5 Keys to Design Sustainability in 2017

As green certification options proliferate, which are key and what should be the future focus of ‘sustainable design’

By Mary Cook

Images supplied by MCA

Some real estate trends are fleeting and forgettable, but statistics show that green building is here to stay. According to RENTCafe, 45,000 LEED-certified apartments were completed in large-scale residential projects in 2015—13 times more than the number in 2008. The total number of new green-certified apartments rose by 32 percent in 2016, exceeding 59,000 units.

Such numbers indicate that green building has gone from niche to mainstream. For builders, developers, architects, and real estate investors, there’s a huge benefit to embracing trends: It helps them sell their projects. But in this case, green building requires a huge set of new standards.

Many of the green building programs measure and certify quantifiable things, such as energy use, environmentally low-impact materials, and more. These include LEED from USGBC, NBAHB Green Building program, individual city initiatives, Green Globes certification from the Green Building Initiative and more, as noted by the Green Building Alliance.

So, which ones to use? Some are associated with higher building costs that can compromise profitability. And what defines green? Renewable materials? Lower utility bills? Geothermal heating and cooling?  Universal accessibility?

Multi-family builders, developers, and designers are being held more accountable than ever before, and costs, demographics, location, and target markets will dictate which standards they choose to follow. While meeting green building standards is a critical part of the eco-building equation, we believe sustainability means more than being green. This adds a whole new layer to the process, one that calls on everyone to be more educated and conscientious to create sustainable environments.

  1. Functionality: Furnishings that are durable and easy to move when necessary are used to create activity zones that foster community and enhance function in this carriage barn. A retractable glass wall expands the space when weather allows.

    Put Functionality First: Our most essential rule of design is to know our target market and understand who we are designing for. To be truly sustainable, a home must be able to stand the test of time. It’s critical to consider how an apartment or house will fit its owners’ needs not only today, but as their family dynamics change. For a young family, it’s important to anticipate how space will evolve as children grow. Individuals or older couples may someday need accommodations to age in place. Sustainable design should anticipate and allow for remodeling needs that may be necessary over time, and make allowances for essential updates such as replacing systems.

  2. Universal Design: An open floor plan with room to maneuver and sturdy, right-height chairs, counters, tables and more ensure accessibility in this communal area (great room).

    Be Deliberate About Aesthetics: A homeowner’s generation, socioeconomics, culture and the climate where they live dictates aesthetic perceptions and preferences. This not only applies to architecture and interior design, but also to the public and communal spaces associated with a home, building or development. Again, it is critical to know the target market. For example: millennials are relatively impervious to glamor and luxury branding but moved by companies that are charitable and give back, while Boomers are attracted to name brands and are also more willing to pay for sustainability, according to Nielsen.

  3. Aesthetics: Aesthetics must relate to a target market, where they live and what the area’s culture and history means to them. On the site of a former steel mill, historic photographs were the inspiration for a fitness room wall mural.

    Design to Build Community: Perhaps in response to so much alone time thanks to the internet, people crave community across all generations, notes a new Harris Poll study commissioned by State Farm. While it’s essential to design communal spaces that elevate the way people live, it’s equally essential to program them with activities that reflect and engender resident’s wants and needs. The Harris Poll found that millennials aren’t connecting with their neighbors but want to, and welcoming is important but not happening. The notion that “if you build it they will come” has become more about getting them to stay, and planned activities, from classes and interest groups to shared meals and celebrations, fulfill this objective.

  4. Community: Game day is everyday in the college town where this project is located. Its community gathering room is designed so residents can rally around the TV for important games.

    Use Environmentally Friendly Fixtures and Furnishings: Whether it’s the insulation or paint on walls, building materials should be non-toxic. They should not contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), fungicides or biocides. All off-gas and pollute indoor air, notes Green America. They should also be made with renewable, recycled or salvaged content, well-built, durable, low maintenance and recyclable to conserve natural resources, reduce material use and reduce the use of natural resources—from water to wood—and waste creation. One trend, as evidenced by an upcoming collaboration between Ikea and British industrial designer Tom Dixon, is multi-purpose furniture that can morph to embrace new functions or be easily disassembled for a later reuse or recycling.

  5. Environmentally Friendly: Non-toxic sourcing is critical in a kitchen (kids playroom). None of the paint, finishes, stains, millwork, surface materials or textiles contain substances that are potentially harmful.

    Embrace Universal Design: We all have different wants and needs based on our age, abilities, cultures and more. So there is no such thing as “one size or style fits all.” While we usually design model home interiors, amenities and communal spaces for specific target groups, we must still ensure equal use for all. The National Institute of Building Sciences “Whole Building Design Guide” calls this Flexible Design (loose fit, long life), a principle that anticipates and allows for future adaptations needed to extend a building’s useful life and meet accessibility needs predicated by injuries, disabilities and aging.


Mary Cook is the founder and principal of Mary Cook Associates (MCA), a full-service commercial interior design firm that focuses on the homebuilding and hospitality industries. She is nationally known for creating innovative environments targeted to market demands and designed to increase property value. She may be reached at www.marycook.com.