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Tina Casey headshot

What Makes a 'Sustainable' Material When It Comes to Interior Design?

By Tina Casey
A sketch of an office chair - Gensler sustainable design standards

A sketch of an office chair design. From chairs to floors to ceilings, it can be challenging to determine what qualifies materials as sustainable when it comes to interior design, but a new standard can help. (Image: Karol D/Pexels) 

Consumer demand for sustainable building materials is rising, but the question remains: What, exactly, counts as sustainable? That can be a difficult question to answer. For indoor spaces in particular, the sheer number and variety of available materials and products can be overwhelming. Gensler, the largest design and architecture firm in the world, created a solution that demonstrates how one company can make a difference with sustainable design.

Pushing the market for sustainable interior materials 

Much attention is paid to the sustainability of steel, concrete and other structural materials used in the building industry. Interior spaces are just as important, and they can present new and different sustainability challenges.

“Every day, people work in and around spaces filled with furniture, but how many of us know how our furniture impacts us or the environment?” the U.S. Green Building Council asks rhetorically on its website. “Furniture products can be made with high-emitting materials that can off-gas chemicals and potentially affect employee productivity; or they could be manufactured with high-embodied carbon materials that contribute to climate change.”

Interior design teams already choose materials based on aesthetics and performance. Gensler maintains that sustainability should feature just as prominently and that sustainability standards should be straightforward and easily accessible. To help push the industry in that direction, the firm created a platform called the Gensler Product Sustainability Standards

The firm announced plans for the standards last year, and the platform officially launched in January. In addition to identifying sustainable options among existing products, the platform is expected to motivate manufacturers to develop new products.

“As architects and designers, selecting more sustainable building materials is one of our most substantial opportunities for impact,” the Gensler team wrote in an August blog. “We have a responsibility to define clear, impact-based priorities for sustainable materials, and a key step in this mission is publicly sharing a minimum sustainability standard for all our projects.”

“We recognize the power of collective action and strive to use our influence responsibly by increasing demand for sustainable materials in the market,” Gensler added.

Focusing on the doable

Gensler’s platform is an actionable initiative, not an aspirational one. It launched as GPS Standards v1.0, indicating its focus on product categories in which suppliers have already made sustainability disclosures, such as those outlined by the U.S. Green Building Council and other sustainability pace setters. Gensler expects that future versions of the platform will reflect a more proactive approach to motivate progress in the design industry.

To provide for maximum impact now, the current version centers around 12 categories representing the highest volume of materials used in interior spaces today. That includes office chairs, ceiling materials, insulation, carpet tiles, decorative glass, glass partition walls, gypsum board, interior latex paint, non-structural metal framing, furniture workstations and resilient flooring, which refers to vinyl and other materials that give slightly underfoot.

In addition to raw volume, Gensler also selected product categories based on their current state of traceability, including lifecycle and indoor air impacts. A sustainability paper trail already exists for carpet tile, for example, whereas Gensler determined that broadloom carpet is still problematic.

Control over the selection of materials is another factor. “The focus on today’s market-ready product categories is important to ensure enough GPS compliant products are available to maintain competitive bidding and avoid barriers for design and construction processes,” according to the firm.

Communication and education

Last month, TriplePundit checked in with David Briefel, Gensler’s sustainability director who was instrumental in designing the standards, to get some insight into the launch of the platform.

“We’ve definitely been getting some feedback in the buildup to launch, and we got a lot this month,” Briefel said. “People like the idea and the collaborative nature. We are very transparent, and we’ve made an effort to align with industry standards.”

Once the platform was activated, Briefel and his team zeroed in on areas of improvement. One of those is coordinating with manufacturers to avoid duplicating requests for information.

“The challenge is largely around communication with manufacturers,” Briefel said. “We have an entire part of the team focusing on manufacture engagement. We are tracking outreach and making the information available to everyone.” 

Although sustainability has become part of the mainstream conversation, Briefel also noted that its status within the design world varies from one client to another.

“Some markets are more sophisticated than others,” he said. “Some clients have done deep dives but others are more focused on energy efficiency, and for some, it’s not a priority. That’s why we thought it was important to have our standard as a baseline, regardless of the individual market.”

The next steps

Considering the ever-growing supply chain complexity of the task chair industry alone, the coming years will be full of challenges for the interior design industry. Nevertheless, a new language for sustainable materials is beginning to take shape.

Gensler’s platform is part of a movement that gathered force last November when the American Institute of Architects, the International Living Future Institute, the International Well Building Institute, the U.S. Green Building Council, and Mindful Materials announced their joint support for the Common Materials Framework for building and product materials.

The first-of-its-kind collaboration drew attention to the framework, which launched in 2021 as the premier digital language for tracking and reporting sustainable building materials. It covers human health, climate health, ecosystem health, social health and equity, and circularity. 

“Every organization defines product sustainability differently and asks for different pathways or labels to meet the same objectives — safe, sustainable and socially just materials.” Alex Muller, the vice president of strategy at Mindful Materials, said in a statement. “So, it’s not surprising we’ve made less progress than we’d want. That’s all about to change thanks to the Common Materials Framework.”

The change will not happen overnight but, as Breifel told 3p, the work done today will help prepare the designers of the future to create buildings and rooms that support a healthy, sustainable planet, inside and out.

Editor's Note: This story was updated on February 16, 2024, to clarify the scope of Gensler's business.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey