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October 2008


We love our clients, some more than others. They're the people we serve. Client preferences, needs, and budgets are the primary drivers of our design decisions. That means they are a major force influencing the level of sustainability we can incorporate into our solutions. Ideally, we have clients with a strong ethic of sustainability. But, ideal is rare. Maintaining our commitment to sustainability while working with clients who do not share our values is a new challenge for all of us to address. How can we approach this new challenge? Well, weaving sustainable solutions into our designs with reluctant clients can be accomplished with the same tools we have always used in our relationships with them.

Looking at the foundation of our professional relationship with clients, we have traditionally had a role as educator. We are hired to use our professional knowledge base regarding products, practices, and design principles to create interior spaces. As needed, we share this information with our clients to help them understand their options and to sell them on our solutions. When they understand the underlying rationale for our recommendations, then they tend to approve them. The same kind of education can be used with clients regarding sustainability. If, for example, we explain the basic concepts of reducing health risks by using materials that are toxic free and low in VOCs, then they have reasons to accept our choices. They may even be willing to pay a higher up front cost when they understand the trade offs. It's really the same kind of thinking used to choose between a more costly durable product and a less costly less durable product. All of us consider the balance between those two factors when making purchasing decisions. Once clients understand the sustainable attributes of the options as well as their costs and benefits, then they can be guided to use the same kind of thinking to make final decisions which include a concern for sustainability.

Of course we don't explain everything involved in our decision making process. We share information on a need to know basis and based on the interest level of clients. Some clients want to be serviced with an amazing outcome and don't want to be bothered with details or extended information. Others are eager participants in the design process and want plenty of information. For clients interested in being fully informed, feel free to share printed copies of the fundamentals from our site. These will give them the foundation needed for understanding many of the sustainable decisions facing us. So, as sustainably responsible designers, we share as much sustainable design information as is needed and welcomed.

But, if a client is uninterested in sustainability, does that mean we ignore it and check our ethics at the door? Of course not. Practicing a professional ethic of sustainability means we make every decision based on sustainability. With reluctant clients, that may require a variation of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. If we choose a material that meets all the criteria for a project and it has sustainable attributes, then we may or may not mention the sustainability aspect to the client. Furthermore, as professionals, it's always been our responsibility to determine what options to present to clients. With an ethic of sustainability as our guiding force, we can offer only sustainably based solutions. If clients are given choices that are all based in concerns for sustainability then their final selections will be as well. Honoring our ethic of sustainability means it needs to be business as usual; making sustainable decisions is just the way we do things.

The general public is increasingly aware of global warming and our dependence on foreign oil. It's a challenge for all of us to figure out how to make more responsible choices. People want it to be Easy to be Green. So, being experts and bringing viable sustainable solutions to our clients is increasingly an important part of the services we provide. We're here supporting you. In turn, you can help support your clients. So, for them, it's as easy as hiring you to have a greener project. For us, it can be a competitive edge in this transforming market place. We can be the leaders, working with both interested and reluctant clients toward the necessary goal of a more sustainable tomorrow.

Joyfully, Sue Norman
Sue Norman, Managing Editor
Associate IIDA
Allied Member ASID