Stephanie is a Sustainable Interior Designer for Higher Education at DLR Group. Over the course of her career Stephanie has lead a number of sustainable initiatives within DLR Group and on projects across a number of project types. Her passion in sustainability and biophilic strategies shows up in all her project works and she enjoys sharing knowledge with her clients and peers to move the needle and create a bigger impact on our planet and communities.
When she’s not working, Stephanie is enjoying all the outdoors that Colorado has to offer with her husband and pup and learning new hobbies.
SM: What is your role and how long have you worked in it?
SS: I am an interior designer at DLR group, and I’ve been a designer for eight years now. I’m one of the lead designers for higher education and sustainability in our firm.
SM: Why do healthier materials matter to you?
SS: Interior design is a second career for me. I started out with a business marketing degree and worked for a health and wellness software company and loved it. Long story short, for our quarterly reviews, they asked us a series of questions but one of the questions really hit me. This was a job I had right out of college and the question they asked me was, “what is your purpose is in life”. As somebody who was freshly out of college, I was like, “This is a huge question! I am not even hitting the mark on that?” After a couple quarters of the same question, my answer never changed. I really took it to heart and wanted to figure out what exactly was my purpose in life. Through a series of conversations with friends and family and a trip to Costa Rica, I realized I really wanted to welcome people. I love welcoming people to visit, into my home or city, the hospitality piece of it. So it came down to welcoming people into spaces. We spend so much time indoors, so I finally landed on Interior Design. I knew that when looking for a program, I wanted one where it highlighted sustainable design—something forward thinking and considering of our planet and future generations. I landed on a sustainable interior design program at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. Once I got into the workforce, it’s always been a part of my voice to think about how we choose materials and why we choose them. As you know, we can have a greater impact on the spaces that we welcome people into regardless of sector. Creating these spaces has become my passion and my purpose in life.
SM: Describe your approach to materials, your process and any tools you use to inform yourself.
SS: Firm-wide, we have a couple initiatives that we’re hoping helps other designers in their process of selecting materials.
At DLR Group , we have all agreed on checking the Declare labels on products and starting there because we needed to make this easy—not only for ourselves, but to scale up. We also have the Red List Free items in our library which have a green sticker. We have Red Lists Approved items with yellow stickers. We are just starting incorporate embodied carbon stickers as well. These tools in this process are really an education piece for our own designers. A lot of young designers ask “Well where do I start?” and so we’re hoping that the healthy pantry is their starting point. We use Source and Material Bank as well. DLR Group encourages people to take the Parsons Healthy Materials Course, but not everyone can right away or maybe, you know, they’re studying for NCIDQ or other things. But we really want to make it easy. I hate to say easy but, because there’s a lot of work and it’s important, but it helps build your knowledge base and have a place to start right off the bat.
SM: What are some strategies or facts you use to advocate for healthier, more sustainable materials in your projects?
SS:We do what we call a “values exercise” with our clients. It’s an exercise that touches on a wide range of sustainable strategies as well as human focused initiatives. It addresses water, equity, it talks about health—it encompasses, a whole gamut of values. What we do with that is we narrow it down to maybe the top five values for the client. Then this way, we can use these as our North Stars for a lot of our projects. In this process we also use it as an opportunity to educate our clients on certain values. On the health values card for example, asking the client “Why is that important to you?” It helps the client pay attention and be more aware of health and wellness and how their employees or students are feeling. Through our values chart, we really use it to educate and inspire. Throughout the design process, we are constantly going back to those value cards that the client selected as their top priorities so that it really becomes part of the whole storytelling. There’s a holistic approach to the building, not just for materials, but for everything. It also allows our clients to tell those stories too, because they’ve bought in. So, it’s really creating this healthy story for the life of the project.
SM: Would you say that most clients are coming to you already with some knowledge about healthier materials or you are guiding the client towards these decisions?
It’s a little bit of both. Some clients are aware of it but maybe don’t know how to achieve it. Others may not know it exists and so that’s where we can educate them. If there are clients that don’t even care, that doesn’t stop us.
SM: Have you worked on any projects that prioritized healthy materials? What worked well and what challenges did you run into? What are some of your biggest lessons learned?
SS: At Swarthmore College, we just wrapped up Phase One which is the first net zero student dining hall in the United States. From day one, the client really wanted to, not just go for LEED, but they wanted to make it personal to the College. We ended up pursuing Living Building Challenge Petal Certification. On that project, we got to about 75% Red List Free materials which had some struggles and challenges. Again, I think just education wise, it was fun working with a Swarthmore intern because they were interested in being a part of the process. They helped make sure that we vetted all the interior products and then looked at the architectural products as well. The learning curve was a challenge for the team. So getting everyone up to speed and just knowing what you’re asking for, looking for. Having that third-party partnership, I think was really helpful as well through the process and using their database to potentially look for better products that hit our mark.
SM: Is there anything from this project that you think maybe you would do differently?
SS:I think I’d want to beat that 75%. You know, I want to keep the process going. Challenging ourselves as a team to figure out how we can go even further. We are going after achieving water, energy, and beauty petal certification on that project so there was a lot of focus in those areas. I’m really proud of the team that we still did so much for materials even though it wasn’t a petal that we were going after.
SM: Can you share some of your favorite healthy material manufacturers which we could share with our community?
SS:I really like Mohawk Carpet. Part of where my passion lies is also with biophilic strategies. I think they’ve done a really great job, marrying Red List Free with biophilic strategies. They partnered with a researcher and did a relaxation carpet line a couple years ago; it was all based on how our eye movement tracks with fractals in nature and how that can be interpreted into a pattern for carpet. The story behind that and the research I thought was really well done. It was really fun to read and understand and then inform our clients too. Interface is doing a wonderful job with carbon neutrality/carbon negative. I just like seeing what they’re doing in the industry – at least carpet and flooring.
SM: Do you have any advice for those who are currently working in the healthy building movement?
But also use that as inspiration to keep it going and keep pushing forward and spreading that word. Also reach out to each other to further education. I think education is key to get all designers as close to the same level as possible.