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Positive Impact Series: Oliver Heath

The global design authority and biophilia expert discusses why change is essential and why the greatest impact will come through collective action.

22/09/2022 3 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 221

Words: Oliver Heath
Photography courtesy of Oliver Heath Design

In the battle against climate change there is simply no opting out and no neutrality. We need to be united in our efforts to go beyond merely being sustainable and become regenerative – for the benefit of both the planet and all life on it. With the construction industry responsible for nearly 40% of global CO2 emissions, we have an important role to play and the interiors industry cannot afford to stand by and watch. To create buildings fit for the future our actions must take a dual approach; recognising the impact the spaces we design have on both the environment and on the people who occupy them.

Interior design has historically felt quite insulated from tackling sustainability, at least to the degree of our exterior collaborators, architects. This is largely due to the focus falling on the embodied carbon of materials such as concrete, glass and steel which each eat-up a larger proportion of the carbon footprint of a build and are traditionally the responsibility of architects. In comparison, it makes the carbon footprint attributed to interior finishings seem relatively modest.

However, this doesn’t mean that we are exempt from tackling sustainability head-on. Regardless of which field you work in, climate change inevitably affects us all. In fact, when you start to consider interior fitouts in relation to overall longevity, a very different picture begins to emerge. Buildings can have a lifespan of at least 50-100 years, dependant on location, conditions and the initial quality of the build and materials used.

The structure, which is all too often fabricated using carbon heavyweights such as steel and concrete, has the most longevity, followed closely by the skin of the building and then the internal electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems. The lifespan of interior furnishings and finishings however, is rather fleeting, spatially aging at a much faster rate than their external counterparts – typically spending less than a decade in situ, before being rather unceremoniously ripped out and finding their way into landfill.

Cyclically renovating, revamping and refitting the interiors of buildings is a long-established modus operandi of our practice, and there isn’t yet a method or the tools dedicated to translating it into carbon terms. As a member of the design industry, I firmly believe we must do better. That is why our practice, Oliver Heath Design, is one of the founding signatories of Interior Design Declares − an industry recognised initiative comprised of 150 signatories committed to addressing the climate and biodiversity emergency. Interior Design Declares practices a ‘no shame’ policy, encouraging all members of our community to sign up, regardless of whether signatories meet every part of the radical commitment to change. For many, signing up can act as a catalyst to spark positive action within their organisations and practices.

But we not only need our designs to become more carbon-considerate, they also need to adopt a more human-centric approach. This makes sense when you consider we are only just beginning to enter post-pandemic life, many of us with new sets of needs and our resilience somewhat wounded by unprecedented change and uncertainty. At our practice we take a Biophilic Design approach, an evidence-based output which stems from our innate attraction to natural environments. The aim is to reduce occupant stress, aid physical and mental recuperation, and to cultivate positive connections between people and spaces – enhancing communities.

The majority of us have had positive experiences within nature. By recognising our connection to natural environments as a universal design ethos, our approach seeks to illicit similar positive responses to the built environment, through using direct and indirect references to nature as design strategies. By adopting this approach, we hope to create more supportive environments for occupants and additionally ecologically safeguard and promote biodiversity wherever possible.

It is important to remember that human-centric design doesn’t operate exclusively however, and needs to work hand-in-hand with carbon aspirations – each with equal weighting in the creation of space. As specifiers we have the unique opportunity to research, ask difficult questions of a product’s green credentials, and demand more from companies through both direct feedback and through our choice of FF&E – using our pockets to protest.

To say that the practice of interiors needs to change for people and planet is a given. Our time to act is not now, it was years ago. By coming together to collectively change, we stand a better chance to go beyond just reducing the negative impact our industry has on the environment but to create a regenerative approach, one that will set a better precedent for future practices and better spaces for people and planet.


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