Good, Thoughtful Hosts #112: Interior Design Materials with Jessica Earp and Elna Albano

On this episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we chat with Cushing Terrell interior designers Jessica Earp and Elna Albano about how the materials used in buildings could be harmful to either the environment or the end user. We discuss the materials library red list, how to be a leader in healthy materials, and more. We delve into the practice of using human-friendly and environmentally-friendly materials, and how this means considering the process by which the items are made and the effects they may have once in our spaces.

Interested in learning more?

About Our Guests

Jessica Earp, NCIDQ, IIDA, LEED Green Associate

An Atlanta-native turned Seattleite, Jess was educated in interior design at Valdosta State University and Savannah College of Art and Design. She has amassed broad experience on an array of project types but currently primarily supports commercial and retail projects with a focus on workplace design. As a member of Cushing Terrell’s Green Advocacy Council, Jess is passionate about responsible, sustainable material sourcing and embedding sustainable thought, action, and education in her work.

Elna Albano

Lifelong Idahoan Elna — raised in Island Park, educated in Moscow, and currently living in Boise — is a lover of the outdoors and interior design. On behalf of Cushing Terrell, she has provided design insights to a broad spectrum of client types from healthcare providers to hotels to retailers — to her primary focus, corporate offices. She has a passion for sustainability and the environment, and is highly conscientious about the effects of design on human well-being and happiness.

Jessica Earp
Elna Albano

Episode #112 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:06
Many industries have seen a bit of a reckoning in terms of the health of their products. Think of the food industry and the Dirty Dozen list that appeared years ago. It outlines which produce soaked in more pesticides and other chemicals that can be detrimental to the consumer’s health. Or think of the fashion industry where consumers are getting wise to whether the materials are bad for the environment, or if the labor used in the production process is harmful to the individuals involved. I’m Sarah Steimer and on today’s episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we’re discussing how more interior designers are starting to think about the materials used in buildings. And whether those could be harmful to either the environment or the end user. It’s considering the process by which the items are made, and what effect it could have on our and the planet’s health.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guests.

Jessica Earp 01:19
My name is Jessica Earp, and I’m an interior designer with kitchen Terrell out of our Seattle Washington office.

Elna Albano 01:25
And hello, my name is Elna Albano, and I am also an interior designer. But I am based out of our Boise, Idaho, office.

Sarah Steimer 01:34
Well, thank you both so much for joining us today. I’m super excited to talk about this, because there’s a lot here that I don’t know much about, which makes it way more exciting for me. Of course, before we kind of jump into the Q&A, we’re gonna actually talk about sort of the journey of all of this, I just wanted to get a better idea of what exactly we are talking about when we refer to material health, as it relates to interior design. And Elna, I’ll start with you.

Elna Albano 02:02
Material health and interior design are inextricably linked. So if you think about how many things go into a new building, both on the inside and outside, but of course, we’re a little more well versed on the interior of the building. And when you think about a new building, or a building that’s being remodeled or renovated on the inside, all those finishes and materials and decor items. And the whole nine yards, right, are all new things that come from raw materials at one point or another and then are installed into the building. So when you think about a building that has anywhere from 500, to numerous millions of square feet, that can be a lot of products and a lot of new things. So something that we think a lot about in the sustainability and material health realm of the interior design industry is how the scale of that happens, to the quantity of materials. But we also think about the quality. And so something that’s really important is how the materials are contributing to the building occupants’ health and well being. So there’s a lot of different factors that tie into material health. So short answer is the health of the materials themselves, and then also how they directly contribute to the health and well being of the building occupants.

Sarah Steimer 03:25
Got it that was super helpful. And that was really gonna be my next question was, you know, who is affected by this? And it is both the environment and individuals themselves users of the space, of course. So let’s talk about the journey that you guys have been on, because I know that’s really sort of what’s interesting here is, you know, you’re kind of at the beginning right now. And as such, you’ve begun internally. So let’s talk about what you’ve been doing with the material libraries. And Jess, I’ll I’ll punt that question to you.

