How Sustainable Principles Make Interior Design Better

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In the last two parts of my mini series about sustainable interior design I focused on two essential pillars of great interior design, function and space.

We assessed our house and how we want to live in it. We evaluated how we can create different zones in a room for different activities and how we move around without any obstacle.

In this post I look at the third pillar of great interior design, sustainability. Don’t look at decorating and design, furniture and fabrics before you have put some thought into the sustainable principles of your home.

Only when you have a clear picture of all three pillars you are equipped to make the best design and decorating choices for your home.

Let’s have a look at 8 features of sustainability in interior design. These are modeled after the Living Building Challenge, the most rigorous green building standard.

1. Design for Energy Efficiency + Carbon Reduction

Before I go into energy efficiency for Interior Design I just want to clarify that the heavy lifting for an ultra-energy efficient home is not done in the interior but rather by following the 5 features of a high-performance building enclosure:

  • Climate specific insulation, 
  • No gaps in the insulation level (No thermal bridges),
  • airtightness,
  • high quality and climate specific windows, and
  • a continuous ventilation system.

The best way to accomplish a building enclosure that creates an ultra-energy efficient home is the guidance of the Passive House Standard.

The high-performance shell of your home is not part of this blog post. You can read all about it in my post The Passive House Standard – 5 Profound Building Principles.

I mentioned it in this post since a high-performance enclosure provides more possibilities for interior design decisions due to more balanced temperatures in all parts and surfaces of your home. A cozy place right next to the big window is going to be comfortable on a cold winter day and on a hot summer day alike.

Cooling and heating will be minimized as well, while temperatures stay comfortable in all areas of the home. This contributes to even more possibilities for your interior design and furniture placement while keeping the occupants comfortable.

Interior design does not only benefit from a high-performance building enclosure, it can also contribute to an energy efficient home in its own rights.

Here are the main items to consider to reducing energy waste in interior design.

Purchase Only Energy Efficient Appliances, Preferably All Electric.

Look for appliances with the government approved yellow energy star label. Just one word of caution, read the label! There are still differences in efficiency. 

The label gives you a yearly estimated operating cost, it shows how that cost compares with the cost of other similar models. It also gives you an estimated yearly electricity use, which you can multiply with your local up-to-date electricity rate to give you a better estimate.

Here is an example with some explanations:

EnergyStar Label Instructions

Why Buy all Electric Appliance?

I highly recommend buying all electric appliances. That way you can offset their operation with renewable energy that you might produce and store on-site through solar panels and a home battery.

You can become a fossil fuel free operated home. You won’t just help mitigate climate change through less C02 emission, but you also become more resilient during power outages and extreme weather.

There are exciting new technologies that facilitate an all-electric home.

My favorite one is induction cooking. Even commercial kitchens and high-priced chefs are converting their kitchens to induction because it provides so many benefits besides energy-efficiency and abandonment of oil and gas.

Here are a few other types of all-electric appliances:

  • Heat Pump Water Heater,
  • Heat Pump Furnace and AC,
  • Induction Range and Cooktop,
  • Electric Fireplace Insert.

Maybe soon burning fossil fuel in our homes will feel old fashion and outdated. I remember my grandparents having a coal fired stove…


We have come a long way with lighting technology, and it is fair to say that using LED should be a no-brainer today.

If you have not done yet, go around your home and replace all  incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs with LED. In most cases you can just switch to a LED light bulb, no need to replace the whole light fixture.

If you have budget constraints, do one room a month or however it fits your budget, but do it! It will lower your energy use and save you money down the road, on an ongoing basis. They are a lot more durable as well and you save work replacing your light bulbs.

In this case I would not wait until the old bulbs stop working, the sooner you replace them the better. Make sure not to break and discard fluorescent light bulbs with your regular trash since they contain toxic mercury.

Rather bring it to your local hazardous waste disposal center or wait for the next collection event in your area. Incandescent bulbs are not toxic but when broken they can send dangerous shards of thin glass everywhere.

