Design for living

I have a not-so-secret vice: I love interior design, and I have tear sheets going back decades. I am addicted to home improvement shows. I thrill to see those neglected houses brought back to life and made appropriate for the way we live now. For example, when I was a kid, the ideal home included formal living and dining areas that were rarely used. Nowadays, families seem to want more practical living spaces that suit a more informal way of life. Not in the rarified world of high-end shelter magazines, which often seem to present an alternative universe— that’s another sort of guilty pleasure—but the world of real families working within a budget.

While I love seeing the updated aesthetics and the flow of space, the bright kitchens and deep upholstery, I wish the designers on these programs would also discuss energy efficiency or renewable energy options, water conservation, or the environmental integrity of the materials they use. A major renovation is a chance to incorporate state-of-the-art systems for heating, cooling and water use that would help householders save money. Beyond those considerations, the process of choosing materials and equipment could prioritize choosing locally sourced items that support the local economy.

Whether or not you are contemplating a building or remodeling project, I think you’ll find inspiration at www., the website of the non-profit International Living Future Institute. The institute is probably best known for its Living Building Challenge, a certification program and sustainable design framework that focuses on a matrix of seven broad design considerations, called “petals”: place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity, and beauty and inspiration. Living Buildings are energy efficient, produce their energy and collect and treat all water on site. Beyond these attributes, the Living Building framework emphasizes the quality of experience of the building’s occupants and the achievement of harmony with nature and the surrounding community context. The resulting buildings are “regenerative,” meaning the space connects occupants to light, air, food, nature and community; “self-sufficient,” meaning that they remain within the resource limits of their site; and “healthy and beautiful,” meaning that they avoid toxic materials and create “a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with them.” Their commitment to social equity is expressed through design choices that do not rob any neighboring property of light, air or the experience of nature. The Living Communities Challenge takes these principles to the level of neighborhoods, campuses and towns.

The case studies documented at the institute’s website range from private homes, some very modest, to museums, schools, offices, stores and research facilities. They offer inspiration and guidance that make the core principle of sustainability joyfully attainable: that we should choose to build and live in ways that meet our own needs—including our deep need for connections with nature—while safeguarding the resources that future generations will need. They reveal that extraordinary beauty and contentment are possible within the rigorous decision-making process such a philosophy requires. 


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