Jessica Earp 03:55
Yeah, thank you, Sarah, as you said, this sustainability journey that we are on as a firm is a big hurdle to tackle. There’s lots of different facets and areas that we can dive into to make a difference. But one of those big ones starts right inside of our offices and our materials libraries and design labs. A big part of our job as interior designers is specifying materials, finishes, fabrics, furnishings, anything you can think of that happens inside of a building. And it’s easy to lose sight of how much power and influence we hold in that role, we have the ability to positively impact spaces, and therefore those people are clients and end users that occupy those spaces through those specifications. So the best way to start this huge hurdle is with our own libraries, the more that we can control what comes into our design labs and libraries, the more we can control what specifications go out and our drawing sets. So the journey starts there.

Sarah Steimer 04:57
So let’s talk about some examples. Then you know, when it comes to parsing through what you have, what you need to get rid of, what do you want to bring in? You know, what, what does that look like exactly when you started to change some of those specifications, change what you wanted to happen, that sift through that library, if you will.

Jessica Earp 05:15
That’s something that we have struggled with a good bit. There are some amazing resources out there in our industry, tons of different jurisdictional groups, organizations and material health labels out there, it’s kind of overwhelming, it feels like a maze to sort through and sift through. So it’s really about identifying what matters most. And for us, that’s the red list. So the red list is a building materials list put out by the International Living Future Institute, and that identify as worst-in-class materials. So those things that pose the greatest risks to human health, and also to the greater ecosystem. So really, that’s where we start is removing those items as ingredients, if you will, from our materials.

Sarah Steimer 06:01
I’m glad you actually just mentioned the word ingredients, because what just kind of popped into my head was, I don’t know if you guys remember the big news around when they created the Dirty Dozen for fruits and vegetables, which were the ones that would maybe soak in the chemicals that farmers were using the most and affect us the most. So that’s, this is immediately making me think of that Dirty Dozen, this red list that you’re talking about. So can you give me an example of something that maybe has made it to, let’s say, the top of the Red List?

Jessica Earp 06:31
Yes, absolutely. And that’s a perfect analogy, it’s we can think of these just like ingredients, something that you would eat or avoid eating, it’s kind of a similar, similar idea. So big one is vinyl. So vinyl shows up in all sorts of our finishes throughout interior projects. And I mean, it’s not good for anybody involved, it’s highly toxic, the process of extruding, it is toxic, the off gassing that it creates is toxic. So we really want to try and pinpoint that ingredient, if you will, and remove it from our specifications.

Sarah Steimer 07:04
Yeah, that’s not great news for someone who has like a significant number of records in her apartment. So I’ll get there, I’ll get there. So let’s, let’s also kind of move on a little bit to how you guys are trying to be leaders. As far as this goes, and Elna, all of the work that you guys are doing now, how can this help move the needle for other businesses that you interact with? Or other people in the design community? You know, how are you guys really trying to lead the charge here?

