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The Intrinsic Need for Healthy and Sustainable Materials


Carolyn Ames Noble


The built environment accounts for over two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In the majority of the places we live, work and play, research has realized that indoor air quality is more polluted than the outdoors, even in the largest industrialized metropolitan areas. This is cause for concern because humans spend over 90% of our time indoors.

The case for healthy and sustainable materials in this time of turbulent climate change is ubiquitous. Sustainable materials help reduce carbon emissions and nurture the overall health of the planet. Harmoniously, healthy materials produce meaningful eudemonia to the inhabitants of the space.

WasteBasedBrick Composition, StoneCycling

These types of holistic spaces are vital, fundamental to the health and equity of humans and to the health of the planet. There’s also an intrinsic and perhaps even a philosophical need for these materials in our dwellings. In the future, perhaps these materials should become the baseline for all building projects.

A Look at Organizations

There are many admirable organizations that support healthy and sustainable design philosophies, included and not limited to:

McLennan Leaves His Handprint on Sustainable Design

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American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), founded in 1975, champions that “design impacts lives” and uses evidence-based design and research to demonstrate how.

USGBC began its LEED program mission in 1993. Twenty-six years later, LEED is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. Available for virtually all building, community and home project types, LEED provides a framework to create healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings.

The International Living Future Institute (ILFI), founded in 2009, defines its mission to make communities socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative. The ILFI’s Living Product Challenge is a philosophy first, advocacy tool and product certification program that defines the most advanced measures of sustainability in product manufacturing today. The Challenge is comprised of seven performance categories called Petals:

  • Place
  • Water
  • Energy
  • Health and happiness
  • Materials
  • Equity
  • Beauty

Launched in 2014 after years of extensive research and development across disciplines, the International Well Building Institute (IWBI) strives to revolutionize the way people think about buildings. It explores how design, operations and behaviors within the places where we live, work, learn and play can be optimized to advance human-health and wellbeing. IWBI offers the WELL certification program focused on seven guiding concepts:

  • Air
  • Water
  • Nourishment
  • Light
  • Fitness
  • Comfort
  • Mind

The mission for viable buildings starts with the people, processes and products that comprise them.

The Product: A Cascade for Sustainability

Wall finish and flooring selections are fundamental on the six planes of interior selections. Paint color is appointed perfectly with coatings like Sherwin-Williams Harmony, which was a green industry-first in 2001. Harmony meets the most stringent VOC regulations and has achieved GREENGUARD Gold Certification satisfying LEED v4 v4.1 criteria. Its additional qualities of odor-eliminating and formaldehyde-reducing technologies help improve indoor air quality by reducing VOCs from possible sources such as cabinets, carpets and fabrics.


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Regarding color for spaces of vitality and retreat alike, Emily Kantz, interior designer at the Sherwin-Williams Company, recommends the following palettes:

“The Electric Exploration palette features the striking Rivulet, Rejuvenate and Izmir Purple. These colors bring energy and life into the space. The Off the Grid palette is a breath of fresh air with the nature inspired colors of Almond Roca, Copper Mountain and Cascades, bringing the earthy elements of the great outdoors inside to give us a sense of health and well-being.”

Mohawk Group has a suite of Living Product Challenge Petal-certified flooring including:

  • Lichen carpet plank
  • Nutopia carpet plank
  • Nutopia Matrix carpet Plank
  • Sunweave broadloom/area rug
  • Pivot Point enhanced resilient tile

Mohawk Group SmartFlower Installation, Mohawk Group

Representative of the Living Product Challenge, Sunweave’s Petal Certification aims to leave a handprint rather than a footprint. Mohawk Group engaged in a special handprinting partnership with Groundswell to install 10 SmartFlower solar systemsin underserved communities and at educational institutions with STEM programs across the U.S.

George Bandy Jr., chief sustainability officer at Mohawk Flooring North America, considers the designer’s role expanded well beyond the typical project scope to being the connector between carbon and social change. He asks, “How can the designer bring the enormity of the climate change issue to each individual client and make it personally relevant?”

He considers his own place in the design industry as CSO not as a career pinnacle, but instead part of a greater journey that began in the 1990s at the University of Texas – Houston. He served as the Chairman of the USGBC and worked alongside Ray Anderson at Interface before joining Mohawk Group three years ago.

At Mohawk, Bandy also sees himself as the connector – in his case, connecting the dots between the internal and external product creation, between the industry and the community. He envisions the product as a cascade for sustainability, utilizing sustainable practicesthroughout manufacturing, and leaving a lasting, positive social impact on the communities where Mohawk plants are located.

