst for change," she says of her firm's mission. "I want to give tools and resources and create awareness (of sustainability). I just want to move the needle." With that aim, H2 Ecodesign provides a variety of services to the A&D community—from serving as the LEED AP for a design firm on a project to consulting with manufacturers to her speaking engagements through ASID and IIDA. And while she indicates that she could expand her business, Henderson points out that expanding usually involves more managing, and to her, that means time away from her work, and she is admittedly passionate about what she does. "I love this dichotomy of speaking about it, but also doing the work at the same time. If you don't continue to do the work, your speaking isn't fresh," she explains. "And if you're not speaking about it, you're only touching a small pool of people. So it's a balancing act between those things."

Knowledge is being an architect, no matter what your field." Henderson recently read this quote on a billboard as she was driving in her car. The statement resonated with her because, even though the A&D community has come a long way in terms of embracing sustainability, she believes architects and designers have a lot more to offer if they only empowered themselves to apply their unique ability to problem solve creatively. "The marriage of design and science holds the key to many of the environmental issues we've created," notes Henderson. "I really believe that our ability to problem solve and think creatively is crucial to the future of sustainability."

But in order to affect change, she argues, architects and designers must have a personal epiphany—much like she did after hearing Ray Anderson speak—or else they're not really going to change. To that end, Henderson likes to show a particular slide during her speaking engagements that drives her point home: a leading manufacturer that she worked with looked at how much sampling waste they had generated within one year—samples only, no orders that went on the floor—and the data shows that the waste generated from these samples could fill 4½ Empire State buildings. "I have that slide go up, and you see people's faces," relates Henderson. "They're like, 'You mean every time I call up and order a sample, it's really contributing to that?'" In other words, ordering a sample can seem like a rather trivial thing that doesn't have a lot of impact, "but it has monumental impact," she emphasizes.

It's important to note that while sustainable design can be both functional and beautiful, as evidenced by IIDA's Smart Environments Award, Henderson recognizes that there are also risks involved. For example, she points to the fact that high profile design firms use key products that they know are going to perform, "and that's the reason you get the awards and get on the magazine covers," she asserts. However, when sustainability is added to the equation, products that might be less familiar to specifiers may or may not perform as well as those key products they've used extensively in the past.

Case in point: during the construction of the Interface showroom in Atlanta, Henderson recalls using a concrete sealer that did not perform as well as the design team had hoped. TVS took a risk on a low-VOC sealer that contributed to LEED points, but it didn't end up looking as good as it could have. "The truth is, probably no one else except maybe a Gensler or a major design firm would know that the concrete sealer doesn't look as good as it could," she says. "So there are risks associated with it, but I think you calculate those ... it's for a valiant reason." The good news, she says, is that the established manufacturers with good reputations are putting green products on the market that designers know are going to perform.

Among the projects that Henderson is most proud of is a recently completed project that, until now, has not been publicized—the InterfaceFLOR Shanghai Office in China. She believes this could potentially be the first registered LEED-CI project in the country. Henderson, who is also the LEED-CI Core Committee national chair, is excited about the project because, while there have already been several LEED certified projects in China, this new LEED-CI represents the potential for affecting a country's environmental impact on a massive scale. For example, Henderson quotes a Shanghai Daily article that reported the government is spending nearly 10 percent of its GDP combating environmental impacts. And while new construction projects certainly represent a large piece of the pie, the impact of how many tenant projects that will ocurr in a given year far outweigh how many new building projects will go up in a given year.

"If this (project) can be a beacon of how that kind of work can be done, that's truly market transformation, and that's very, very exciting in a place where … they're seeing immediately some of their environmental impacts," says Henderson.

The reason Henderson hasn't laid claim to the InterfaceFLOR office being the first LEED-CI registered project in China just yet, is because the project was confidential. "It was a very fast track project, and we didn't know if we were able to achieve LEED or not," she says. "Of what we can see, we believe it's the only one. That's what I'm really most excited about," she adds.

Clearly, by her own standards, Henderson has succeeded by "moving the needle" one project, one manufacturer and one person at a time. Ultimately, however, she says not to listen to her or anyone else when it comes to determining your own path. "Ask yourself, fundamentally: 'What is your purpose? What is your legacy?' And what answer comes to your intuition, do that," she suggests.

"We all intuitively know what we need to do. It's just the clearing of the noise, and (having) the meditative ear to hear it," she says. Because, for Henderson, building structures with a short life span just isn't enough. "There's something bigger," she explains. "There's something bigger than these isolated moments of design." And may we add, better?