We all know that an architect can help make a home more energy efficient, but can an interior designer make an impact, too? An architect, technician or builder will focus on the thermal design, such as the building materials, walls, ceilings, floors and building orientation or site situation. However, interior designers can improve their decisions and propose interior alterations that consider the home’s overall energy efficiency, especially as these are things the home user experiences daily, impacting their lifestyle and living habits.
As I work on sizeable full refurbishment projects, I’ll almost always propose changes that make a home more energy efficient. Still, for designers who don’t, it is worth considering the energy-related aspects each time you start designing. Also, if you’re thinking of making some DIY upgrades, this will guide you in the changes you can make if your home still feels cold, even though it meets code requirements.
Of course, how warm a house feels and how much energy is used varies and relies on various factors (not to mention the time of day and whether you’re active or sedentary). Still, the following list focuses on interior design decisions worth considering whenever making any alterations, including decorating decisions for any home. Some are more obvious than others, but remember that your home works as a holistic unit. If one area is weak, it will have a knock-on effect, as they all play their part in making a home more energy-efficient.
NB: When you think about the impact interior designers have to make a home more energy efficient, this really is just scratching the surface. Interior design courses don’t venture into this area, so it can be hard to find this type of knowledge. In comparison, our interior design mentorship provides practical, hands-on training expanding on real-life knowledge pushing beyond the patterns and fabrics (although we cover that too!) If you’re an interior designer who is just starting out or if you’ve been in business for a while, have a look at our mentorship program 90 Days To A Freelance Life.
Designing a house layout regarding an open plan versus a broken plan are space assessments that interior designers make daily. I love open-plan living, but to stay warm and use less energy in our home, we decided against opening up the layout but widened the entrance doors between spaces to give the feeling of openness instead.
This allowed us to close the doors and keep spaces separate in winter and during colder days so that the heat stayed in the rooms we were using rather than heating the whole house unnecessarily (especially as we preferred the rooms upstairs to be cooler anyway).
Making a conscious decision about which activities are best for each room depending on their orientation to natural daylight might be something you can consider when remodelling. Homeowners usually use the room for the purpose it was named on the plan, but this isn’t always the right way to use a space. For example, if you spend a lot of time at home working or looking after the family during the day, being in the darkest, coldest part of your home might not be the right use of space, even if that space is labelled “the living room” or “kitchen” etc.
I positioned my office in our house’s smallest, warmest room and was grateful for it every day. So, being susceptive to these nuances of how we use space and where it’s situated regarding daylight, noise, winds, neighbours, and warmth can make a home more energy efficient by helping the occupants use the space more efficiently.
Instead of feeling forced to use the spaces in your home as a previous owner or builder set them, think about transforming the use of a room to work for your current lifestyle. Don’t be forced by an existing plan (it might not be very good!) Maybe the living room should be on the opposite side of the house? You must consider it as a designer and feel confident proposing these changes in the right situations.
When I graduated from architecture school, I enjoyed living in Norway, working with an architect and helping renovate my best friend’s apartment. Coming from Australia, I was obsessed with understanding how the Norwegians stayed warm in an eco-friendly way without heating all the time. I learned a few tricks from the Norwegians, but two of my favourites are a) to create an airlock by the front door and b) if you can’t create an airlock, use a heavy curtain to stop the air pushing through the house instead.
When I moved to England, I found that most entrance halls were removed entirely or never designed into the plan in the first place, exacerbating the problem of cold drafts entering the house through the cracks around and letterboxes in the front door. Even though our house was considered a new build, we found that our house was constantly freezing and drafty because the air was being sucked outside (even though the door was closed). To keep the main parts of the house warm (or cool, depending on the season), we added a door to our entrance hall, creating an “air lock”, which reduced the need for extra heating and cooling in more extreme weather.
A rear conservatory can work as an airlock between the main house and an open-plan living space to the rear, and a lesser-used room can work as a buffer in certain situations, too.
One of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen is a traditional Japanese house with paper walls. I visited it in the middle of winter when it was minus 20 degrees Celsius, and snow was piled two meters high on all sides. It was freezing outside, but this beautiful paper house was kept warm with one central fireplace. The walls were designed with sliding paper walls, an inner layer and an outer layer (almost like a veranda all the way around), trapping air between the layers.
In our home, we invested in shutters (although blinds, curtains, or drapes will work with suitable material and fabric). This technique can make windows and doors more thermally efficient by trapping air between the glass and window treatment. During the cold winter months, we would close up the shutters, and they helped to keep the room warm by protecting the weakest link – the window. You can do this for the opposite reason, too. If direct sunlight is beaming on your windows and there are no external blinds or awnings, closing the shutters, blinds, or curtains will help create that separation required to keep the inside cool.
This is common sense for many, although they can’t explain why it works technically. The right window treatments can make a home more energy efficient because windows are less thermally efficient than the walls. Hence, creating an extra layer with blinds or curtains to trap air in between creates an insulation layer, as the Japanese house did. The key to making this work successfully, however, is to ensure that you don’t place the window coverings too close to the window. Think air gap! The Japanese house had a one-meter space between the paper walls.
Interior designers can make a home more energy efficient by intentionally specifying surfaces. Think about a wall of cupboards, panelling/wainscotting, or other great acoustic wall treatments that look great but also combine to add a layer of building material that can seal the air leaks and make a space warmer or cooler.
