Australian interior architect Kathrin Wheib explains why she begins new work with the following list:
1. Use existing buildings
2. Do more with less
3. Use recycled materials
4. Use materials that sequester carbon
5. Adaptable and future proof design
6. Design for aesthetic longevity
7. Design for deconstruction
8. Source locally
9. Understand the supply chain
10. Design for zero waste
Lara Knight – 3 December, 2020
Australian waste export bans start in 2021 and state governments are planning significant changes to waste recovery, reuse and recycling in coming years. One of the large-volume focus areas that many of us contribute to is construction and demolition waste. New home, new kitchen, new investment property, new business fit out…. millions of tonnes of waste each year comes from upgrading where we live or work.
Interior architect Kathrin Wheib from Make Good Studio believes there is a smarter way to use resources. In our chat below she runs through the 10 design principles she uses to deliver attractive, functional spaces with ongoing flexibility.
In your 16 years as an interior architect you’ve worked with many high profile clients. How often was sustainability a consideration?
I would say less than 10% of clients I have worked with over the years have had sustainability as part of their brief. In some instances I have incorporated sustainable design into the projects regardless of whether it was asked for or not. I think clients are happy to go the eco route if it’s not going to cost them any more money but few are willing to invest in it or think about the long term benefits unfortunately. This has been my experience working in interior and architecture studios over the years, although none of them were sustainable practices so they wouldn’t have been attracting clients with those sensibilities.
I have worked with some high profile chefs over the years who were the most switched on in regards to sustainability. I think because they have questioned their own impact on the environment in regards to large scale agriculture, food miles etc, they approach a lot of other business decisions with that mindset as well. I think once you start questioning the status quo of your own industry and seek to understand why things are the way they are, you quickly see the flawed logic in a lot of our modern practices.
Do you think there is more awareness now for circular and zero waste thinking?
I would say that people are starting to talk about it more and there are a handful of suppliers who are incorporating circular thinking into the design of their products. But sadly it sits on the fringe of the construction industry right now in Australia.
In saying that, I think once you learn about the circular economy it’s almost impossible to go back to the linear way of thinking. That was my experience at least. Before setting up Make Good Studio I started researching how to make interior design more sustainable, which led me onto extensive reading about everything from zero carbon buildings to regenerative architecture, to the circular economy. There is a wealth of information and resources available and some incredible projects around the world exemplifying this.
I’ve found it so inspiring as a designer to learn about the bigger picture of my impact and to think about ways I can incorporate future thinking into my projects. I know I can never go back to ‘the old days’ where I would design something without thinking about waste, resources or what would happen to it at the end of its life.
So I do think it’s about making people aware of an alternative to the ‘take, make, dispose’ mentality. I also think you have to make the space or object functional of course but also beautiful and emotive. And that is what is at the core of what I am trying to achieve at Make Good Studio: elevating the aesthetics of sustainable design. I don’t think you need to sacrifice style in order to be green! In fact I think adding that extra layer into a brief creates more unique and considered outcomes.
So I guess that’s a long way of saying that we need more awareness and education around the benefits of circular thinking. In the meantime we need the early adopters to push ahead and create amazing exemplar projects to showcase to the world.
Before starting a new build or renovation you like to see what existing resources are available. Can you run through your design principles and why you choose reuse first.
Sure. I’ve put together some guiding principles I use for my projects – not all will apply at any one time. These points are specific to reducing embodied carbon within buildings. And of these points reusing existing resources (buildings or materials) is the best carbon saving solution, which is why I like to start with that one. There are other considerations I also apply such as energy efficiency, non toxic finishes, biophilic design and passive solar design principles to name a few.
USE EXISTING BUILDINGS – Using existing buildings in a renovation project is the best way to conserve carbon emissions by avoiding the production of new components. We view the existing built environment as a critical resource to be conserved and re-used whenever possible. To us, this way of designing produces the most interesting projects that are site specific and unique.
DO MORE WITH LESS – The bigger the space the more energy (and cost) it requires to be built, run and maintained. We design for spatial efficiency through multi use and adaptable designs.
USE RECYCLED MATERIALS – We use salvaged or recycled materials whenever possible to eliminate the emissions associated with manufacturing new materials. We specify materials made from recycled content.
USE MATERIALS THAT SEQUESTER CARBON – Materials such as timber, straw, hemp, cork, sheep’s wool etc, naturally sequester carbon and store it for their useful life.
ADAPTABLE & FUTURE PROOF DESIGN – We create spaces that are flexible and that can be reconfigured in future for other uses.
DESIGN FOR AESTHETIC LONGEVITY – We specify fixed finishes and fixtures that aren’t trend driven so that they would be appropriate for different tastes and aesthetic concepts in the future. Something that is beautiful will more likely be spared from landfill and will retain its value.
