Room partitions from wood and plywood are easy to remove if necessary and the material can be reused. Design and photo by Gabriele Trützschler.
As I write this article, a large-scale demolition of a glacier led to one of the most serious accidents in the Alps in recent decades. At the same time, there is a flood in Sydney, heat and drought in India, and forest fires in Spain and Germany.
But there are also positive developments, even if they seldom make it to the news. I am quite enthusiastic about the “European Green Deal”, which is in fact the plan to make the EU a climate-neutral continent. The challenge is: are we able to move away from our linear model of production and consumption to a circular economy fast enough?
If we want to reach the goals of a sustainable future, the circular economy has to become the new normal. The 4 main strategies to keep in mind are: Refuse, Reuse, Repair, Recycle.
I have been thinking about what these strategies could mean for interior design choices and how to make refurbishment projects more sustainable. From time to time, we are all busy with redecorating, renovating or refurnishing our homes or offices; and doing this in a sustainable way is not as difficult as it seems.
Refurbishing an existing building is a positive contribution for the climate when additional measures are implemented for more sustainable usage. For instance, by installing insulation. Alterations in order to make the place more in line with modern standards are also valuable, most of the time. However, the fewer walls torn down and the more material that just keeps its place and function, the better it is for the climate. Therefore, it is necessary in the design phase to take the time to play through all possible variations to find the smallest intervention for the desired outcome. We should treat our houses like a surgeon treats the human body: every cut will be painful, so we should do only what is really necessary.
2. Reuse, repair & recycle
They are seen all over the city: containers, indicating an ongoing refurbishment project. Sadly, material is often thrown out before the end of its lifetime. This applies especially to kitchens and bathrooms. Studies have shown that premature replacements of kitchens and bathrooms lead to unnecessary material flows and high negative climate impact.
The prevailing opinion used to be that it is cheaper to throw everything out and build new. (This was never good for the planet though.) But nowadays, with rising prices for materials and extended delivery times, it works to your advantage to reuse some existing materials and furnishings in the new design.
Today one can find firms specialised in adapting existing kitchens. For instance, new doors or a new worktop paired with existing cabinets. And did you know that wood from 50 years ago, which may be found in your house, is much better quality than the fast-grown wood available today in hardware stores?
If reuse is not possible for you, try to bring whole products back into the economy circle. Try to sell things on Marktplaats, give them to the Kringloop or to a company for second-hand building materials. The container or recycle station should be the last option you consider.
Office in Amsterdam using the reclaimed former floor of a fitness club (sportschool) on the doors and walls. Project by Apto architects, Amsterdam. Photo by Jan Trützschler.
3. Design for longevity, adaptability and disassembly
When designing today for interior and refurbishment projects, we need to be proactive and think in advance about how to extend the life-cycle of the new furnishings, how to make them adaptable and easy to disassemble so that they can be repaired, rearranged or exchanged in the future without too much hassle. Design with the end in mind. Modular furniture solutions are a good option. Avoid the use of glue or foam, try to use dry connections as much as possible.
For elements that are expensive or difficult to remove – like tiles, floors, toilets and sinks – use neutral colours and plain designs. Use the colourful scheme your heart desires for parts that can easily be painted over, like walls or doors, or for accessories like carpets or curtains.
4. Use preferably bio-based materials
Bio-based building materials include wood, bamboo, straw, hemp and flax. These materials can be naturally grown in plentiful supply. They offer improved insulation and absorb carbon dioxide from the environment. Additionally, they look and smell pleasant and have zero output of harmful emissions. Like healthy food for our bodies, bio-based materials should take precedence in our homes and offices.
5. Start with careful observation and a clear vision
Resist searching the internet, scrolling through Pinterest boards or Insta feeds when starting out, as you can easily get the feeling that everything is wrong, which will make you feel overwhelmed and unhappy. Begin instead with careful observation of the existing situation. Appreciate what is already working well and see what has to be improved. Best to write your thoughts down or make diagrams with circles and arrows. In this way, try to perceive your real needs and to come to a clear vision of the desired outcome of the project, without already having pictures or products in mind. This approach might enable you to go new sustainable ways, be more creative and see possibilities and solutions rising out of your own specific situation.