With COP26 in full swing, sustainability and the future of the planet are at the forefront of our minds. Whilst it is great that governments are making pledges to make significant reductions in the production of waste and greenhouse gases; it is important to remember that we can all do our little bit too. There seems to be much written about how changes in our diet and the clothes we buy or the car we drive, can make a difference. But despite housing using more energy than other major sectors like transport in the UK, I have seen very little about how we can make changes in our home and the way we live. Aside from the big ticket items like solar panels, there is a surprising amount that we can do when it comes to designing our homes in a sustainable way.

 

Heating and lighting are the two most crucial factors in reducing energy consumption in our homes. A recent study shows that although homes are now better designed, insulated and we have more efficient boilers, we are spending more on energy proportionally, than we were in 1970. Much of that will be down to the monstrous 55″ energy guzzling TVs and other gadgets, that could only be spotted on Tomorrow’s World in those days, however, the same report shows that on average, we are keeping our houses 4 degrees warmer than 50 years ago.

 

We know basic principles, such as turning down the central heating, not leaving appliances on standby and turning off lights will make a big difference, but what else can we do, when it comes to designing our homes?

Design for Warmth

There was a trend in the 1980s and 90s for putting radiators underneath windows, this was done to maximise wall space, but what happens is that the majority of heat goes straight out of the window! Radiators now are more interesting and attractive, so have become something to show off, rather than hide. Try to install radiators away from windows to help keep the heat produced in the room. 

Since most of the building’s heat escapes through windows, it’s important that our windows are of high quality and provide good insulation. Window coverings keep both cold air and the sun’s heat outside. Blinds and curtains enable residents to control a building’s temperature in an energy efficient way by opening and shutting them as needed. Carpets are excellent thermal insulators; according to estimations, a carpet retains as much as 10 % of a room’s heat.

Use warm lighting and colours to create a feeling of warmth in cooler climates. If the room is white, it will feel cooler, regardless of the temperature. (White paint is also more toxic in it’s manufacture too, I bet you didn’t know that…). We now have over 30 lightbulbs in the average home, as opposed to a handful in 1970, so low energy bulbs are a must. Opt for bulbs that produce a warm light and try to use pools of light where you need them, rather than lighting a whole room unnecessarily.

Design for Clean Air

In 1970, most paints contained lead, which we now know to be very harmful to our health, and whilst these have been absent from paints since 1973, much of the printed and processed materials we use in our home, give off higher levels of VOCs than we realise.

What are VOCs and why are they harmful?

VOC is an acronym that stands for volatile organic compounds. The US Environmental Protection Agency describes them as “organic chemical compounds whose composition makes it possible for them to evaporate under normal indoor atmospheric conditions.” Essentially, this means that VOCs are the invisible chemicals we smell when bringing paint products, building supplies, and even new furniture into our homes. The evaporation process is referred to as “off-gassing,” and it can last well after the new paint smell is gone—potentially several years.

Wherever possible, use water -based rather than solvent based products and paints. Look for Low VOC or Ultra Low VOC labels and favour manufacutrers that show responsibity in their paint manufacture. Dulux, Little Greene and Benjamin Moore all have good eco credentials.

Remember, the vast majority of printing will still be solvent based, so wallpapers and decals  are pumping nasties into your home at a much higher rate than most paints. Not to mention they are not as long lasting as paint and can’t be recycled, ending up in landfill.

Never use spray paints inside, they contain harmful levels of VOCs and should be confined to outside use only.

Ensure that the air in a room can regularly circulate and remain fresh. Open windows and doors whenever possible.

Plants act as natural air filters, embrace the jungle vibe and group together a variety to foster the healthiest environment. Chrysanthamum and Peace Lily are the best air purifiers according to NASA.

Contrary to common beliefs, carpets are also good air filters. Carpets improve air quality by trapping the dust particles from the air and holding them until vacuumed. Natural fibre carpets will give off lower levels of VOCs than those made of man made fibres.

Design using Sustainable Materials

The environmental impact of materials and products must be evaluated throughout their entire life cycle — from extraction, production, transportation and processing, all the way to how they are discarded after use.

From a sustainability perspective, it’s very important to pick materials and products with the lowest environmental impact. Organic materials (e.g. wood, wool, natural stone) seem the obvious choice, but we mustn’t forget that natural resources need to be treated responsibly. Choose materials that are quickly renewable (such as fast-growing bamboo), and are extracted in an environmentally responsible way. There are labels, standards and certifications that give credible information about the products’ origin and help you identify eco-friendly products. For example, an FSC label on wood products ensures that the wood used in the product was harvested sustainably.

 

Design for Waste Reduction

The planet’s precious resources are limited, so the mentality of discarding products as soon as they go out of style and replacing them with those that are currently trendy, is no longer justifiable.

As with everything, buy the best quality you can afford. Not only will this give you the longest possible life, but it will mean that it can be recycled or reused more effectively when you want to change. You can also reclaim and reuse, both furniture and architectural elements such as doors.

Buy classic pieces that won’t date as quickly, and repaint and recycle where ever you can.

Wood is as sturdy as they come. So give old pieces a new life using Chalky Finish Furniture Paint for a shabby-chic air or source reclaimed wood to make new furniture. Either way, be sure to upcycle wood! Teak and mahogany, whilst very beautiful are two of the worlds most endangered woods.

Design to Support your Local Economy

mConsumers are edging away from faceless retailers and patronising locals doing business from their homes.

This has the added benefit of the reduced carbon footprint from packaging and transporting goods over large distances, uplifting the local economy, and building an affinity to the local community. As a general rule, buy things for your home that don’t come in a package of any kind, unless it’s reusable blankets to protect furniture!

For instance, sourcing from local garage sales, antique stores, and second-hand boutiques will meet the above aims and offer unique pieces with their own story to tell. Think soulful living, with an individual mix of styles, that is personal to you, rather than Instagram ready ‘everything matching’, or ‘matchy smatchy’ as it’s known in the Hodgkins household.

When you are ready to change your furniture, look for centres who recycle or advertise it on Facebook or Freecycle. Allow someone to take it for free, releasing furniture and furnishings to have a new life elsewhere and giving yourself a rush of endorphins as you have done something good for others.

I am passionate about creating warm, inviting homes that reflect the personality of it’s occupants. Homes should evolve (or at least look like they have), antiques and colour bring warmth and soul, to a stark modern interior. 

Follow a few basic principles and you can design your home so that it is not only sustainable, but is a reflection of who you are and will support the health of your family, as well as the health of the planet.