Consider motion sensor switches, it not only helps to automatically turn the lights off in your kids bedroom when they once again forget to do it themselves

Besides saving energy those motion sensors can also help you when you enter a room with both hands full, like the laundry room.

You can also get motion sensor switches with dimmers which saves even a bit more on energy. What I like most about dimmers, you can change the mood in a room instantly.

Purchase Locally Used Furniture

I love shopping for second hand cloth and accessories and sample sales are my passion. I have my eyes on high quality brands that reflect my style. To bring it all together, I mix it with some pieces and jewelry from local artisans and designers.

Not to pay full price for a quality brand is my pride and I love to go hunting for it.

Why not replicate the approach to furnish a home?

Buying locally used furniture not only supports your community, it also cuts down on energy (less fossil fuel, less CO2 emission) to get it delivered from some warehouse or manufacturing facility somewhere around the world.

I like to add used pieces to my home, they bring history with them and can create a special focal point when placed and mixed right with other pieces.

Use the piece as-is or refinish with new hardware, stain it – you get the idea. And no need to become a DIY practitioners if it’s not your thing. Outsource to somebody who is good at it in your community.

They might give you even more ideas how you can upscale your find or you own old piece.

Furnish a whole room with used pieces or accentuate your new purchases with one or two used ones. I always like to combine the new with the old.

Then, to bring it all together and make it your own, decorate with inspiring arts and crafts from local artists, family treasures, plants or that great find from your cherished vacation.

This is the energy efficient way to furniture shopping and decorating, so to speak!

When buying new furniture, only purchase eco-friendly/sustainable furniture

Look for companies that have sustainable manufacturing practices. One part of their sustainable practices will certainly be energy-efficiency.

Many of the big furniture manufacturers focus on sustainability now – it really is becoming a big thing to be sustainable now! Check out their website and the description of each piece you consider.

Is the piece made with renewable or recycled materials? Go for wood products made with FSC certified wood. These woods come from sustainable sources, they are replaced after harvesting and taken without harming the local ecosystems.

Look at Room&Board or Ikea for example.   

Renewable Resources to Power your Home

spoiler alert – it’s not an energy efficiency measure!

This item should really not under the umbrella of energy efficiency. I only put it hear because so many people confuse it as such. I can’t tell you how many time I heard somebody say ‘I just made my home more energy efficient, I put solar panels on my roof.’

While this is smart and to be applauded, it is not an energy efficiency measure but rather a change in energy supply. Just because you put solar panels on the roof does not mean your home needs less energy to operate. It needs the same but the energy that your home is using is now cleaner and renewably produced on site.

Energy efficiency measures should come first, before you add solar panels. Once your home is truly energy-efficient you need a lot less solar panels, less capital and less headache to place all the panels on favorable spots on your roof or other places on your property.

And never forget, energy-efficiency measures don’t only reduce your need for power to operate your home, it brings a multitude of other benefits with it, comfort being one of them.

Design for Responsible Water Use

Learning how to use water smarter is fun and empowering. In the process you learn a lot about your home too. Implementing water wise measures will make your home more resilient in case of water shut offs and draught restrictions.

Here are Features of a Water Wise Home:

The most obvious step to water efficiency is to fix any leaks in your faucets or toilets. I have read that 10% of homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more of water per day. That is crazy!

Other easy and common sense upgrades for water efficiency are:

Low Flow Showerheads

The difference using low flow showerheads to standard ones is 3 gallons of water per minute. This adds up quickly especially for an entire family.

According to the EPA, showering accounts for up to 17% of a family’s typical water usage. Check in with your local water company. They might have a program giving away free showerheads and faucet aerators. Obviously less water means less money you need to pay each year.

Low Flow Toilets

Traditional toilets typically account for 30% of a household’s water usage. Non-efficient toilets can use up to 6 gallons per flush while water efficient toilets only use 1.28 gallons or less. This is a no-brainer. Again check in with your local water company, they might have a program to upgrade your old toilets.

I got mine replaced for free. I just had to sign up and the rest was done by the contractor team.

These low flow toilets work a lot better than my old ones, they use pressure-assisted technology to flush. It results in a lot stronger and cleaner flush.

