Sustainability can feel like an ‘all or nothing’ mindset that requires a radical lifestyle change, or else it’s reserved for people who have the time and resources to research every material—in every product—ever. We’re debunking these myths and seeing how design and helping the environment can go hand in hand, instead of choosing between one or the other. Our favourite local designers are back with their top tips and tricks for tackling going green, just in time for Earth Day. They’ve got material swaps, products ideas and environmental hacks for more sustainable design all year round.

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Powder room renovation with recycled floor tiles. Photos by Colin Perry.

Consciously Curated

“When it comes to sustainable design, the word that always wins me over is recycled. I always try to find products and finishes that meet this criterion one way or another (without jeopardising the look and aesthetics we are trying to create).  When products are not recycled, then I try to be conscious about how they are made and what they are made of. Choosing products that produce fewer amounts of greenhouse gasses in the process of making, and/or made of eco-friendly/sustainable finishes are ways I try to contribute to the cause.” – Negar Reihani, Founder & Principal Designer, Space Harmony Interiors Inc.  

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Left: Nyla Free working on refinishing & reupholstering chair, before. Photo by Module Creative Agency

Right: Chair, after. Photo by Nyla Free Designs

Reupholstered & Refinished

“We’ve already started to see a huge shift towards purchasing and supporting local from a city perspective as well as within the country. There’s a lot of Canadian talent when it comes to artisans and makers, and the benefits go beyond simply supporting people in our communities. Transportation costs and the effects on the environment are lower, and if you’re able to support a furniture maker in your own city, waste, such as packaging materials, will be far less. You may pay a little more, however you’re more than likely going to receive a much higher quality item, feel good about supporting local, and help the environment along the way. It’s a win-win!

I’d also recommend reupholstering existing furniture. A new fabric and re-stuffed cushions will breathe new life into a tired piece. Even if the shape is not your taste anymore, there are ways an upholsterer can update the look and feel, transforming it into something that looks brand new.” -Nyla Free, Principal Designer & Owner, Nyla Free Designs

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An example of one of STARK’s CLT builds. Photo by Ema Peter.

Time for Timber

“We've moved away from Spray Foam as a material, due to its carcinogenic properties and inability to be recycled. We've been using Wood Fibre insulations and recycled glass insulation in our assemblies.

For our designs, we try to incorporate CLT (cross laminated timber) panels where possible, and use high performance membranes such as Siga or Proclima. Another recent addition for us is working to sustainably source our materials. An example of this is cedar shingles, when they can be ethically sourced.” – David Arnott, Architect and Passive House Designer, STARK Architecture Ltd. 

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Ami’s client Kathy Sinclair, sitting on a reupholstered chair sourced from a flea market. Photo by Janis Nicolay.

Renewed Spaces

“I think it’s important to remember that we have more control over the health of our home environments than we may be aware of. Millwork and custom cabinetry are the main areas I always focus on to reduce indoor off-gassing. Off-gassing happens when new, manufactured items release chemicals into the indoor air. To combat this, we simply request that the substrates used in our design are non-emitting of volatile organic compounds.

I’m always on the lookout for eco-friendly products and materials for my clients. Right now I am loving the cool lights from Dear Human and the stunning furniture from Jason Schneider. And don’t forget to shop in your own space and recycle items. I comb my clients’ homes for furnishings or artwork to see what we can keep, refinish, or reintroduce back into the space.

I’m all about putting my money where my mouth is, especially when it comes to sustainable design. I’ll soon be launching the PURE Design Retail Shoppe. It’s our collection of thoughtfully curated finds of ethically-minded, sustainable homewares plus a lovely selection of contemporary goods.” – Ami McKay, President + Principal Designer, PURE Interior Design

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"A good example is this dining room table. We updated the legs and it fits perfectly with this new custom home and the family can have those memories that mum or dad used to sit at this table as a child." - Jamie Banfield 

Reused & Recycled

“I know this has been said over and over again but recycled material and pieces are worked into our projects each and every day from recycled tile, to reusing or modifying a little existing furniture and lighting to thinking of timeless design. By timeless design, we think of how the home or space will evolve through the lifespan of a house: filled with four children, to empty nesters, to movie night back at grandmas.

