Collective Consciousness

What Is Sustainable Design, Anyway?

By Meaghan O’Neill
November 16, 2017

It’s not just about construction. There’s endless opportunity to be greener when designing your interiors, too.

Sustainable design can include complex natural and technical systems, but the approach always starts with some very simple steps. Whether they’re installing HVAC or a wing chair, green designers always start with the same “three Rs”—reduce, reuse, recycle—that you probably learned in grade school.

When it comes to designing a sustainable space, doing more with less and being thoughtful about quality are paramount, and for decorators and collectors, antiques and vintage pieces are an excellent place to start. How do these make an interior more sustainable? “The single biggest reason,” says Lloyd Alter, an architect turned writer who is design editor at environmental sites TreeHugger.com and Mother Nature Network, “is that they already exist.” Here, six ways antique and vintage furnishings and décor help create more sustainable interiors.

Vintage pieces can be updated to become more current—and eco-friendlier
Vintage pieces can be updated to become more current—and eco-friendlier

Vintage and antique furniture is durable
Secondhand pieces require no additional resources to manufacture, but they are typically also durable and repairable, unlike some disposable design of today. “Vintage furniture often lasts for generations,” says Alter, who is also an adjunct professor of sustainable design at Ryerson University in Toronto. “The woods were stronger and people expected to hand things down to their grandchildren.”

Before you buy, though, find out if a piece needs to be repaired, who can fix it, and for how much. Alter learned the hard way: He currently owns “a basement full” of Eames chairs that each require a hard-to-find replacement part. “I would have to send them to Herman Miller to be fixed,” he cautions, “and that would cost more than they are worth.”

Green interiors are cleaner interiors
That “new car smell” in newly made furnishings like rugs is a sign that the product may be off–gassing formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds. That’s not good for indoor air quality—or your health. Flame retardants, too, can end up in the dust and air. New, certified-green furnishings will off-gas less, but vintage and antique pieces are almost guaranteed not to do so at all. “New furniture is often made with glues or resins that off–gas for a while,” explains Alter. “On vintage furniture, any off-gassing happened years ago.” Depending on the piece, it may have never included any toxic materials to begin with. One thing to look out for though: older designs that may contain lead paint. If a piece is painted, it’s a good idea to ask if it’s been tested.

Practice sustainability by blending old and new, as in this urban living room
Practice sustainability by blending old and new, as in this urban living room

Local is good, if you can get it
If environmentalists have any gripe at all with antiques, it’s this: They’ve sometimes traveled thousands of miles to reach their new homes. Still, says Alter, “buying anything used is more sustainable than buying the greenest new product,” even when you factor in distance traveled.

As environmental design editor Lloyd Alter puts it, “vintage furniture often lasts for generations,” making it one of the greenest ways to decorate
As environmental design editor Lloyd Alter puts it, “vintage furniture often lasts for generations,” making it one of the greenest ways to decorate

Update vintage pieces to make them even greener and more current
It’s often easy to swap out incandescent for LED bulbs in older lighting fixtures. You can also refresh heavy, dark furniture with a bright coat of paint, find a new use for an outdated item, or mix and match eras in a room. “Being eclectic has many advantages,” advises Alter. “My interior designer mom had a mix of low Chinese chairs, African stools, and conventional furniture; you never quite knew what you were sitting on. It was fun and different.”

An art deco-inspired living room makes great use of color
An art deco-inspired living room makes great use of color

Invest in pieces you love—and they will love you back
Shipping grandma’s sofa across state lines might sometimes be pricier than buying a new one, but Alter warns—from experience—against buying on the cheap. Unable to find affordable dining chairs he liked, he once bought a set of designer knockoffs—then instantly regretted it. “They didn’t last a year and literally collapsed under my guests,” he says. “Wait and get stuff you love that will actually last.”

Antiques are very often durable and repairable
Antiques are very often durable and repairable

Over it? Sell it again and again
Had Alter purchased some sturdy vintage chairs instead, he could have resold them when he found what he liked. Cheaply made stuff ends up in the landfill—a loss for both the planet and your wallet. Tastes change and needs evolve—that’s part of decorating. When it’s time to say goodbye to a table or lamp, it’s helpful if it can be resold. Investing in quality means you’ll be able to pass along an item for a fair chunk of change. That’s better for the triple bottom line—which considers people, profits, and the planet—and your personal bottom line, too.