ExclusivesThinkingInterior design: How to make healthy choices

Sustainability expert Walter Lourie argues that we’re in danger of overlooking natural materials, and explains how to recognise real products over replicas.
Content Team2 months ago17 min

The other day I was at an event in a new, multi-family apartment complex in North America, which has been awarded all the shiny certifications for being a green and healthy building. This beautiful structure is being advertised as a “place to connect to nature”. Never mind that it’s smack in the middle of a fully developed city; it is at least within walking distance of a big park.

When I joined the tour, the building was well-lit with LED fixtures. They were dialed in carefully, ensuring they weren’t too bright, while also set up to help us manage our natural circadian rhythm.

The building is well oriented for ease of travel between spaces, with a restaurant that uses some of the vegetables grown on the front lawn, or even on the green roof. Everything looked right, with floor-to-ceiling windows, meditation rooms and workout spaces. They even recycle rainwater and generate power through a giant solar array.

For a while, I imagined a time when I was 20 years younger and might have lived there. Then my older self started to look around. And as I noticed the simple details behind the cloak of “luxury,” I discovered something that I find totally unacceptable. The only real things in the space were outside. With exception to the potted plants in the lobby and on the roof, all life was gone.

The living spaces are dead

Not one single natural material was present in this building. Recycled plastic floors, MDF cabinets covered in lacquer, tile meant to look like wood or real stone. The carpet odour was even apparent from the hallway outside the apartment.

I even spoke with the developer of this project and asked him where  the natural or real things were. How in the world did they get these really expensive and difficult to obtain certifications?

His answer was simple. “It’s all in the amenities” he replied. “We made the certs by offsetting”. However, I don’t think this was the intention of the organisations that came up with these credentials, and it’s unfortunate that the developer didn’t see it.

Sadly, this project isn’t unusual. It’s the norm. I have studied this as I lecture across the country in architect’s offices and design firms and they often seem to overlook the most crucial thing – creating a space that is real.

Young adults are buying apartments like this because of the reasons I mentioned above, but I don’t believe that living or working in a recycled shell of a room will do any good for anyone except the recyclers. Perhaps it might help to explain to the potential buyers how our psychological and physiological responses differ when we engage with real or artificial products.

real Adjective:

  1. Truegenuine, not merely nominal or apparent.
  2. Genuine, not artificialcounterfeit, or fake.

This is the problem with our society. Once a new revenue stream is found, like “sustainably building”, smart, aggressive and most likely well-intentioned business people immediately latch onto it. Perhaps they think, “it doesn’t have to be real; it only needs to be made to fit in the project and especially the budget.”

To me, another definition of real is authentic. What is authentic about our materials? In my mind this means being as close to the original as possible. Humans are natural beings. Yet we often live or work in an unnatural environment created by commerce, cutting and dividing our happiness with artificial stuff.

What if we could have real and luxury inside our spaces? Would this solve some of our stress issues?

In an attempt to help people to get a grip on what is real and what is made to look real, these four rules could to help. But the rule above all rules would be that you must only use your senses. No technology!

Rule 1. It is real if it smells like it.

Our nose gives us the most emotional connection to real – you instantly know you are comfortable if it smells good. For example, if the person next to you is eating something you abhor, it will give you increased stress. And this is the same with your workplace. If the products you are using aren’t necessarily safe, they probably smell odd. In contrast, wood has a pleasing smell.

Go with your nose and if it smells like wood, it is wood. Be careful though, because almost 90% of all installed wood surfaces are coated in a barrier “protection” layer. This layer does not allow a communal and healthy relationship with wood, it negates the pleasing smell and it also increases stress responses. The moment you apply this hard layer you lose that benefit. In a sense, you are turning something real into something artificial.

Rule 2. Real is what it feels like.

Real things have a tactile memory associated with them and are supposed to feel a particular way. Our brains are meant to associate a certain texture with that object. Silk, for example, should not feel like a thistle.

Picking up a solid wood board versus a laminated artificial replica is one way to detect its authenticity. Natural wood has a soft yet robust feel to it – it is substantial and at the same time forgiving. Any artificial product that is meant to do the same work as a real wood product will not feel anything like the real thing.

One wood-human connection study asked 102 people to explain the feelings they felt from touching wood. Interestingly, all of the respondents replied that they felt more comfortable touching it over even a minimally processed wood product, like plywood or a painted surface.[i] Using a barrier on the surface or using an artificial replica is not necessarily bad, it is just not as good as using the real thing.

Rule 3. The sound is real. Believe what you hear.

What you hear in your interior is often linked to the products used. Walk through the Tate Modern, with its solid oak floor, or The Louvre, with its iconic parquet, and you’ll understand what I mean. These great architects knew that the experience in a museum is based on how people feel in the space. Wood that is constructed properly has a pleasing thunk, not a tinny click.

Rule 4. Look deep into the real thing.

The candles are lit, the crowd is quiet, the lights are out and then the eyes are uncovered… surprise! Surprises come to real life when you open your eyes.

Take a look, and I mean a deep look, inside your visual sense and examine your choices for products – and not just from a 2cm sample.

Back at the apartment project in Washington DC, imagine the responses from potential buyers if that designer decided to use real, natural products. Every apartment would be unique and personal, but instead each one is the same and completely sterile.

The best part about designing with real things is that they contain totally unique features that only come from survival in nature. Something we humans have been connected to for 300,000 years.

One way to be sure your product choices are real might be to go with your gut and question your supplier. Another way would be to visit the production facilities. Most companies that believe in what they do would be more than happy to offer a tour, or at least let you see part way under the covers.

To find out which toxins are in interior design products, look in your transparency guides like mindful MATERIALS or the Declare Label, from the Living Future Institute. The truth is in the details and the details matter. Our health depends on it.

A natural solution

I have the pleasure of working in my dream job, as the sustainability manager for the mafi company in Austria. They are the world’s only 100% natural wood products producer. Every wood floor, wall or ceiling product is custom made by hand for every client in four days, using locally sourced resources and no added artificial ingredients.

We plant more trees than we cut and all of our waste is recycled into creating heat for the kilns and production facilities. One of the most honorable projects of my career, thus far, is helping this company through the process of proving that we make exactly what we say and that we are what we are.

Mafi is proving that we treat our employees fairly. We also trace our energy source, and our packaging is FSC certified. The list goes on. This examination is part of the Living Product challenge and Just certification. Come visit mafi in the beautiful village of Schneegattern, near Salzburg, Austria.

To see a great example of interior design we featured on Work in Mind, click here


Walter Lourie is the head of sustainability for Austria-based mafi Naturholzboden. He gives GBCI approved lectures about healthy wood products to architects and designers. His talks have been developed through years of research and study, in addition to his 20-plus years’ experience as a wood floor mechanic in New England, NY, NJ and Pennsylvania.

[i] New insights on the psychological dimension of wood-human interaction 2017 M. Luisa Dematte.

Content Team

Work in Mind is a content platform designed to give a voice to thinkers, businesses, journalists and regulatory bodies in the field of healthy buildings.

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