The Future Is Here

The Future Is Here

Green building practices and technology will magnify as the cornerstones of mainstream architectural and interior design

It was difficult enough to explain the benefits of people- and planet-friendly flooring when I first got into the business years ago. Many flooring dealers I called on would hold back snickers and raise their eyebrows.

Had I also mentioned that some buildings would one day be one with nature, or constructed in weeks instead of months, I would have been laughed – and likely escorted – out of the room.

Today, a little more than a decade later, those who have not changed their mindsets know not to reveal their opinions in mixed company. Their hometown in Greater Cincinnati, OH., has become a national leader in green building and interior design, and home to some of the most experienced architectural and interior design minds in the country.

With help from several of them, I’ve put together this list of national trends that merit attention because they’re here to stay and will guide the future of architectural and interior design.

Green design principles are becoming standard practice

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system was once the driving force behind today’s green building practices. And it’s still alive and well in cities that offer tax incentives for seeking LEED certification on a building project.

But competing rating systems like Green Globes, which touts a more user-friendly platform, have entered the picture creating competition. And regardless of the rating system, many building owners don’t want the time and expense of certification.

“Most architectural and engineering design has adopted basic green methods while not seeking LEED or other green certification,” says Evan Eagle, project manager at SFA Architects in Cincinnati. “The certification often is not worth the paperwork and fee to most owners. But incorporating green features – from energy-efficiency to water-conservation — is no longer a novelty. It’s simply the right thing to do.”

Energy efficiency and the quest for net-zero

Renovation of Alter Hall (Before), Xavier University, ©MSA Architects, Cincinnati.

Architects used to have to explain the merits of energy efficiency and green design to building owners, says Adam Fosnaugh, project architect at MSA Architects in Cincinnati. But today, he says, there is an expectation from owners that all new buildings are inherently designed to be energy-efficient. And, he says, momentum is building for meeting the 2030 Challenge — sponsored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 2007. It calls for existing buildings to cut energy use by 50 percent and new buildings to be net-zero, meaning they produce all of the energy they use, by the year 2030.

Renovation of Alter Hall (After), Xavier University, ©MSA Architects, Cincinnati.

Renovation projects of existing buildings, such as one MSA designed for Alter Hall at Xavier University, demonstrate a trend of sustainable building reuse and offer a special opportunity for energy-efficiency retrofits.

Because it was a renovation, it was very easy to benchmark the dramatic post-renovation increase in energy efficiency, Fosnaugh says. The renovated building has new Smart automation systems, better insulation, a new HVAC system, LED lighting and a tight envelope design.

Geothermal energy, solar power and continued developments in technology are essential and will continue to play a vital role, he says.

“Using a number of software programs, we’re able gather information about project location, solar radiation, shading and glare, run energy simulations and then tweak the design of the building in an effort to optimize all these factors,” he says.

Solar power is beginning to shine

Though once cost-prohibitive except where tax abatement incentives were offered, solar power is continuing to be more affordable and innovative, particularly in the residential building market, says Allison McKenzie, director of sustainability, at SHP Leading Design in Cincinnati.

“Tesla has really succeeded in exciting the marketplace with innovations like solar shingles and the Power Wall battery system,” she says. “Clients are viewing solar as exciting and cool.”

Still, she says, achieving net-zero must been seen as a longer-term goal. It often is too challenging to convince an owner that investing money needed for net-zero upfront will mean a “huge payback” in energy costs in the long-run.

“We have some clients showing curiosity toward net-zero, but it is still a difficult sell for most,” she says.

Indoor-air and environmental quality

Flooring that is put together in layers contains composite wood products and adhesives. Look for certification that ensures product does not exceed set limits for formaldehyde or other VOCs.

In building for energy efficiency, buildings have become tighter, and concerns about chemical emissions from interior products compromising indoor-air quality have risen. Though virtually all interior products are involved, flooring products containing glue made with urea formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, are a good, current example.

In 2015, controversy erupted after a 60 Minutes report that Lumber Liquidators was selling laminate floors that exceeded limits for formaldehyde set by the state of California. Ongoing media reports included features about people who became ill after their floors were installed.

The US EPA responded by speeding up its national formaldehyde standard, which already was in progress when the news broke. The rules have been completed and will be going into effect in stages over the next few years.

Meanwhile, the number of U.S.-made flooring products tested for and receiving indoor-air quality product certifications like GREENGUARD or FloorScore have escalated. These certifications test for formaldehyde, in addition to an array of other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

But McKenzie astutely points out: “Providing a healthy building isn’t just about material selection and low-VOC products. Appropriate ventilation, daylight and even advancements such as lighting that regulates circadian rhythms have entered the picture. Look for the Well Building Standard to become more prevalent.”

