The Road to Conversion

Bethany Seawright’s student project for an environmental law firm.

Last year when I started to pursue my MFA in Interior Design in Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art and Design, I was less than enamored with green design. Not that I wanted to hurt the environment (I recycle with the best of them!), but sustainable design decisions just seemed so…limiting. But I’ve come to realize, now as I begin my second year, that I was the one who was limited—in my understanding of the subject and its potential.

At the beginning of our first semester in graduate school, we heard a lecture on LEED and sustainability, primarily focused on commercial applications, in order to help us understand the role that we, as designers, would play in the process. While we learned the vocabulary and how to analyze our decisions going forward, we remained uninspired.

The idea of sustainability continued to slumber during two semesters of studio classes. We were so focused on learning the fundamentals of design that thoughts of the environmental implications of our work rarely crossed our minds. It wasn’t until our third semester, when we came to Construction, Color & Materials, that our exposure was broadened while discussing, in some detail, the design decisions that make a project sustainable.

Things started to get interesting when we were challenged to apply our new knowledge to our studio project, an office for a real client who ran a wholesale sushi company and who had specifically requested green design. Since he was planning to move on in two years and only wanted to invest in pieces that could move to a new location, our assignment became more difficult. As we each worked on our designs, planning the space, choosing the materials and furniture systems, I chose to focus on daylighting as a key organizing principle of the space. I kept the floor plan of my design open, the FSC-certified systems furniture low to allow light to filter through the space. I placed the main work areas around the perimeter, so that all employees could have access to views and added a soft-seating lounge area, orienting it outward, again to capitalize on the amazing skyscraper views. Zero-emitting VOC paint was chosen for the walls, the floor was clad in post-consumer recycled content carpet tiles. I began to feel engaged by the concept of sustainable design.

Things got really interesting when we began to study the criteria for LEED certification in earnest. We learned about the different levels that could be achieved, and how each category is measured. Suddenly, sustainable design had much more potential than I had imagined! I was excited by the variety of possible decisions I will be able to make as a professional to minimize the carbon footprint at every level of a project.

Our studio class helped us implement these newfound ideas for some very different project types. The first had to do with historic renovation, challenging us to retain the existing architectural features of an elaborate four-story Beaux Arts building, even as we turned it into a combination office and residential space for two multi-generational families. Here, space planning was of paramount importance because we wanted to keep as many of the existing walls, fireplaces, and historic details as possible. Creating organized paths of circulation was equally important, as there needed to be clear delineation between the types of spaces involved (office versus residence), as well as separation and privacy for the two different types of families living in the space (an older, professional couple, and a younger couple with two small children).

Then came the assignment to design an office for an environmental law firm that, encouraged sustainability, yet did not require it. But I was inspired by the client’s business, so I decided to stretch my wings, starting with the site: the 34th floor of a downtown high-rise office building. While the views were amazing, the space had 10 ft. ceilings and was wide and flat as a pancake. Daylighting, again, would be a key to my design. I kept the floor plan open. But given the nature of the client’s business, privacy was needed for offices and conference rooms. So I made all walls that ran parallel to the perimeter (and therefore the view) glass, while the walls that ran perpendicular became solid with clerestory windows at the top. I clad the ceiling in acoustically enhanced

FSC-certified, linear wood panels gently sloped from the windows inward to reflect and guide as much light as possible into the space. And I used a combination of cork and recycled-content carpet tiles on the floor, and zero-emitting VOC paint for the walls. The furniture was also FSC certified. This was the project, finally, that challenged me to employ most fully the tenets of sustainable design—I loved working on it!

As I begin my second year of graduate school, my eyes have only just been opened to the vast potential in green design. I now have a foundation of knowledge and a clearer understanding of how my work can impact the environment.

Bethany Seawright graduated from Arizona State University with a BS in Psychology in 1999. She  is now a graduate student at Moore College of Art & Design, in Philadelphia, PA, where she’s pursuing her MFA in Interior Design.

Categories: Design Education

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