Check how old your toilets are and talk to your water company. They can help find out if it is worth replacing.

Faucet Aerators

Reduce the volume of the water flowing from your faucet by mixing in air with water. The beauty of the design is it maintains the feeling of high pressure flow which we all like

Shower timers

In general, the idea is that by having the amount of time completely visible to you as you’re taking a shower you will be encouraged to spend less time in the shower. Thereby saving water and the energy needed to heat that water.

I consider a hot long shower my daily indulgence, better than chocolate ice cream. Yet I installed a shower timer. It’s like adding a calorie counter to that cone of chocolate ice-cream…

I was just curious if it would change my behavior of my beloved morning indulgence and if my enjoyment would suffer.

Here is what happened when I started the timer at the time I turn the water on.

Well, before I tell you about the outcome I want you to picture the plumbing and hot water set up.

My old gas operated hot water heater is on one end and both bathrooms on the other end of the elongated Ranch-style house. That means hot water has to travel through the entire length of the house to reach the shower.

Of course I knew before that it took a while until I can actually enter the shower without being shocked by cold water. Out of a habit I always did a few other things while I waited for the water to turn warm.

The timer brought out the truth in hard numbers. It takes 10 (!) minutes before the water warms up. That means 10 minutes of water going down the drain.

Of course I could capture the water in a bucket every day, and I tried, but it totally ruined my “daily spa indulgence”.

Instead of shortening my showers to make up for the lost water, I came up with a way better solution. I dissembled my 30 l water heater tank and installed a tankless water heater under the sink in my bathroom.

Now I have instant hot water and “shortened” my showers by 10 minutes without loosing any of the indulgence.

My point is, most of the times there are more than 1 solution to a problem, look for the best one, sometimes you have to think outside the box sometimes it is a matter of reframing the problem.

Install shower timers in all of your showers and create family contests with prizes for the one with the quickest weekly shower time.

The timers come in many different types. From traditional looking hourglass timers to digital timers. These timers will help you monitor the amount of time your are spending in the shower but they might also uncover other fixable situations.

How to Find Water Saving Fixtures?

When looking for water efficient fixtures, including faucets, showerheads and toilets look for products with the WaterSense label in the U.S.. The label tells you that the product meets the EPA standards for water efficiency and performance.

It is an independent 3rd party certification. These products include but are not limited to being 20% more water efficient than the average product in the same category while performing as well or better than their less efficient counterparts.

Reuse of Water

Besides saving water we can also reuse water we already used and save money and resources that way.

This so called greywater comes from your sinks, showers, and washing machines and you can use it for irrigation or toilet flushing.

It is crazy that we use drinking water (potable water) to irrigate our lawns and flush our toilets. We could reduce the need for potable water dramatically if we would adjust more wisely our water source to water use conversion.

Each city or county has different rules when it comes to greywater use. A call to your building department can clarify easily what you can do.

Or simply hire professionals who know the local building code and have the skills to install greywater systems.

Would it not be great to water your plants automatically whenever you do laundry or wash your hands?

There are plenty of non-toxic cleaning products to choose from that are harmless when irrigating our gardens.

Potable water should only be used for potable needs: drinking, cooking and showering.

Design for Health and Happiness

This feature clearly shows that a sustainable home is as much about you as it is about the environment. Creating a home that supports the well being of your body and mind is an important factor of a successful designed sustainable home.

Healthy Indoor Environment

The biggest contributor to a healthy indoor environment is Indoor Air Quality.

Since most of us spend 90% of our time at home, the quality of the air we breathe in our homes is definitely on the top of the list of all the principles of sustainable interior design.

To achieve great indoor air quality we have to avoid any type of toxic chemicals being release into the air or being brushed on our skin when sitting down or touching anything indoors.

You might think, “Well, I am in my home and not inside any industrial building, it can’t be that bad!” Think again because it actually can.

Indoor air pollution is one of the 5 biggest environmental threats to public health.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the average individual receives 72% of their chemical exposure indoors. That means indoor air pollution is often worse indoors than they are outdoors, often even 2-5 times higher, our homes included.

