I recently received an email from a young woman who was very frustrated by the lack of affordable green options for living room design. She has a modest lifestyle and resides with her husband in a small rental apartment in a big city. From what she told me about their life it sounds like they are already doing a lot of things to reduce their environmental footprint. For example, the couple has no car and either walk or use mass transit. They rarely eat out, preferring instead to cook at home with fresh ingredients from the local market. They also work for socially responsible companies, choosing to make a difference instead of a big salary. Admirably this couple wants to do still more and right now their focus is on how they can make their living spaces more sustainable.
A quick read of the glossy design magazines and blogs offers little help. They tell us that the answer lies in reclaimed 18th Century floors, FSC certified wood tables, CFC free polyurethane chairs, and artisanal, handmade, free trade everything else. While these are certainly important initiatives to consider, their high cost and associated exclusivity, certainly begs the question of relevancy for this couple, as well as the majority of other people, who simply cannot afford these high design culture options no matter how beautiful or green they may be.††
Look at the Big Picture
My suggestion is to step back and consider the bigger picture about living spaces. Green design, at its core, neednít be about the pedigree of the fixtures and finishes. The simple truth is that a living space that is efficient and a joy to be in is inherently sustainable because it will be effectively and highly used throughout its long life. A dark, poorly proportioned space that is awkward to use and depressing to spend time in is a waste of materials and energy, no matter how green the furniture pieces are that fill it up.
Natural Light and Ventilation
The first design issue to consider is the orientation of the room to the exterior. The couple should try to make sure that their living room has good access to natural light and ventilation. At its simplest, this means having an operable window (or windows) close by. They should be oriented to let an appropriate amount of light into the room without overheating the space and they should be large enough to illuminate the room throughout most of the day without the need for electric lights.† Ideally, there should also be another window in close enough proximity to generate sufficient natural ventilation in order to avoid the need for mechanical air conditioning.