Practical Tips:

  • Recycling content in tile, or Caesarstone quartz countertop material. We are seeing a relaxed feel coming through design with the use of Terrazzo looking surfaces in tile and countertops. This not only showcases the recycled content but that released look of imperfection.
  • Mindful of waste: It could be down to what stays onsite, thinking about demolition, what materials we can salvage, keep and reuse.
  • Renovating over a tear-down: I think the thought process of renovating over tearing down is slowly becoming a larger force in Vancouver than expected. We’ve seen a lot of the thin plank look of dated flooring and instead of pulling this up, we are embracing this, and adding pieces where needed and sanding and finishing onsite the whole flooring instead of these items hitting the dumpster."

- Jamie Banfield, Principal Designer, Jamie Banfield Design 

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Forest’s Edge Garden by Paul Sangha Creative. Photo by Brett Ryan Studios’

Organic Landscapes

“For us, it’s important to uncover the stories and journeys of the materials that eventually find a home in our landscapes. More than ever, our clients are becoming more educated and involved in the process too. Visits to local stone quarries, nurseries and other nearby sources together with our clients, encourages us to address the “why” and “how” of the materials that compose our gardens. This has dramatically altered what it means to create a resilient outdoor space. Our material searches often start right here at home. Whether it be the rich marbles from Vancouver Island, textured granites from Squamish, or our native planting palette, there is so much beauty right in our ‘backyard.’ If you’re starting a renovation or new build, an integral part of a resilient landscape is its ability to stand the test of time. We suggest opting for simple and elegant design approaches that will age beautifully and not become dated, as well as investing in high quality construction. Great design pays and focusing on a legacy approach to your space will be less wasteful over the long term.” – Paul Sangha, Paul Sangha Creative

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Khotso Passive House, Photo by Ema Peter.

Passive Performance

“Over the past few years, we have seen a shift in the ‘must have’ lists of our clients, as more and more have identified Passive House, and a desire to incorporate sustainability in their home. This brings so much joy to our hearts as we used to have to explain the benefits of this unknown standard to clients, and now we are glad to see it has become more mainstream and accessible.

Passive House is part of a critical response to climate change and is a straightforward standard which produces extremely high-performing homes through a super-insulated envelope, air-tightness measures, and a design which is responsive to the site, allowing the sun to heat and cool the structure as much as possible. We are proponents of this standard, not only due to the reduced energy consumption, but also the resulting durability, the longevity of the build, it provides energy independence, the thermal resilience in the event of power outages or natural disasters, occupant comfort, the intuitive design and building science, better air quality and ability to safely ventilate during our new ‘fire season,’ and of course the proven track record based on science. It is simply a better and smarter way to design and build.

We continue to look forward beyond energy consumption, to look at the life cycle of our projects and the embodied carbon within.  The sustainability of each specified component is considered in our projects, and we identify key performance criteria for each item.  For example, we avoid fossil fuel based insulating materials like spray foam and rigid insulations, favouring more carbon neutral materials such as rock wool insulation and cellulose.  We also haven’t used vinyl in many years, a material present in many building materials like windows, flooring, and membranes, but which has been identified by the International Living Future Institute’s LBC Red List of ‘worst in class materials, chemicals, and elements known to pose serious risk to human health and the greater ecosystem.’ The embodied carbon in our construction materials has been a large focus in our practice for the past few years.

For example, the Khotso Passive House embraced the spirit of Passive House and we designed the house to heat and cool itself passively as much as possible. This paired with our super-insulated envelope and air-tightness resulted in our low heating and cooling demands.” – Allison Holden-Pope, Architect & Principal, ONE SEED Architecture + Interiors  

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Natural Selections

“Natural stone can be one of the most beautiful yet costly hard surfaces used in the design industry. For exotic materials such as the rainbow onyx (above) suppliers often have to source these materials from across the world. After the project has been completed, it is often less expensive to dispose of unusable off-cuts than provide storage space until another use can be found. If the supplier isn’t able to re-sell the offcuts for smaller projects, these beautiful materials are eventually stockpiled, crushed and sent to local landfill or used for road aggregate.    

