A few weeks ago on an early March morning, I logged on to my laptop and saw something I never thought I’d see: There, front and center on the New York Times homepage, was an animation of building ventilation. The focus? “Why Opening Windows Is a Key to Reopening Schools.” I did a double take. Most often, discussions about building science are buried in a design magazine’s technology or products column or discussed under the context of LEED certification, perhaps. Yet here it was, on a major paper’s homepage, showcasing a larger opportunity for interiors professionals.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has sparked widespread concern about health and wellness in homes, offices, schools, hospitals and the many other spaces that house our daily lives. This is a good thing for sustainable design as many health strategies and interventions can naturally lead to additional sustainable strategies and benefits. Now is the time to talk about sustainability outside of the lens of “green design.”

By talking about the importance of fresh air circulation in the context of reopening schools, the New York Timesmade a techy topic relatable under the lens of how to achieve something that is a core concern of many parents, regardless of their profession. Space planning, finish and material selection, and air filtration and circulation take on new meaning when framed in the context of whether it might help reduce virus transmission and protect your kid in their classroom or your client in their return to the shared office.

Another tactic deployed by the New York Times was making a complex concept easily and visually accessible. As a communications professional, I love a good infographic or diagram that can easily break down a subject to its core concept. The New York Times did this by showing air flow—and virus transmission—in a classroom.

As COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out and we increasingly discuss how to safely repopulate spaces that have been largely empty for more than a year, conversations and accessible visualizations around how interiors can protect occupant health could lead to more fruitful discussions around how sustainable strategies can improve many different aspects of daily life. Discussions around materials and finishes could explore not just anti-microbial properties to address pandemic-sparked cleaning concerns, but also open room for conversations around VOCs, indoor environmental quality, and links to occupant comfort, health, and productivity. Could discussions about increasing interior flexibility to better support hoteling or staggered work schedules also spark conversations about occupancy sensors to reduce unnecessary utility use and produce lower utility bills? Could they spark an opportunity to explore design strategies that allow spaces to be repurposed during periods of low occupancy to better support the larger community by becoming flexible hubs for, say, rapid testing centers or vaccinations?

Of course, rating systems like LEED and the Living Building Challenge have been successfully linking these elements for years. But can design be having more conversations outside of the lens of a certification or a sustainability-focused conversation? Absolutely. The benefits of sustainable design strategies such as cleaner and more fresh air, lower utility bills, more comfortable homes and offices, healthier schools and community centers—well, we collectively deserve and need them all in as many spaces as possible, not just those pursuing a plaque. Could discussions of post-pandemic life—and the spaces in which we live it—be the shot in the arm that sustainability needs to break out of its green silo? Let’s find out.

Photo by Charles Forerunner on Unsplash