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Green by Design: Interior Design Alumni Focus on Sustainability

by Laurie Callahan

In October 2009, the CharityWorks GreenHouse in McLean, Virginia – one of the first carbon-neutral show houses in the nation – opened to the public.

CharityWorks is a volunteer-led philanthropic organization that has provided more than $11 million in grants to support nonprofits and community initiatives over the past decade. With the GreenHouse project, the organization’s goal was to demonstrate that luxurious living and green design are fully compatible concepts, while generating revenue to benefit local charities. The talents of developer West*Group, builder Greenspur, Inc., and a number of DC-area interior design firms helped CharityWorks achieve its goal.

The 18-room GreenHouse features geothermal heating and cooling, low-flow water features, LED technologies, Energy Star appliances and windows, a green roof, rainwater capture, solar and wind electricity, a variety of recycled materials, and native plants in the landscaping.

During the three weeks the house was open to the public, more than 6,000 people toured it. Proceeds from admissions, sponsorships, and special events were divided among four local nonprofits: Friendship Public Charter School of Washington, DC; the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund; the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund; and the McLean Project for the Arts. At the close of the public viewing period, the house was sold.

Among the many professionals contributing design elements to the project were six recent graduates of Marymount University’s Interior Design program: Amanda Bates ’08, Rebecca Foley ’06, Fabrizia Hawes ’09, Darcie Gibson Jedrey ’07, Linda Peña ’06, and Seth van den Bergh ’08.

Amanda, who is with Sroka Design, Inc., worked on the home’s office. Rebecca works for Custom Design Concepts; she designed the family vestibule in collaboration with Miriam Dillon. Fabrizia and Darcie, who are employed by Barbara Hawthorn Interiors, Ltd., worked on the terrace/outdoor living space. Seth took the lead on the media room for Susan Gulick Interiors. Linda, who is with Sandra Myers Design Studio, worked on the guest bedroom. In addition, Marymount alumna Susan Oakley ’09, who works for Christopher’s, Inc., provided textile care for furnishings throughout the house.

So what does an interior designer need to consider in order to make eco-friendly choices? “It’s really important to ask the right questions,” Linda Peña points out. “What is this item made of? How and where was it made? Is it recyclable down the road? A company might say that something is green, but as a designer, you really have to do your research.” Rebecca Foley adds, “We took a close look at the manufacturing processes and how far items needed to be shipped. A lot of the pieces we used came from within 500 miles. The lumber for our cabinets came from an old house on Capitol Hill.”

A person touring the CharityWorks GreenHouse might have been surprised to note that there was no “new home smell” to be detected. That’s because the house contains almost none of the harmful chemicals, like formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds, that are found in the finishes, fixtures, and furnishings of most new homes. Low- VOC paints from Benjamin Moore were used throughout the interior, along with natural, vegetable-dyed fabrics that are a delight to see and touch. Bamboo, organic cotton, linen, hemp, silk, and wool are used to advantage throughout the house.

Seth van den Bergh explains his sofa choice in the media room, saying, “This piece doesn’t compromise on looks, and it certainly won’t compromise your health or the health of the environment.” Made by Lee Industries, the sofa features a frame constructed of FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) certified woods; springs made of 80% recycled material; and soy-based cushions wrapped in cornbased ingeo fibers (ingeo is a synthetic made from 100% annually renewable resources). In addition, the bamboo and organic cotton fabric was manufactured with wind power, and no harmful pesticides were used. Seth adds, “Need I even mention that with each purchase, the manufacturer plants a tree?” The sofa is complemented by an LED TV that contains no mercury and consumes 40% less energy than a conventional LCD television.

Linda points to the use of bamboo in the guest room, which features end tables and even a bedspread made from very different forms of that fastgrowing, renewable resource. In the media room, the flooring is renewable cork, grown with no pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Water-based finishing products and natural adhesives were used in the office. And the textile protection treatments and cleaning solutions provided by Susan Oakley all have non-toxic, hypoallergenic formulas.

Substance and process were always on the minds of the interior designers as they sought the most eco-friendly choices for the GreenHouse. Rebecca Foley says, “We strove to select products from environmentally responsible manufacturers. We want to acknowledge those companies that consider every opportunity to be green.”

