Surveying Sustainability

Green design is dead. The term “green design” was a fad that fizzled out when the housing market did.

Sustainable design has taken its place. Isn’t that just a semantic difference?

Green design, the fad version, rose to prominence around the same time concern about climate change post-Hurricane Katrina became widespread in the U.S. public consciousness. But just because it was a fad does not mean it did not have an impact.

Without green, there would not have been the major shift away from the ‘disposable’ house toward a more cradle-to-cradle design philosophy. There would be no explosive growth of the USGBC’s Greenbuild Expo year after year, no NAHB green building guidelines, no NARIgreen, no NKBA green education track. The design world owes the term ‘green’ a debt of gratitude, but its time is up.

Sustainability is a quieter term, indeed a more sustainable one. It describes better the way a design generation has changed its way of thinking. But how has that generation – the current generation – made this real? Kitchen & Bath Design News recently surveyed over 600 designers from across the country to get a sense of how sustainability is impacting the way kitchen and bath designers create, what kinds of products they think are important to a sustainable home, and how their clients’ requests (or lack thereof) impact the way they are doing business.


designers’ views

Since so much of the design business is client-driven, it only made sense to start with the question: What percentage of your clients specifically request green products? In the minds of many, the sustainable remodel begins and ends with products. Because designers are most often limited to the confines of an existing footprint, work on the insulation, windows and power systems of a home are simply not in their purview.

The results show that 402 designers, or about 67% of those surveyed, report that 10% or less of their clients are specifically coming in with requests. In the KBDN sustainable design webcast this past June, it was suggested that this could be a problem of mis- or under-education about green products. There are many myths about these products: that they are much more expensive, “ugly,” don’t work as reliably, etc.

Working through the green myths is part of the education of the client, and it appears designers are learning to do just that.

While “10% or less” sounds like a negative, consider the survey results of the next question, which asks: If your clients do not specifically ask for green products/design, do you bring up this option for discussion with them?

Almost as many people who reported that fewer than 10% of their clients come with green requests, said that they brought the subject up anyway: 65% do, 35% do not. The upsell potential of green products (whose mark-up generally tends to be 10-20% higher than standard products, according to market research), and the needs of individual clients, whether it be from an environmental standpoint or one based on health concerns, shows that selling sustainability is gaining traction with designers as part of a solid overall portfolio of services.


designers’ actions

Because products are the driving force behind much of the sustainable side of kitchen and bath remodeling, it would logically follow that appliances would sweep the “Which types of green products do you most often sell or specify?” question. Not so.

Whether it is due to the groundswell at the federal level, or to state mandates like California’s ban on incandescent bulbs, lighting took top billing. CFLs and LEDs, in various shapes, sizes and color temperatures are more widely available than ever, and promise cost savings and long life.

Second to lighting is cabinetry with no or low-VOC finishes. This is unsurprising, as cabinetmakers have had to comply with ever-stricter California Air Resource Board (CARB) regulations in the state of California and, as the environmentalist and legislative communities well know, as goes California, so goes the rest of the country.

Tied for third place is energy-efficient appliances and low-flow faucets and showerheads, which past surveys have shown are the most favored switch-outs in small remodeling jobs.

And, while appliances come in third volume-wise, designers believe they are the most critical element in a sustainable remodel.

In answer to the question “Which do you feel is the most important element in a green remodel?” 34% of designers felt that the inclusion of energy-efficient products in a remodel was key, ranking 13 percentage points above its nearest competitor, the use of recycled/repurposed materials in a remodel. Using locally sourced products came next with 14% of respondents reporting seeking these products out.

A whopping 80% of those surveyed reported actively recycling and reclaiming items from demolitions. There are tax incentives for donating these items to resell firms, plus the environmental boon of not sending reusable items to the landfill.


designers’ thoughts

Designers and dealers are seeing clients motivated by environmental concerns requesting green. That is the response to the question of what a client’s primary motivation is for going green (31%). Energy and water savings, which translate to dollars saved, are close behind with 30% of the votes tallied.

In the question of whether clients are willing to pay more for green, the answer is a definitive no, garnering 60% of total responses tallied.

This is still a somewhat surprising answer. KBDN ran a survey in a special supplement to the March 2009 issue asking the very same question. The split at that time was 33% yes, against 67% no. The current 60/40 split may signal that the premium on green products is coming down, or that the benefits of these products are becoming more attractive to consumers.

Lucky for designers looking to sell the sustainable markup, when clients are willing to pay extra, they’re willing to pay 10%, which is the number quoted above as the average markup for green products and services.

Finally, the last question touched upon the promotion of sustainability: 50.33% of designers said they do promote their sustainable design capabilities, edging out the 49.67% who say they do not. This indicates a slim margin of victory for sustainability. With the movement from fad to permanence, it is up to the designer/dealer community to translate that small margin into big profits.