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Marberry: Has the carbon footprint of interiors been underestimated?

by Sara Marberry

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that the building and construction sectors account for nearly 40% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in constructing and operating buildings.

However, it might come as a surprise to hear that the carbon footprint of interiors may be responsible for emissions at least equal to or more than those from the building structure and envelope.

That’s what research from the Carbon Leadership Forum and LMN Architects found.

Renovations Are the Culprit

Hard to believe?  Maybe.

But as a recent article in Metropolis points out, multiple interior renovations over the life of a building may have the biggest embodied carbon footprint — emissions that come from manufacturing, transporting, and installing materials and products.

Like architects, interior designers can, and should be making low-carbon choices.

In a campaign called “Sustainability Next,” Metropolis is challenging interior designers to join the fight against climate change and help influence as much as 1/10 of all global emissions. Working with industry leaders, Metropolis aims to create a “pragmatic, effective framework for interior designers to lower the carbon footprint of their projects.”

A worthy goal, indeed.

Measuring the Carbon Footprint of Interiors in Healthcare

No one is really considering the carbon footprint of products and materials specified in healthcare interiors. The carbon focus of groups like Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) and Practice Green Health (PGH) has been on energy consumption and emissions — and rightly so since healthcare facilities consume about 10% of the total energy used in U.S. commercial buildings every year.

The health sector is also responsible for 8.5% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. I bet that number would be even higher if the embodied carbon footprint of interior products and materials were calculated.

Healthy Interiors Commitment

PGH’s Healthy Interiors Commitment calls for the elimination of toxic chemicals. It’s directive is to specify materials that reduce exposure to chemicals as well as minimize energy and water use.

Which is good.

But again, to truly create buildings that do not harm the health of people or the planet, interior designers need to specify products and materials that also have low embodied carbon emissions.

And to do that, they need information and data. And while information and data about environmentally sustainable/healthy interior products and materials does exist, but it’s hard to find it all in one place.

Design for Health

One promising solution is Design for Health by MindClick, which provides design teams access to vendors whose products social and environmental impact is rated using MindClick’s Sustainability Assessment Program (MSAP).

The company’s MSAP ratings are currently mostly derived from the hospitality sector through a partnership with Marriott. But they intend to expand into all sectors of the built environment. So stay tuned.

(Full disclosure: I recently learned about MindClick when they reached out to me to talk about a potential project.)

What obstacles do you see for interior designers to design healthier and more sustainable healthcare environments? Please share in the comment box below or email me.

This column originally ran on Sara Marberry’s blog on March 26. Marberry is a healthcare design expert who has written/edited five books and is a regular contributor to Healthcare Design magazine. Marberry also is a former Executive Vice President of the nonprofit Center for Health Design.