Recycled and recyclable are key themes in the CharityWorks GreenHouse. To begin the redesign process, the preexisting brick house on the site was deconstructed by hand, and 97% of its materials were recycled. In fact, many of the recycled materials were used in the construction and furnishing of the new house. Rebecca Foley used reclaimed lumber on one of the walls in the family vestibule. In addition, she explains, “The chandelier in the hallway is made from wine-barrel staves, and the light fixtures in the family vestibule are old wine jugs.” The home’s flooring is cement-based with recycled glass, and there is a powder room countertop made of recycled glass and ceramic. Even the washer and dryer are made of materials that can be recycled down the road.

Darcie Gibson Jedrey and Fabrizia Hawes, working with Barbara Hawthorn, carried interior design elements and the family-room color scheme over into their work on the outdoor terrace. Reclaimed-wood tables, comfortable seating with sustainable fabric cushions, an herbgreen wall, a salt-water pool, stone and glass fire elements, and alfresco dining with sea-glass dinnerware contribute to a restful oasis that’s also green by design. “Even the packing material that the dishware came in is eco-friendly!” laughs Darcie.

Repurposing encourages creativity, and examples of this fact are everywhere in the GreenHouse. Seth van den Bergh found cremorne bolts from old French doors at an architectural salvage shop in Washington, DC, and turned them into a work of art to be mounted on a media-room wall. “Their ornate design and strong linear presence make for the perfect art installation,” he explains. Petrified-wood stumps serve as tables in the media room. Linda Peña and Sandra Meyers refinished vintage chairs for the guest bedroom, and Rebecca Foley engaged a local artisan to turn an old floor-vent cover into a unique side table!

“When I was at Marymount,” says Amanda Bates, “sustainable design was incorporated into the courses. But I understand that now there’s a separate Sustainable Design course taught by Professor Jean Freeman, and I think that’s great. During and after college I developed a personal interest in sustainability and did a lot of research on my own. So I was thrilled when Skip [Sroka] invited me to work on this project.”

Fabrizia is equally enthusiastic. She notes, “I remember doing a sustainable children’s museum project for Professor Freeman. We discussed sustainable design in class as theory, so now it’s great to have an opportunity to put it into practice.” Darcie adds, “For class projects, we always had to keep environmental aspects in mind, and we had the option of making our projects green, but this is the first real-life green project that I’ve worked on.”

Going green does have its challenges, and green design can be more expensive than traditional design in the short term, with many green items costing up to 25% more than their traditional counterparts. However, as Rebecca points out, “It’s important to take the long view. Energy savings over time will save the homeowner significant money while helping the environment.”

Amanda notes, “I didn’t do much sustainable design before this house because a lot of clients don’t ask for it. I’m realizing that it’s up to us to introduce sustainable design to the client, and even to make the case for why it is a good investment.”

Eco-friendly design is rapidly gaining importance in the interior design community. Seth says, “What’s fascinating is that when I applied for jobs a year ago after graduating, employers were not so interested in green design for the residential market, even though it had taken hold in the commercial world. That’s changed in just a year; now it’s a really hot topic in all areas of our profession!”

Susan Oakley recalls finding her Textiles course at Marymount difficult and frustrating. “I didn’t see the need then,” she says with a laugh. “Now, I’m so thankful for that class! I had to put together a project with fabrics, showing the properties of each with a photo, swatch, and details about the fibers, weave, and its benefits and disadvantages. I still use the book that I put together, and our technicians at Christopher’s do, too!” Next spring, Susan will be a guest lecturer in – you guessed it – Marymount’s Textiles course!

Professor Jean Freeman is delighted to see her former students getting on the green design bandwagon. She notes, “I’ve been teaching and practicing sustainable design for more than 20 years, and I’m now working on a green home myself. So I couldn’t be happier to see sustainable design gaining prominence!” Professor Freeman and Dr. Robert Meden, chair of Marymount’s Interior Design Department, took the students in this semester’s Sustainable Design course on a tour through the CharityWorks GreenHouse. Ms. Freeman says, “I was so pleased with what I saw, and our students were impressed to see what recent alumni are accomplishing. Our graduates’ presentations were mature, and I could really see that they are looking at design in a holistic way – not just considering color, line, and aesthetics, but also the lifecycle of products and the ecological and psychological ramifications of their choices. They showed sophistication in applying all of these principles.”