The good news is there’s a growing trend of designers and makers starting to source materials from the ‘un-usable’ waste streams or off-cuts from industrial day-to-day operations. 

Combining salvaged natural stone off-cuts with other recycled materials, which have a low embedded carbon footprint, not only creates meaningful pieces for our clients but can also contribute towards LEED credits for residential and commercial spaces.” - Amanda Lwanga, Owner & Creative Director, Linger Design Studio

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Photo by Mary McNeil Knowles.

Clean & Cozy

"We’ve always been fans of wool carpet for its durability and cozy aesthetic, but we’re especially impressed by the Ever Green collection from Wooline Carpets! It’s 100% natural, undyed and biodegradable with a jute backing. It’s available in 5 colour ways and lucky for us, these natural colours will work with most interior schemes and styles.

We also love having this wall to wall carpet cut down into a custom area carpet size and bound with a contrasting edge detail!" - Angela Robinson, SPEC Package

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“Take a timeless and collected approach to your choices and support artisans as much as possible with your selections,” – Kelly Deck. Photo by Ema Peter.

The Test of Time

 “Where possible we have been ditching generic, mass produced materials and swapping them out for artisanal, unique and/or vintage finishes and furnishings. Supply chain issues and increased consciousness around over consumption and waste have inspired our clients to be more willing to invest in storied pieces.

I'm not a fan of green washed products although I am excited that there is increasing awareness in the textile and building industries around material innovation and reduced waste. I believe that the most ethical decision you can make is to create a home that is timeless and enduring through both your choice of style and materials.” - Kelly Deck, Director, Kelly Deck Design

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"We clad the bathroom walls in an embossed porcelain slab designed by the renowned Patricia Urquiola." - Juli Hodgson. Photo by Juli Hodgson.

Natural vs. Manmade

“I have to admit, I love natural stone but these days, given the environmental devastation, due to quarries and strip mining, I am leaning more to manmade environmentally sustainable products like porcelain and Corian. Recently we clad the bathroom walls in an embossed porcelain slab designed by the renowned Patricia Urquiola. I prefer something like this over the imitation marbles but I have to say that even some of those look really good.

We specify wood floors from companies like Hakwood who only source wood from sustainable and environmentally managed sources. Using engineered flooring also cuts down the quantity of wood finished wood required as the wear layer can be thinner. Also, they only used environmentally friendly, water-based finishes.

A lot of the work we do is sustainable as a direct result of new regulations including municipal, provincial, national and international regulations. All new houses require an energy report that will ensure compliance with the new energy codes or ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers). The target is for zero emissions by 2030.” - Juli Hodgson, President, Hodgson Design Associates

Trash to Treasure

“I’ve always been conscious of how wasteful the building industry can be. It pains me to see stuff go to the landfill unnecessarily so I’ve always tried to ensure that anything that can be recycled or donated from a project is separated from the dumpster.  It’s very true what they say “One [person’s] trash is another [person’s] treasure”. Kijiji has been an amazing place to post unwanted lumber, extra pieces of ducting, or even the old kitchen sink that you think nobody would think twice about. It’s not just about the new stuff you put into a project, what you do with the old stuff matters just as much.

A smaller, yet impactful change people can make is to consider longevity when looking at product.  Fast fashion is just as present in the Interior Design industry. Poorly made product is a no-no. Sure, it may save you money initially, but it’ll last half as long so aren't really saving money. Plastic laminate – no thank you!  I’ll opt for natural stone or quartz instead. I’ll also consider colour when I’m thinking about the environment. I’ve never heard anyone say 'that white marble looks like it’s from 1910.' White marble is timeless. Invest in the right product and reduce the amount of waste emit by reducing the amount of time between install and replacement.  

As for eco-friendly product, I’m a huge fan of is reconstituted veneers. It provides a wonderful alternative to using old-growth exotic woods and as a manufactured product has much more consistent graining across large spans. The technology has advanced tremendously and now you’re able to specify several options that are indiscernible from the real thing. It accepts stain consistently, but also looks quite wonderful with just a clear coat finish. The misconception I’ve heard about products like this is that it utilizes scraps. In actuality, it's a manufacturing process that uses wood harvested in a more environmentally friendly fashion.” – Kevin Mitchell, Mitchell Design House