DESIGN FOR DECONSTRUCTION – We anticipate that in the future the interior will be wholly or partially changed or demolished. We design using modular elements that can be reused again, and fix materials so they can be easily removed to be recycled.
SOURCE LOCALLY – We prioritise local materials, makers and manufacturers when specifying new items. This means we reduce transport related carbon emissions and support our local industry. Sourcing locally means we can forge a connection with the supplier and their product which hopefully means the item will be treasured for many years.
UNDERSTAND THE SUPPLY CHAIN – We seek to understand where the materials for our projects come from and the carbon implications of their manufacturing and transportation. This allows us to use the lowest carbon systems and materials.
DESIGN FOR ZERO WASTE – We design with a material’s standard size in mind so there are no offcuts or wastage. We prioritise materials that come with a take back scheme – these will be taken away by the manufacturer at the end of life and recycled appropriately. We encourage our suppliers and builders to reduce their wastage and to recycle any of their waste or packaging.
Most architects have to juggle aesthetics against a realistic budget. What design areas do you think need the most attention?
That’s a difficult question as I approach interior design holistically rather than separate parts. But I would steer my clients to invest more in the elements that they would interact with most on a day to day basis and that have a big impact on the feel of the space and how people feel within it. For example in a restaurant I would say the lighting is crucial to creating the right atmosphere, the chairs need to be comfortable, and the table needs to feel good to touch.
In a residential project it’s more personal and would depend on the client, but if they spend a lot of time cooking for example then of course you’d want to invest in a great kitchen. I also think the little details are important to get right: the handle detail on the drawer you use every day, unexpected joyful details that enrich day to day life.
Overall, I value access to natural light and ventilation as well as a connection to the outdoors. Or depending on the site/building, a connection to natural materials and forms. I believe as humans we are happier and function better when we have those things. This is the essence of biophilic design and there have been many studies which have proven this to be true.
How easy is it to build for reconfiguration and deconstruction? What are some of the ways to make that possible?
It’s relatively easy to incorporate some adaptability into a space. Figuring out what changes might be required in the future is a big part of it, which is why I spend a lot of time with clients initially, getting to know their current and future needs. Then we define and question the brief to come up with some future proof design elements to incorporate for them personally. Secondary to that, I would consider how the space might work once the original client has moved on, but these items I would only incorporate if it didn’t impact on the quality of the space and with minimal additional cost.
It’s an interesting tension between designing a specific response to a client’s needs and not being too specific so that future users of the space can adapt it to suit their own needs. I’m interested in spaces that work for multiple uses over time and in modular, movable joinery elements.
The idea of deconstruction is new within the architecture and interior design industry but something we will all need to embrace. It basically means designing the building or space with the knowledge that it will one day be wholly or partially demolished. I’ve heard it referred to as ‘mining our existing buildings, rather than our natural resources‘. It’s about respecting the materials within existing structures and the amount of carbon emitted to get them there. Re-using deconstructed building materials means we can drastically reduce the embodied carbon and preserve precious resources.
‘The most sustainable building is the one you don’t build.’
I read a lot of architects’ statements saying they design their buildings to last but the reality is that most won’t. The best case scenario is that the building envelope will endure for some years but the interior will most likely be updated every 20 years or so (every 5-7 years if we are talking about a hospitality or retail fit out). So then once you know that it’s really about putting yourself in the demolition crew’s place in the future and making it possible for them to remove materials, fixtures and joinery intact so that they can be reused again as is or recycled.
Practically speaking, it means using mechanical fixings for materials and facades so they can be taken apart easily. For example, nailed floorboards rather than glued so they can be removed and reused. Limiting the use of materials that aren’t able to be reused, like tiles (it is too labour intensive to salvage tiles generally speaking). Prioritising natural and/or single materials that can be re-used or are compostable rather than composite products that aren’t able to be recycled.
Do you need to work with eco-friendly builders and tradies or can you design for anyone to Implement?
Having the right builder on board is imperative. Our construction industry is used to working in a certain way and it can be hard to convince people to do things differently. I’d say there is more skill required to build this way too and it will likely be more time consuming as well. There are some great builders out there and it pays to find the right one who is interested in the same goals. Just recently, a Builders Declare group has formed here in Australia (joining Architects Declare and an Engineers Declare) which is an industry group declaring a climate and biodiversity emergency and who seek to educate and advocate for change in their industry. Looking at which builders have signed up to that would be a good place to start.
What does your dream project or dream client look like?
In my experience the client makes the project. So my dream client would be someone who wants beautiful spaces utilising my design principles and who cares deeply for our planet and has the drive to want to do better. They would value good design and have a realistic budget to create a quality eco outcome on all levels (including updating the operational systems and facade if required to make the building more energy efficient).
Any adaptive re-use project would be super interesting to work on, especially in interesting heritage or industrial buildings. If I had to choose a dream project I would say a hotel in a disused old power station!