Striving for Sustainable Design

Sustainable design is getting easier with a wide variety of eco-friendly materials to choose from. Photo: © danimages -

Eco-friendly, or “green,” design options are better for everyone involved, from the builders and painters to the people who use the completed structure. The new norm is sustainable design, and “green is the new black” in building and decorating homes, offices, and other buildings.

Defining Sustainable Design

The primary purpose of sustainable design, according to Wikipedia, is to “eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skillful, sensitive design.” Sustainable design includes green building materials, paint/stain, flooring, counter tops, furniture, hardware/fixtures, lighting, and even decorative accents.

It may sound easy, then, to choose sustainable products and materials when you are building, renovating, or improving a home. Yet, there’s still much to learn in this relatively new field, and the importance of doing things right is overwhelmingly obvious. After all, the more resources we use right now without acknowledging the necessity of sustainability, the less we will have to work with later.

Benefits of Using Green Building Materials

Using green building materials accomplishes the primary goal of sustainable design, and also serves a few other important purposes. The cost to maintain the building is lower — including heating and cooling costs — over both the short- and long term. The design is much more flexible, and the health of everyone who frequents the building is improved due to the building products’ benefits.

Green products use resources that can be renewed — such as soybean, bamboo, and hemp; recycled materials — such as recycled bare steel and recycled plastics (deck boards, for example); and previously used materials — such as interior hardware, wood flooring, knee walls, cornices, architectural features, wood beams, paneling, and brick. Green products are friendlier to the environment than materials made from dwindling resources. They often include more durable, easier to care for, recycled, refurbished, remodeled, or reusable product options.

They’re also better for the health of the occupants, as they don’t release harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like many particle board, oil-based paints, petroleum-based insulation, fire-retardant-sprayed carpets, and fabrics do. Some substrates under veneered furniture are also comprised of composites and the glue that holds them together may release VOCs.

From a resource standpoint, we are responsible for taking care of what we have. If the materials we use cannot be renewed quickly and easily, then we are technically robbing our children and grandchildren of the opportunity to make use of the same resources that we have enjoyed for centuries. Look at it this way: If, by using sustainable practices, you could increase the odds that your descendants will be able to appreciate the planet you and your ancestors have enjoyed, wouldn’t you do so?

Popular Green Building Materials

Some of the more popular green building products include soy-based paint, glue, and insulation; brick, bamboo, ceramic, cork, and terrazzo, which are great for building or flooring options.

Choices in window frame materials include “aluminum, wood, combination of wood and vinyl or aluminum, or solid vinyl,” according to But your best bet for energy efficiency is solid wood or steel with heavy insulation. also suggests, “Exterior doors should be either solid wood flush doors, wood panel doors with panels at least 11/8″ thick, or insulated steel doors.”

Don't underestimate the beauty and functionality of natural lighting. Photo: © david hughes -

For natural lighting, consider high-performance window glazingsolar tubes, and even wood to adhere to sustainable design theories. Or how about wall coverings, decorative accents, and display cases covered with reclaimed sorghum straw; furniture, flooring, and dramatic ceiling accents made from bamboo; wall coverings and decorative accents made from coconut shells; or furniture made from wheatboard with low VOCs? The options in sustainable materials are growing all the time.

When it comes time to choose paints and stains, consider those that are low-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound). These are better for the environment and better for the health of the painter and people who will be residing or working in the building afterward. These items and many other green products can be found at many popular retailers, while shopping online or in traditional stores. They may cost slightly more initially, but the savings and benefits are much more significant in the long run.

You may not think of water-based building materials as a part of choosing sustainable products, but water is one resource that is difficult to replenish, and nearly impossible to replace in areas that have less rainfall per year. Water is arguably the most valuable of all resources, so choosing plumbing materials that offer water-saving features is of paramount importance. Those that conserve water, use rainwater, or recycle the water after filtering or cleaning it are most popular, and very friendly to the environment.

Among bathroom options to consider are dual-flush toilets and water-saving showerheads. For outdoor use, consider installing a rain barrel to collect rainwater or a system that captures graywater from your sinks and showers for watering lawns and gardens.

These are only a few of the many sustainable options available to designers and builders today. Check with your local LEED-certified contractor for the latest ideas and innovations.

Innovative Ideas

Some of the most forward-thinking sustainable designs are capturing energy in surprising ways. For example, the Fluxxlab Revolution Door takes advantage of the human energy used to push a revolving door and turns it into electricity that helps power an office building.

One of the most recent developments in solar energy is solar-powered window glass, which converts the sun’s energy to electricity for your home or office.

Lower Your Footprint

The point of recognizing sustainable design, or “green” building options, is to produce as small a carbon footprint as you can. One way to evaluate your effectiveness is to compare your footprint to the average carbon footprint of others in your community, as someone living in a temperate climate is likely to use less energy on heating and cooling than those living in more extreme climates.

Simply reducing what you use is only the start of a long and necessary road toward accomplishing a valuable goal. It takes all of us, joining together in the same goal, to make a real impact, but our efforts to reduce our carbon footprints could change the future of the world. Begin by improving the sustainability of your own surroundings. Then encourage your friends, family members, and acquaintances to choose sustainable design. As the sustainability movement gains popularity, it is beginning to make a positive impact for our planet.

Jessica Ackerman

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Ackerman also writes for


7 Responses to “Striving for Sustainable Design”

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  5. Janice on June 29th, 2010 7:22 pm

    Yes, I agree that using green building materials accomplishes the primary goal of sustainable design. I am associated with McGraw Hill Construction. Check out their great directory full of green building product information. building supplies

  6. envo on September 12th, 2011 5:32 pm

    Green is the future and education is the answer.

  7. sabinesgreenp on September 30th, 2011 3:14 pm

    Just seeing the green community in action makes me confident of the future! Think of how far green building products have come and how far they will go in the future!