Designs that strive to be one with nature

Rendering for private K-8 school whose goal is to connect students with nature, ©emersion Design, Cincinnati.

Heather Ratliff, senior interior designer at Cincinnati’s emersionDesign, says look for more designs that emphasize the innate connection between humans and nature. Though not yet a definite trend, she notes that some designs might take natural to an extreme.

“The appeal of sheet vinyl, luxury vinyl tile and porcelain tiles that look like wood planks has started to decrease,” she says. “More of my commercial clients are being drawn toward ‘biophilia,’ which is an innate connection between humans and nature. Design considerations include natural materials, daylighting, vegetation, views to nature and other connections to the natural world.”

Ratliff also points to studies that show biophilic design helps patients heal faster, students test better and employees to be more productive.

Product certifications , including FloorScore, GREENGUARD and many others are important in getting credits under the LEED Rating System, and they are becoming increasingly important to consumers in what is now a time when the general public is concerned about the environment. But Ratliff says her clients, increasingly, are looking at a product’s complete environmental story.

For example, she says, Interface doesn’t just design floors that have a leaf or floral pattern.

“Instead, they clean up fishing nets from small seaside villages to recycle into carpet fiber and pay tribute to that story by designing the collection to look like the sea,” she says. “Stories like these resonate with clients more than any certifications.”

As a result, Ratliff says, look for The Living Product Challenge Certification, under which a product has to be healthful and the company has to be socially responsible, to start gaining ground.

Smart home technology and big data

While some would argue today’s home automation systems — controlling everything from furnaces to water faucets — contradict being one with nature, others would say they are key to the future of sustainability. In fact, a recent plan for the future, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, calls for devices that monitor occupants’ behavior and needs in order to control and conserve energy use.

All surveyed agreed that building automation, particularly with systems like NEST that learn their occupants’ behavior, are here to stay and will have a significant role in homes of the future. Big data use to manage campus-like properties and measure efficiency through collecting energy data also will be a driving force in sustainable design.

“As such products become mainstream, the idea of a fully controlled, automated house will be closer to reality,” says Luke Field, a project manager at Cincinnati’s Platte Design and Architecture. “But with this will come new dangers and concerns as well. For example, can a hacker lock you out of your house? Or flood it by turning on a bathtub?”

3-D printed models and buildings

3-D printed models, ©emersion Design, Cincinnati.

Another technological advance that has quickly taken hold as a design tool is 3-D printing. Emersion Design’s Ratliff says it has become invaluable in creating scaled models for clients to inspect and for testing designs ranging in scale from construction details to site planning.

MSA Architects’ Fosnaugh says: “It has afforded us the ability to directly translate digital information into perfectly-crafted physical reproductions, allowing us to speedily develop volumetric massing studies, analyze details or replicate complex geometries.”

Technologies are expected to advance to allow for 3-D printed buildings, such as one that already has been built in Dubai, which can be assembled quickly, saving huge construction costs.


Tiny Homes and Prefab

3-D printed model of Tower at Summit Park, Blue Ash, ©MSA Architects, Cincinnati.

The Tiny Home movement and prefabricated buildings have been social media darlings for a few years now. And they both hold great potential for providing sustainable and economical solutions well into the future.

It does take a unique client to buy into prefab, especially tiny buildings, SHP Leading Design’s McKenzie says.

But prefab is a time-tested strategy that will be increasingly used in the future, MSA Architects’ Fosnaugh says. MSA has been is exploring the off-site fabrication of large-scale building components using advanced materials, including ultra-high performance concrete and fiber-reinforced polymers.

“Attached to a structural chassis in the shop, such a system can be shipped to the site and hoisted in place directly from the truck, minimizing construction time in the field while producing very precise, high-performing systems with almost limitless design possibilities,” he says.

Have they seen the future?

Fosnaugh’s observation likely would thrill the authors of the U.S. DOE’s Vision for Future Buildings who wrote:  “Because they are designed modularly, buildings of the future are easily reconfigured and upgraded to accommodate various needs, adapt to changing conditions and improve the performance of the building itself.”

But locally and nationally, there is no clear trend toward achieving another vision in this report: Self-sufficient communities with multi-modal transportation that connects buildings, and where all energy is harvested onsite. An array of other features include buildings being tied to regional water cycles, resulting in an 80-percent reduction in imported water consumption and improved biodiversity.

What we do see is a return to city living and a trend toward creating and living in walkable, sustainable communities. We also see a public-at-large with a heightened awareness of people- and planet-friendly products and building practices. And technology that would allow the report’s vision to come true exists and is advancing every day.

We also see people asking questions about whether products are people- and planet-friendly. We don’t see the building and interior product professionals laughing when the questions are asked.

I would say the future is here. ©


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