Rise in interest in eco-friendly interior design, a Q&A for Houzz

Houzz recently interviewed Amy about her thoughts on eco-friendly interior design.  The Houzz report shares insights by Amy, along with other designers working in the sustainable design arena (read article).  Of course, some of the interview didn’t make it into the final Houzz report, so we share the complete conversation here!

Houzz: How would you characterize “sustainable interior design”?

Amy Cuker: The decisions made during the course of any interior design project provide countless opportunities to use natural and human resources wisely.  In an ideal world, the focus should always be to create healthy and productive environments and consider the entire life-cycle of a product, not just short-term gain.

Houzz: Why is “sustainable interior design” important and meaningful? Biggest benefits?

Amy Cuker: My approach to sustainable design is a holistic one, meaning we focus on making design decisions that will look great and hold up in the long term.  I try to help my clients make design decisions that are practical and ones that will endure. We reuse or repurpose items that are still workable, and when buying new items, we try to source pieces that are high quality and timeless. If a piece falls apart or goes out of style, it doesn’t matter whether its contents were recycled or whether it came from a certified forest. It’s still heading for a landfill a lot sooner than a well-made piece whose style and usefulness is enduring.  If we design something once and get it right, we also save the homeowner time and money because they will not have to redo it any time soon. By doing it once and doing it well, we free up a client so their time can be spent in ways that contribute to the community or add meaning to their lives.



Houzz: Why do you think there’s a recent upswing of interest in eco-friendly interior design? Is it being driven by clients or designers?   

Amy Cuker: I think a lot of people are concerned about the state of our planet.   We need to consume certain resources if we want a comfortable environment, but both homeowners and designers want to feel like we’re making choices that don’t come at the expense of future generations.

When a potential client reaches out to us at Down2earth Interior Design, we ask them a question about their commitment to green design on our client intake form.   There are three multiple choice answers they can choose from:

  • I don’t feel strongly about it one-way or the other.
  • It would be nice to incorporate some sustainable strategies but not at the expense of other priorities.
  • It is important to me to incorporate sustainable design strategies in my project wherever possible.

The majority of our clients pick the middle answer, which is fine with me because there are so many sustainable design decisions that you can make that don’t involve trade-offs with other priorities.  I can’t count how many dining tables, desks, and vanities I’ve had made from reclaimed timber for my clients, and clients consider it a win/win because it looks amazing and is a green design choice.

*See Amy’s Dining Table, made from reclaimed Spalted Maple in the next image below.

Houzz: Are clients immediately receptive to eco-friendly design, or do you help educate them?

Amy Cuker: When there’s no downside in terms of cost or aesthetics, clients are more than receptive.  Also, reuse often saves money, and that is a great inroad. My firm is called Down2Earth Interior Design not just because we care about sustainability, but also because we tend to source products that have an approachable price point.  The people hiring us want to have a pulled-together space but maximize their dollars. And nothing maximizes dollars like reusing or repurposing something you’ve already got. It takes very little educating for that point to hit home!

Houzz: What would you say are a few hallmarks of sustainable design?

Amy Cuker: Reusing existing pieces and restoring architectural detail is my first go-to strategy.  When sourcing new, I think about carbon footprint (how far a material has to travel), whether wood is being sourced from a responsibly managed forest, whether a material is known for off-gassing, whether a product contains recycled material or can be recycled once the homeowner is done with it, and whether we’re supporting local craftspeople.


Sometimes these goals are at odds with one another.   I’d love it if there was a tool where you could plug in all the attributes of a product to determine what’s the most advantageous.  Sometimes you just have to look at all the factors (including aesthetic and cost) and make the best decision you can.

Houzz: Any new materials or projects you are especially liking?

Amy Cuker: I’m all about a green roof.   An architect friend of mine, Jody McGuire, just designed one (check it out >).

A green roof provides beautiful greenspace and habitat, combats heat gain, and helps with storm water management.



Houzz: What do you see on the horizon for sustainable interior design?

Amy Cuker: If we really want sustainability, striving for zero net energy in our built environment is really going to be key, and we’re a long way from that.   I also hope that someday we can develop a standardized ranking system to determine the best green products with more objectivity.

Houzz: How can other designers educate themselves more about eco-friendly design?

Amy Cuker: Take the LEED exam, attend conferences, read up on green design projects you admire, team up with other professionals who focus on sustainability. I learned so much from working with a design build firm here in Philly that has a compatible philosophy to mine but offers complementary services (architecture and construction).   To learn about eco-friendly products, build long-term relationships with showroom managers you trust. Let them help you and your client navigate the green pedigree of various products.   Whether it’s textiles, plumbing fixtures, or cabinetry, that’s what they’re there for. Sometimes products are “greenwashed” though, so a designer should do some due diligence as well: once you’re turned onto a green product, do a little digging on your own and see if the claims hold up.

Houzz: Any other advantages to sustainable design?

Amy Cuker: You can rebrand hand-me-downs as vintage pieces to make them cool AND green.  It’s like using leftovers in a totally different dish. I personally have a lot of hand-me-downs in my own home.  Something that’s been handed down will have personal history, whether it’s a family heirloom or something that’s been handed down from one homeowner to the next. You’ll avoid having everything look too perfect and matchy.  And if a piece stuck around this long, it is likely to be of better quality or represent a higher level of craftsmanship than many objects currently being produced. Maybe you can do something a little different with a hand-me-down: I’m currently turning an old steel Singer sewing machine base into a dining table base for a client.   And our interior design consultant, Jillian, did the same thing with the blue cabinet in her bathroom (image below). When you repurpose, you can show your creativity, honor the history of these pieces, and simultaneously reduce resource consumption.

Do you have any questions about eco-friendly interior design?  Ask us in the comments below!





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