Waste Reimagined

Striving for a circular economy, designers have reimagined, repurposed and reused what was supposed to be waste. A category of new and innovative composites from plastics and other discarded materials has been invented. Foresso is such a composite: a sheet material composed of timber and wood waste from sawmills.

Conor Taylor, creative director at Foresso, says, “We consider ourselves very lucky to get to work with timber every day, the richness of wood adds warmth to interiors and can make any space more welcoming. Nowadays it is hugely important to consider the sustainability of our work so we endeavor to use every part of the tree in Foresso and hope that by doing so we can encourage others to make the most of this incredible material.”

Foresso Charcoal Mono Detail, Foresso

Tom van Soest and Ward Massa founded StoneCycling in the Netherlands in 2013, their shared vision that the need for reimagined waste products was also the opportunity. They created a building material whose main input is the waste output from construction sites, which massively pollute the earth. Their product, WasteBasedBricks, which as an early prototype was conceived in a homemade industrial blender, has evolved – and their circular and sustainable products are being used across Europe and the U.S.

Ward Massa + Tom van Soest, StoneCycling

Also a product of the Netherlands, the tulip may be the single most iconic image from the region. In fact, 77% of the world’s tulips come from this small country of 12 provinces, comprising for roughly two billion tulips. “Strangely, the most beautiful part of the flower, the head, has no economic value except being a coveted photo object of many a tourist,” says Tjeerd Veenhoven of Studio Tjeerd Veenhoven. By a process of extraction from what would be the waste residual of the dried flower head, pigment is distilled. Color is a wonder in this artisanal process, and applications range from uses in finger paint to biological plastics.

Tulip Pigments, Studio Tjeerd Veenhoven

Mother Nature Engineered

In the quest to save Mother Nature, nature itself is investigated and replicated. Bolt Threads developed Microsilk after studying the silk spun by spiders and produced their own protein. Whereas 60% of fabric fibers are petroleum based, Microsilk is generated mostly of sugar. Bolt Threads has partnered with iconic brands such Patagonia and Stella McCartney. The company currently doesn’t have any specific plans for the interior design material industry, though the brand is excited about what the future holds and will continue to introduce new materials for a more sustainable world.

Bolt Threads Necktie, Bolt Threads

Renee Hytry Derrington, vice president and global design lead at Formica Corporation, reports of the company that the past several years, Formica has introduced a suite of sustainability décor-based products including Reclaimed Denim Fiber and Paper Terrazzo patterns. Reclaimed Denim Fiber is real reclaimed denim fiber made from post-production waste collected at cloth production mills, embedded in paper. No one sheet is alike due to the natural papermaking process, which will be seen as a slight linear direction to the laminate sheet. Paper Terrazzo utilizes small fragments of post-production solid color paper that would otherwise have gone to waste. These paper chips are re-used to create a new paper sheet that is 30 percent reclaimed material. This paper technique uses small-batch craft production so that each sheet is unique and natural.

Bio-based plastics are forecasted to be a $35B business by 2022. Corn starch, sugar, cooking oil and even waste avocado stones are re-engineered for use in this material category. Algae and fungi-created materials will continue to bloom in use and scale. And designers continue seeking solutions reimaging the ultimate waste product – carbon – itself.

“In the future, healthy and sustainability materials will be considered the standard and not called out as special or unique. This will be the result of product designers reusing and reducing waste, considering the human interface and thinking about the environment during the design process,” predicts Hytry Derrington.

Next Up: Creating Unique Glass Lighting Fixtures | NCAA Final “Floor” for the Final Four Revealed


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Green design in 2017: More solar, wind, and algae

A modular urban gardening system by Danish architects Sine Lindholm and Mads-Ulrik Husum.
Husum & Lindholm

In 2017, sustainability is often the thread that connects many of the topics we cover here at Curbed, from architecture and product design to transportation and infrastructure. Browse our “Green Design” group and you’ll find that this year had no shortage of projects and innovations that paint a picture of how we might live in future.

What were the most salient themes? From a helluva lot of development in solar to more sophisticated urban farming, below we give you a rundown of the sustainable design news to know from this year.

All solar everything

What the first Tesla solar roofs look like in the wild.