Typical indoor pollutants are radon, carbon monoxide, tobacco smoke, formaldehyde, Volatile Organic Compounds, fire retardants, PVC and others.

The main strategies to avoid exposure and possible sickness are:

Select only new furnishings, finishes and accessories that are produced without toxic chemicals and contain only non-toxic components to avoid leaching of the toxins into your indoor air.

Select used products for interior design and decorating. Dependent on the severity, it can take years until new furnishings, paint and other design products stop leaching toxins. This process is called off- gassing. Used products may have already leached most of their harmful chemicals and won’t do any harm anymore.

Install proper continuous ventilation, like a heat recovery ventilation system. These systems not only provide fresh filtered air 24/7, they are also extremely energy-efficient to run and they avoid cold air coming indoors, even in a cold winter climate.

Open windows when outdoor air quality and temperature allow it.

Incorporating living plants into your home will improve your indoor air quality by taking off gassing toxins out of the air. There are plants that are particular good at this, such as the Snake Plant, Bamboo, Aloe Vera or English Ivy, just to mention a few.

Natural Light

Research studies show that natural light and a connection to nature has a direct impact on people’s mental health and happiness, including stress reduction, increased productivity, and creativity.

Because natural light has such a positive impact on us being indoors, it is an important aspect of sustainable design. Finding ways to maximize the use of daylight through windows and skylights and incorporating it into the lighting plan and overall design is a must for any sustainable interior design professional.

Design with Sustainable Materials

Interior design is heavily centered around material and product choices like furniture, finishes, accessories textiles, rugs, floors, etc..

Making the better, the eco-friendly choices can have a big impact on your well being, on the environment and even your local community.

I mentioned the impact of product and material choices on energy efficiency and on indoor air quality in earlier sections already.

This section gives an overview of different ways to make a sustainable, eco-friendly materials choice.

Work With Things You Already Have

Reuse or upcycle

Hold on to your cherished pieces and reuse them, move things around, create different groupings. I love to do that and it always amazes me how an accessory or piece of furniture can get a whole new look by simply giving it a new setting.

Another way to hold on to a piece is to upcycle it by making it better. Upcycling includes activities such as reupholstering  a sofa or chair, repainting or restaining a piece of furniture or adding new hardware to give a piece a new look.


When you take  something that is in disrepair and turn it into something completely different that is both new and unexpected.

Tables are often made with repurposed materials, such as old door, antique crates or even a wooden cable spool.

Of course we all have seen all kind of things created with old pallets.

Another popular use of repurposed materials are accessories. If you go to and search for home accessories or even furniture you can find lots of inspiration. Your imagination is the limit.


Before just throwing anything away and send it to the landfill consider recycling. The parts of an disassembled item will be recycled into other uses.

Of course this is the least eco-friendly option here because it takes a lot of energy and water to recycle an item.

Buy Durable, Quality Items

Avoid buying cheap, throwaway items. We are tempted to buy cheap and often everywhere today, whether  driven by a global desire for cheap goods, or a desire for change in our fast-paced world. Don’t go for it!

Many of the cheap versions of anything are produced with toxic ingredients and release those into the air you breathe, as discussed earlier.

The items will likely be thrown out before the off-gassing of these toxic fumes ends and you buy into the full load of leached toxins from your cheap item.

Of course budget is always an item, I encourage you to buy the highest quality you can afford. Or, if it is an option wait a little longer and save up for the better item. These item will last you for years and you get your money worth from it.

If you like to change things up once in a while, you can reuse and upcycle in the way described above.

Waste Reduction

Of course first thing that comes to mind are durable items! The best way to reduce waste is not producing any in the first place. reuse!

Another way to reduce waste is to choose items that are recyclable and/or biodegradable and also items that are made from other recycled items.

A third way is to buy used furniture and accessories as well as salvaged materials that can be used in the design, such as salvaged doors, wood for floors or wall paneling, stone and much more.

Buy Local and Used Items

No matter if you buy used, salvaged or new items, stick as close to home as possible, best, buy local. Even better buy local items that have been created with locally produced materials.

