After years of lurking on the fringe and being damned with faint praise for its “rustic charm” and “sturdy build” eco-friendly furniture is finally hip, as Richard Cree discovers
There’s a new trend in interior design, and it’s a good one. Where previous fashions—from cool minimalism to flock wallpaper or wooden floors—were faddish fripperies, this one for an eco-friendly approach to design, might just save the planet. And the best news is that going green no longer need means leaving your taste at the door.
Oliver Heath, best known as one of the designers from the BBC’s Changing Rooms, has recently launched Ecocentric, a company he describes as dedicated to “urban eco-chic”. Meanwhile, Kevin McCloud, presenter of Channel 4’s Grand Designs, last year test-launched a range of sustainable furniture and accessories called Place.
McCloud is a strong advocate of sustainable living for everyone. “Eco-building is no longer the domain of the knit-your-own-sandals brigade,” he says. “Legislation and the Rio and Kyoto protocols require us to consider the environmental impact of everything we do, and clearly our homes are big producers of pollution both in their construction and in day-to-day running.”
Heath explains that his interest in sustainable design predates the current fascination. “My parents were hippies, so I grew up surrounded by all this stuff,” he says.”But I think it’s great that the next generation are taking advantage of new styles, technology and materials and making products that are totally appropriate to today.”
Heath was inspired to launch Ecocentric—which sells everything from a solar iPod charger to bamboo towels—after renovating his Brighton home to make it more sustainable. “I realised that tracking down these great products was hard work. Ecocentric is about making these lovely things more available.” Heath sees this as a “new design revolution”, adding that “once people get involved they won’t want to go back.” And he has a point. Once you stop to ask ‘does this paint have toxins in?’, it’s hard to imagine anyone going ahead and slapping it over the walls of their home if they think it is poisonous.
Elsewhere, this year’s Daily Telegraph House & Garden Fair is focusing on the theme of sustainability. This in itself points to the fact that the issue is reaching the mainstream, says Piers Smerin of architects Eldridge Smerin, which is producing one of the four main show rooms at this year’s fair. “The very fact that the Daily Telegraph and House & Garden have decided to focus on sustainable design tells its own story,” he says. “It means the very heart of middle England is talking about these issues.”
It is even better that it is no longer necessary to compromise standards. “This is no longer a ‘hair-shirt’ issue,” Smerin adds. “You no longer have to wear green on your sleeve—it is not necessary to come at it from an activist standpoint. Now you can be respectful of conventional design standards and the environment.”
In some respects this sudden surge in interest in eco-interiors reflects the “organic uprising” in the food industry. Where food scares helped to force more consumers to take an active interest in where and how their food is sourced, so concern over rising energy prices and about climate change are starting to have an impact on the way people think about their homes. As Smerin explains: “Architects and designers have been thinking about sustainability for 10 or 15 years, especially in large commercial buildings where reducing energy usage and costs was a big factor for the owners. But this is now becoming an issue for residential projects. The question is whether we are at that tipping point where it becomes an issue for most people.”
The demand for so-called “green homes”—which use less energy and have less impact on the environment —is also on the increase. Julian Brooks, managing director of Greenmoves.com, a website that advertises so-called “eco-homes” for sale, says that it is getting more visitors each month and has more properties for sale than ever. While most of these properties are new developments, Greenmoves also advertises older properties. “Part of this demand is from consumers, but some of it is coming from government initiatives, such as English Partnerships, which demands that all new properties in its schemes meet the EcoHomes standards,” says Brooks.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that politicians follow where TV presenters lead. Tory leader David Cameron has made much of his attempts to make his Notting Hill home more sustainable. Architect Alex Michaelis was responsible for the project. “There’s no question that more consumers are interested in sustainability. And it doesn’t have to be a burden. It can be a positive thing,” he says. Michaelis adds that while this is currently an expensive luxury—albeit one that more consumers are prepared to invest in—prices for things such as photovoltaic panels will start to fall and the returns on investment will be more quickly achieved.
So what does creating a sustainable interior involve? Smerin says it requires consumers to consider the materials they use and the sourcing of the materials that make up items they buy, such as furniture or wallpaper. “You can do the sustainable thing in a way that’s subtle,” he says. “At the simplest level it’s a matter of asking questions of people supplying materials and making appropriate choices. Floor coverings are an example. Rubber and linoleum floor coverings use natural products whereas vinyl floors that have become popular, because they are cheaper to produce, are synthetic. Even in your choice of the paints you use, it’s worth looking at the sustainability of the production process."