In 2017, solar power is no longer constrained to the bulky panel shape long associted with the technology. There is, of course, the much-buzzed-about solar roofing from Tesla (and a few other startups) that blend right into the architecture. And a flower-shaped sun-tracking system finally available for purchase. And a 16-mile stretch of solar highway in Georgia. And how about the beginnings of “solar blinds,” “solar windows,” “solar glass bricks,” and “solar paint”? The future is bright.

Meanwhile, college students in the U.S. and abroad built some incredible solar-powered homes for the 2017 Solar Decathlon. Copenhagen completed a school covered in 12,000 solar panels. China launched both the world’s largest floating solar farm and the first of 100 planned panda-shaped solar farms to help promote green energy to youth. Lastly, you should know that the Kentucky Coal Museum also turned to solar power this year.

The future is batteries?

Two years after Tesla announced its game-changing home batteries for solar power, the market is more active than ever, with other players like Mercedes-Benz and Ikea, not to mention DIYers, getting in on the game. Utility-scale battery systems are also on the rise. And in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, both Tesla and German company Sonnen went in and set up solar power and storage systems to restore power to affected communities.

Paving better roads

U.K. startup MacRebur paves roads with recycled plastic.

Roads, especially those riddled with cracks and potholes, have proven to be ripe for sustainable reinvention. This year, we heard about researchers and engineers developing paving material with recycled plastic, solar panels, and cigarette butts, not to mention a pilot project planning to embed city roads with data-collecting sensors.

More EVs beget more charging stations

Volkswagen electric microbus concept
Volkswagen’s bringing back its iconic microbus as an EV.

There was no shortage of blockbuster EV unveils this year, from an electric version of the classic Volkswagen microbus to Tesla’s Semi truck and roadster (and perhaps soon a pick-up truck too?) Meanwhile, the charging infrastructure required to keep range anxiety at bay are also racing forward. Tesla announced it would double its Supercharger network this year, and Europe’s first ultra-fast public EV charging station just opened in Germany. Also in Germany: a new technology that turns any street lamp into a charging station electric cars.

Offshore wind farms on the rise

giant wind turbine
The giant turbine created by MHI Vestas Offshore Wind in Denmark.
MHI Vestas Offshore Wind

“More, bigger, stronger” was the name of the wind power game in 2017. The year started off with news of Denmark’s 721-foot-tall offshore wind turbine breaking the record for energy generation in a 24-hour span. Off the coast of Liverpool, England, 32 massive turbines, each with arcs larger than the London Eye, were installed. Off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland, the world’s first floating wind farm also went live this year, generating enough energy to power 20,000 homes.

Stateside, New York is on track to get the country’s largest offshore wind farm by 2022, with 15 turbines generating enough energy to power 50,000 homes.

Greenery for good

Shipping containers become urban farms with startup Square Roots.

In 2017, urban gardening is more than personal planters and rooftop farms. Designers and engineers are coming up with all kinds of neighborhood solutions like “shipping container farms” taking over vacant lots and modular gardening systems that can shift shapes based on the setting.

One kind of plant that’s particularly en vogue? Algae. This year, Ikea’s Space10 lab developed the Algae Dome as a prototype for food-producing architecture. Designer and biotechnologist Julian Melchiorriintroduced an air-purifying algae chandelier. Dutch designers also began using algae to make gorgeous 3D-printed tableware.

Geothermal energy emerging

A geothermal plant in Iceland
A geothermal plant in Iceland.

Solar and wind get most of the attention when it comes to renewable energy. But this year, we also heard a lot about geothermal energy, or heat from the earth. In Iceland, an experimental volcanic geothermal well project is projected to produce 10 times more energy than oil or gas sources. New York City’s iconic St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue also installed a 10-well geothermal heating and cooling system to cut energy needs and CO2 emissions while improving ease of temperature regulation.

And you know it’s about to get real when Google gets involved. Over the summer, the company’s “moonshot factory” spun out a new startup, Dandelion, dedicated to bringing affordable residential geothermal energy to the masses.

Better infrastructure for cyclists

Netherlands bike parking garage
The world’s largest bike parking garage opened this year in Utrecht, Netherlands.

As part of Curbed’s first ever Transportation Week earlier this year, we took stock of the current state of urban cycling, from new products and technology to paths and bike share systems. A lot of the attention-grabbing bike infrastructure news continues to come from Europe, like Berlin’s plan for 13 new bike superhighways, London’s pledge to spend on $1 billion on bike lanes and superhighways, and Utrecht’s massive new bike parking garage. But there is progress stateside—in fact, check out this whole rundown of how 10 U.S. cities are pushing cycling forward.

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