This way you connect to your community and support local businesses, craftspeople and artisans.

As mentioned earlier, you also contribute to a lot of energy savings, fossil fuel avoidance and CO2 reduction. It makes a big difference if something has to be shipped half way around the world.

My favorite reason to buy used is to avoid the cookie-cutter, mass produced look that is so common in many homes these days.

Used and antique pieces are a great way to design a curated look that nobody else has and that expresses your personality.

Buy Responsibly Manufactured Items

Due to consumer demand more  companies now balance their profit making activities with ethical choices that respect the people and the environment, that benefit society. In short, they are sensitive to social, cultural, economic and environmental issues, also often referred to as fair trade.

You can find these social and environmental responsible companies by looking at their website. They usually have a page dedicated to their social and environmental engagements.

Look at West Elm and Crate & Barrel just to give you an example. There are many more.

Buy Items Free Of Toxins And Harmful Chemicals

I already talked about the importance of avoiding toxins and harmful materials because of how harmful the emittance of fumes, so called off-gassing, can be to your health. It takes years until the off-gassing stops and you are not exposed to it anymore.

To avoid harmful ingredients, read the manufacturers commitment to non-toxic processes and materials.

Choose products that are low or zero-VOC, urea formaldehyde free, no PVC, no flame retardants, no synthetic latex, for a start.

Where possible choose organic materials, such as wood, bamboo, linen, cotton, hemp and stone.

Although leather is an organic material, dependent on where it is sourced and processed it can cause huge social and environmental problems due to the tanning process using formaldehyde and a heavy metal called chromium salt.

Design for Universal Access

A design for universal access starts at the curbside of your home and continuous through your home.

Design your home to make it safe and accessible for everyone, no matter their age, stature, or physical ability – all that without the need to rearrange anything.

Your lifestyle can change over the years or temporarily due to unforeseeable events, a universal designed house will fit your needs no matter what.

It sounds like grab bars and access ramps, but it goes a lot deeper and remains largely invisible to most.

Just think about making your home more user friendly for all sizes and abilities.

Design for Inclusion

Sustainability is about your wellbeing and that of all other occupants of the house. That is why it is so important to start the whole interior design process with Function.

Before you make any design, decorating and purchase decisions you have to envision how your home should function first, for every occupant of your home.

The trick is that you don’t do this step alone but rather include all household members in the envisioning process. Each has to come up with their own list of activities, wants and needs.

All input can then be aligned to one vision of the home everybody is happy with. If one person decides for all how the interior of the homes should work, you set yourself up for trouble.

Read my post First Step in Sustainable Interior Design Process: Function to get a better understanding about the concept.

While sustainability is about the building occupants, it is also about taking care of our environment, there is a third leg to it, our local community – the place where we live.

Any home improvement project is a great opportunity to reach out and support your local community by buying local and hiring local professionals always with an eye on being inclusive to diverse businesses.

Design for Beauty

A functional house with optimal use of all spaces will support your daily activities but does not make a home. Great design and beauty punctuate your personal style and that of your household members. It also uplifts the human spirit, your spirit.

The key to a beautiful home is to embrace the innate tendency of us humans to connect with nature.

This type of design is called biophilic design, which has been demonstrated through research to reduce stress, blood pressure levels and heart rates, whilst increasing productivity, creativity and self-reported rates of well-being.

Biophilic Design incorporates direct and indirect elements of nature into your home. This can be visual or non-visual connection with nature, natural systems, forms, and patterns.

The window to the outside, live plants inside or even live plant walls, objects and design following natural patterns or even artwork and décor with natural themes are all ways to bring biophilic design into your home.

Design for Education and Inspiration

Why not documenting your sustainable journey in an online blog with lots of imagery, share what you learned with your friends, neighbors, and community? Maybe have an open day showing people what makes your home different, sustainable, and beautiful.

In my experience taking initiative is a powerful tool. When people see what you have done and how good it looks and feels may get them curious and they may follow your example.

Be the Joneses with the better, sustainable home in your neighborhood. Be the leader!

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