In our little three-bedroom, the kitchen faced due East and was the only room that received light on the ground floor at a useful time. For this reason, I emphasised the light by adding high gloss white finishes to the cabinets, which meant that the daylight that streamed in (if only for a few hours or minutes each day) was amplified and bounced around the rooms deeper into the kitchen and living spaces. That kitchen always felt bright, no matter how grey it was outside. It really made a difference, and I loved it.
We also built full-height panelling to some of the rooms, giving the spaces a focal point, better acoustics and separating us and our neighbours. So don’t forget that your wall finishes can work alongside your thermal elements (outside walls) to make a home more energy efficient.
Finishes are where our expertise lies as interior designers, so it is unsurprising that if we can make a difference with the walls, we can make an impact with our ceiling and floor finishes, too.
Also, the edges and what happens behind the surfaces make a difference, too. The designed layers play a part, so think about how a floor or ceiling is fixed or stuck down, its substrate, or what is placed on top. Detailing the edges and ensuring high workmanship will also improve airtightness across that design element.
Carpets, rugs, and ceiling decorations are the final layer. In our home, we put solid timber floors on the ground floor and carpets upstairs. The upstairs rooms felt warm and cosy with the carpet, helping with acoustics and visual warmth. Downstairs, we added rugs to the hardwood floors, layering finishes on top, and small pieces to make up the holistic puzzle.
Lighting technology and home automation directly influence energy consumption regarding artificial lighting design and specification. Upgrading and replacing bulbs can make a home more energy-efficient, but you don’t specifically need an interior designer for that. However, regulations are constantly changing, and interior designers keep abreast of lighting and blub technology, home automation or integration, and how lighting technology can work holistically.
In 2003, the UK regulations for energy-efficient lighting changed. Halogen lights are banned, and incandescent lighting must only be used in specialist applications. This new law can feel confusing because it was only a few years ago that we all replaced our lighting with the latest LED technology to use LED bulbs. Still, this regulation lowered the rating of all low-energy LED lighting to F, even though months earlier, they were A-rated. This recent change doesn’t mean our lights are less efficient. It means that we can improve our energy usage and rating as technology develops.
Lighting technology is where interior designers can propose more appropriate low-energy decisions, creating fantastic, beautiful and functional spaces.
Think about your lifestyle habits for a moment. Do you love movie nights and have multiple flat-screen TVs? Do you love that gas-burning stove or Aga burning in the background? Personally, I love tea! Between me and my husband working from home with staff, we can easily boil a kettle more than twenty times a day.
Any electrical items that generate heat from using them (think computers, lights, vacuum cleaners etc.) are wasting energy. Investing in up-to-date technology is something that an interior designer can propose, especially as we are expected to know about the most up-to-date furniture, fittings and equipment. Clients often come to us with requests, some of which might be trendy and others wasteful, but we know what’s trendy and what is a great long-term decision, as well as what will make an impact in your specific situation to make a home more energy efficient.
Most homeowners don’t think about how the heating or cooling systems impact their lifestyle; they turn it on and pay the bill, thinking that they don’t have any influence, but an interior designer can suggest more appropriate solutions that can work holistically across a home taking into consideration your specific needs.
For many reasons (predominantly the cost), upgrading radiators and mechanical ventilation units doesn’t make the top list when people are renovating. Keep in mind that the installed radiators or AC units and heating systems are likely to meet the bare minimum requirements. In that case, it’s worth considering how they can make a big difference in making a home more energy efficient.
Thinking outside of the box is a designer’s speciality. We can guide homeowners to consider solar technology, mechanical and electrical ventilation such as MVHR units, and ground source heat pumps, all of which can make a home more energy efficient.
The quality of the windows, their size and orientation were the sole reason I disliked our home. Our house faced due-west and had teeny tiny windows, meaning it had no natural daylight during the day, so it was always cold, increasing the need to have the lights on all day and heat unnecessarily. In the afternoon, the hot sun beamed in at eye level, making the living room unusable, requiring us to close the shutters and keep the light out (which was absurd since I had complained about not having sunlight all day!)
This is an architectural problem, but most homeowners won’t hire an architect to look at the windows as part of a simple home improvement work so an interior designer can propose suitable changes, which in turn triggers the need to hire an architect and improve the situation and make a home more energy efficient.
Although we couldn’t do much about the sunlight and orientation, upgrading our double-glazed windows to triple-glazing made a little difference in keeping our house warm (also, using large mirrors internally helped us reflect any sunlight we did get inside by creating fake windows). According to the EPC calculations, when we started selling our home, we found that the triple glazing hadn’t made any difference. Still, from a home user perspective, even if, according to an EPC, our triple-glazed windows didn’t make a difference, I can say it made a massive difference for us.
In every home, each window’s quality, size, and orientation must be considered, whether for a new build or a simple refurbishment. An excellent interior designer will always consider these and suggest improvement, even if it is outside of their remit to design the thermal envelope; they can analyse their impact on the internal environment and make a proposal that an architect can develop. Of course, most interior designers wouldn’t then undertake that work, and the client will need an architect (or experienced builder to submit regulation drawings ).
An interior designer can make a home more energy-efficient in so many ways. We intertwine our technical knowledge with functionality, making interior spaces beautiful and better regarding natural daylight, feeling, air quality, use and function, and flow, and then we expertly tie it all together with materials, enhancing the overall design holistically. These are only a few ways an interior designer can help make a home more energy efficient. If you want to read more about what an interior designer does. Have a read of this post called: What Do Interior Designers Really Do.
If you’re a designer, tell me about what changes you have proposed that made a difference for a client below.