Maximizing climate impacts through interior design choices

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Laurel Christensen
Project Manager and Sustainable Design Lead, Dyer Brown
Age: 34
Industrial experience: 10 years

Laurel Christensen’s mission is to wean commercial tenants from a throwaway mentality when designing and building interior spaces. Christensen, a Kentucky native, worked as a manufacturers’ representative for ventilation specialist Big Ass Fans, speaking with architects and designers about integrating their products into building systems. Christensen began his architectural career in New York before moving to Massachusetts and Cambridge-based Anderson Porter Design. She now leads the sustainable design practice at Dyer Brown, which co-hosted an industry forum at its Boston headquarters in August on incorporating sustainable building materials that benefit the climate and human health.

Q: How did your work in manufacturing lead to the transition to architecture?
A: When I finished graduate school with my Masters in Architecture, Big Ass fans were beginning to consider changing their market presence and marketing directly to architects and designers to be specified in projects. My job was to talk to architects and engineers about how we can design mechanical systems differently.

ASHRAE 55 allows us to use air movement for thermal comfort rather than relying so heavily on cooling, and this method can be more efficient. Many engineers I spoke with were just used to designing to a certain set point and were less willing to consider a more passive method of maintaining thermal comfort by using higher air velocity, even though the code allowed it. Several years of doing this really set the stage for me to ask myself, “Why do we always do things like this, and is there a different way?”

Q: What is the history of the relationship between Dyer Brown and mindful MATERIALS?
A: Mindful MATERIALS has been around since 2014 as an industry-led initiative to make sustainable materials more accessible to everyone in the built environment: to try to help manufacturers see a return on investment for sustainability. I had gone to Dyer Brown because we focus on a lot of interior projects. In 2019, shortly after its debut with Dyer Brown, Steelcase held an event and a handful of manufacturers talked about how conscious MATERIALS helped their business and also allowed designers to find products that met sustainable standards. I reached out and said, “How can I get involved?”

Until a few years ago, mindful MATERIALS was an entirely voluntary initiative. I started the first Architects and Designers Engagement Group, a working group of professionals from across the country that met monthly to discuss how we could collectively encourage manufacturers to continue investing in Sustainable development. I proposed to Dyer Brown to train a specific position in sustainability, and in 2021, it happened. This year I came back from maternity leave and had the opportunity to work with mindful MATERIALS, which is becoming a non-profit, coming back part-time and splitting my time with mindful MATERIALS and Dyer Brown since March. At Dyer Brown, we focus primarily on interior spaces, and interior finishing materials are where we can have the greatest potential impact. Building systems are already in place in most cases.

Q: Can you give examples of how Dyer Brown has successfully incorporated environmentally sustainable materials into a project?
A: In previous years, the focus has been on operational efficiency. Then there was a change in terms of materials and we started looking at the impacts on human health. The Healthy Building Network is a great resource that has published a ton of research on what materials to look for and what to avoid. We turn to their “Risk Spectrum” for material guidance for several types of finish selections. In commercial interiors and offices, the leases are maybe five or 10 years, but if the material in the space has a lifespan of 15 to 20 years, do we send it to the landfill before it has reached its useful life? Is there a possibility of reuse or refurbishment?

Q: What new or potential regulations should designers and developers be aware of that affect those decisions?
A: We just hosted a large gathering of building owners and property managers, demolition and flooring contractors and got everyone in one room to talk about the real barriers to carpet tile reuse. instead of sending them to landfill. [Boston’s commercial building energy use regulations] BERDO and BERDO 2.0 are on our radar and if there was any incentive related to actual impacts to our building [materials], we would see incentives to make different decisions. For now, there is nothing, but in future iterations it could be a possibility to encourage designers and owners to choose more sustainable materials.

Q: How can design and material decisions take into account the urban heat island effect?
A: This is an area where we find alignment with our customers, understanding our material selections and what we do with the materials in their current spaces. These types of decisions can impact their ESG reporting, and this is an opportunity for them to share how they view the impacts of design decisions and material choices beyond the walls of the spaces they occupy. It comes down to how materials affect social health and equity.

Traditionally, designers thought of the effects on the occupants. That’s who we design for. But it behooves us as designers to start thinking about the impacts of our material choices not just on the occupants of the building, but on everyone who is impacted throughout the life cycle of the materials – the workers who extracted the raw materials, the people who live close to the process of processing and manufacturing these products or the contractors installing the materials. The sphere of influence of our design decisions is only expanding, and with data and transparency, we are able to understand and visualize this impact.

Five favorite climate-related reads

  1. “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions to the Climate Crisis”, by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
  2. “It Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate,” by Naomi Klein
  3. “Braiding Sweetgrass”, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  4. “Drawdown”, by Paul Hawken
  5. “The Carbon Almanac”, edited by Seth Godin
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