Designing Multifamily for the Greater Good

Spending the last year in our homes has given us the opportunity to reflect on more environmentally friendly design, explains Elliot March of MAWD.
Elliot March

Over the past year, our homes turned into offices, schools, day cares, gyms and restaurants, which has made us rethink how our spaces are both laid out and furnished. As the most important and versatile space in our lives, shouldn’t it align directly with our values?

Spending the last year in our homes has given us the opportunity to reflect more closely on our spaces, the materials we use and to begin considering a simpler, cleaner and more environmentally friendly design.

For several years, there has been a growing desire to adopt a new level of environmental consciousness—opting for more sustainable products and being more intentional in reducing waste and our carbon footprint. According to IBM Research, 6 in 10 consumers are willing to shop differently in order to reduce their environmental impact—and more than 70 percent would be willing to pay a premium in order to do so.

These growing needs are reflected in the rise of the “circular economy,” which offers alternative ways to attain products like renting them and buying pre-owned goods, which the IBM study found nearly 8 out of 10 Gen Zers and Millennials have bought.

And let’s be clear: consciously sustainable design doesn’t need to sacrifice luxury or aesthetic. Even though we are becoming more environmentally conscious, we can still create beautiful, unique spaces without sacrificing the environment.

Designers today must become more conscious about the materials and processes involved in creating or refurbishing homes. Not only can this open up a world of new possibilities and solutions, but we should want to create a better product by including sustainable materials and processes throughout construction.

Until recently, the lack of demand meant that those searching for a way to reduce their footprint in this space had limited options, but the world is undeniably trending towards sustainability. However, the alternative products we have found are incredibly beautiful and durable.

Sustainable elements

ClayLime—an environmentally friendly plaster made from sedimentary rock—is just as durable and vibrant as traditionally used materials. Piñatex, a pioneering leather substitute made from pineapple leaf fiber, provides a more humane and sustainable leather alternative while providing pineapple farmers in the Philippines with an additional source of income.

Innovative products like Vondom’s “Revolution” furniture pieces made entirely from recycled plastics are growing in popularity and so is Valchromat, a colored wood fiber board made from forest waste, residue from timber mills and recycled pine. Then there’s Altrock’s stunning terrazzo surfaces that are made from reclaimed byproducts of natural stone.

The processes through which products are manufactured and the effects that certain materials can have on climate change is important to be aware of, too, but buyers seldom think about its impact when buying a piece of furniture. The shift in our purchasing power must happen on an individual level and be advocated by designers and developers who are choosing these products.

Many of these materials are still under the radar, but incorporating them into new multifamily units could make a significant environmental impact on our individual and collective carbon footprint.

Meeting environmental demand

According to CBRE, development will remain robust in 2021 and multifamily investment volume is expected to increase in 2021. The time to adopt this sustainable mindset in the most critical space in our lives is now, and not just the construction of the building.

Beyond LEED standards, the property and design sectors are well behind other industries in responding to environmental and consumer demand. By factoring this into the building process, the industry could create forward-thinking spaces that take sustainability from an after-thought to an integral piece of the design jigsaw puzzle, and, ultimately, anticipate the needs of the future client and end user.

We also know that global consumer brands that ignore sustainability as an issue can compromise their reputation and even increase their business risk. A Deutsche Bank report revealed that companies that received positive press regarding climate change saw share price outperformance of 26 percent per year over the MSCI World index. The reverse was true for those companies who got bad press regarding their approach to sustainability.

We need to make change in our direct line of sight first—that’s where we wake up, where we eat, where we work and where we play. The investment is worth it.

Everyone has a role in effecting change, and we can all play our part by living our values in practice and not just in theory, and that can start with the spaces we create and live in.


Elliot March is a founding partner of March and White Design (MAWD) and oversees the New York and Los Angeles studios.