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Wellness Tops Sustainability Wish Lists In New Design Industry Study

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In the five decades since the first Earth Day celebration, sustainability has taken on different meanings for the public and professionals in the building and design industry. While there have always been individuals on both sides who saw the link between a healthy planet and a healthy house, it took a global pandemic to literally and powerfully drive that point home. This shift in focus is highlighted in the new Sustainability in Kitchen & Bath Design Research Report released last month by the National Kitchen & Bath Association. “NKBA knew that its definition for sustainable design needed to focus on environmental responsibility and the health and well-being of the home’s residents,” shares Tricia Zach, the group’s head of research. The latter factors now top consumer concerns, especially for households with children, according to the study’s findings. Zach isn’t surprised.

Kitchens and Bathrooms Focus

“Health and wellness have been influencing kitchen and bath design for many years,” the researcher notes. She’s seen growing interest in air and water quality in these spaces in recent NKBA trend reports. “As more and more consumers become aware that many sustainable design elements have health benefits (e.g., VOC-free/non-toxic paints and stains, non-toxic materials, air purifiers), they are more likely to include them in their kitchens and baths,” she points out. According to the study, 60% of homeowners list nontoxic materials as their top concern.

The California Factor

One kitchen and bathroom feature that spans both wellness and sustainability is LED lighting. This technology is far more energy efficient than incandescent lighting, fulfilling sustainability goals and mandates, especially California’s rigorous CALGreen codes with their national impacts. LEDs also enable wellness through circadian lighting, non-intrusive pathway illumination for safety, and easy changeability for personalization.

Los Angeles area designer Shannon Ggem sees the personalization power among her clientele outweighing the circadian potential at this point. “I think design clients like things that are beautiful, dimensional and evoke emotion. LED strips and little twinkly accents absolutely serve that side, while also being very low draw on the energy and featuring an incredibly long lifespan. I think circadian rhythms are not top of mind for our clients,” she comments, but notes that they’re still well-served by its gentle qualities. “It’s much more aligned with our body’s health to have a little glow than it is to blast on 8000 recessed can lights if you need to get a sip of water in the night.”

California-based design professionals have a profusion of energy, water conservation and material standards they need to incorporate in their projects, but they also tend to have sustainable- and wellness-focused clientele, particularly Millennials (aged 28 to 43). “About 55% of my clients are Millennials,” says Ggem. “They literally always prioritize materials and designs that promote a clean and healthy environment, from non-toxic paints to indoor plants that improve air quality,” she adds.

Ggem wasn’t surprised to see nontoxic materials as study respondents’ top concern, she shares. “When California first announced the 2008 deadline for non-pollutant paint in the early 2000s, clients were hoarding noncompliant paint in their garages. Now homeowners write questions about air quality on their lists for us. Many even say ‘No VOC’ specifically. Indoor air quality is much studied and clients learn about the risks in their favorite publications. We don’t have to tell them now.”

Overcoming Objections

Sustainability codes have, partly through the market power of California, expanded across the country, but wellness factors are key to driving this choice where codes don’t require it. According to the NKBA report, a key insight on overcoming barriers to adoption is “reinforcing these two value propositions – family health/well-being and energy savings, particularly with Millennials.”

New York-based designer Caleb Anderson has an even mix of age groups among his clientele, he comments, observing, “Gen X and Boomers first identify with health as a priority. The older I get, the more important my health is to me as well.” His Millennial clients clearly see that environmentally positive decisions benefit their health too, he shares: “As the first generation to grow up in the Information Age, they’ve watched the impact of climate change, natural disasters and widespread social inequity across their lifetime and want to play their part in making the world better for their children.”

Healthy design features have long been on Anderson’s client lists, he says, but the nature of their requests have shifted over the last five years. “Where it originally meant health amenities like an in-home sauna, gym or yoga room, clients want every material to be healthy too. Consumers are rapidly gaining insight into how conventional building products can cause a myriad of health impacts and want to get at the root of the problem, so we’re happy to say healthy Red-List Free materials and products are a current priority.”

Next Steps

Anderson points to the sophisticated marketing campaign employed in the mass adoption of LEDs. “Imagine that same momentum of the health savings across your lifetime as well as financial support from the government to use healthier products!” He suggests. “Just look to the green building movement in California and the Pacific Northwest where local incentives and requirements have drastically fueled the growth of what sustainable design can be. I like to think it’s due time for the rest of the country as well.” With an increased awareness of the links between our homes and our health, that’s becoming more likely every day.

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