Elna Albano 07:32
Yeah, thank you, Sarah. That’s a great question. This is really interesting. And this is something that Jess and I were discussing a little bit as we were getting prepared to record this episode with you. As we mentioned earlier, Jess is in Seattle, and I am in Boise, in Idaho. And so it’s been an interesting process, as she and I and some of our other colleagues have been working together, pushing our sustainability libraries and knowledge forward. And with that, really going through and pulling out our materials library. So I wanted to provide a little bit of just like context in cultural differences as we move this discussion forward, too. So for example, Jess and her lovely team in the Seattle office have really had a bit of an easier time quite honestly, getting some of these, for example, vinyl out of their library. So they have a completely vinyl-free materials library, which is incredible. So they’re able to communicate that with their product reps when they’re bringing new things in and just say, like, don’t even cross the threshold with any vinyl products, we just don’t want them in our library. And so that’s fantastic, and has been quite honestly easier for them to achieve, then that sort of thing is here in our Boise, Idaho, office. And the reason that that is, is that we are still, at the end of the day, a really client-driven industry. What that means for the sustainability aspect of things, And material health portion, is that a lot of clients are really not thinking about this sort of thing in our local Boise, Idaho, market. So they’re not thinking as much about material health or about the toxicity of vinyl products or the off-gassing of paint and other materials and things like that. So for us, particularly in our Boise office, we are really trying to be thought leaders in our area and move this initiative forward primarily by educating our clients about these topics. And so rather than just kind of going with the status quo, and for example, if a client is really looking for a budget-friendly option for a hard surface flooring, we try to steer them away from vinyl flooring products, which are typically what’s used because they are at a really good price point. They’re readily available, and most of them look really nice. So rather than just allowing our clients to see that we’re trying to push back a little bit on things like that and educate them and help them understand why it is worth looking at some of these different and better materials. So a good alternative for a vinyl tile would be a linoleum, which is is completely natural, made of natural materials and doesn’t have those negative properties that Jess was talking about earlier. So I think the main thing for us right now, and it varies by market and region, but for us in Boise, it’s really the idea of being knowledgeable resources for our clients and pushing back on them a little bit when they’re interested in just going with the grain. And we’re interested in going against the grain because this is something that we really believe in and really aligns with our core values, not only as Cushing Terrell, but also specifically for Jess and I as people. And as designers.

Sarah Steimer 10:33
I was actually gonna ask, and you know, this, this question goes for both of you, you know, on a personal level, was there anything as you were doing this research and learning about some of these different materials that you kind of had to turn around and say, Oh, I gotta get this out of my own home, I didn’t realize that this was an item that wasn’t really great, you know, was there anything that kind of changed and jumped out at either of you?

Elna Albano 10:53
Yeah, I think I’ll kind of jump in first, just a couple of months ago, I actually had a small flood in my apartment. And although it didn’t really seem small at the time, of course, then all the flooring had to be ripped out and had to be replaced. And I just so happen to have vinyl flooring in my apartment. And unfortunately, it’s not something that I have too much control over as a renter. But it was really interesting, because we have been talking so much about this sort of thing internally. And it made me think about alternatives. And truthfully, how the people who are in charge of those newer products going into spaces are the ones who have that control. And it was an interesting role switch for myself as a renter, not having that control, when in reverse in my professional life, I am the person who is exerting that control or being able to put in that educated piece to keep things like that out of other people’s faces where they’re working and living.

Sarah Steimer 11:55
Yeah, I mean, that really speaks to the thought leadership piece of this to where it’s like maybe on an individual level, like you’re saying, as a renter, there’s maybe not as much that you can do. But you know, even just working in the industry doing what you’re doing, creating that red list for your own clients, you know, that, of course makes a huge difference. Jess, have you personally noticed anything, either in your home or office or anything like that, we were like, Oh, wow, I didn’t realize that that had an impact?

Jessica Earp 12:18
You know, nothing that I can specifically point out as far as like construction or interiors, materials-related. But I will say that when this kind of thought change happens, and you shift your perspective and make this a priority, it kind of trickles across all areas of your life, it makes you think twice before buying something. And single-use plastic, for example, or, for me, great example, I was born and raised in Atlanta, and there is not a huge composting program in that city. So being somewhat new to Seattle, to be really frank, I wasn’t composting when I first moved in to my first Seattle apartment. And then learning about all of this really makes you rethink those choices and think about your personal impact and your personal abilities as a consumer to make more sustainable choices. Seattle as a city makes it really easy to do things like compost. And so that’s been something that has become a huge part of my life. And I must say, you know, again, Seattle makes it easy, but just that little shift in thought is definitely influenced by the work that we do in our practice.

Sarah Steimer 13:23
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that that also makes me think about things like fast fashion, things like that, where you know, what’s not only good for you, good for the environment, good for people who are creating the product, and so forth, as well. So the last thing I wanted to talk about today, and we don’t have to get too too deep into it. But you guys mentioned the last time that we spoke before we recorded this, that there is something called a Design for Freedom group, if I’m getting that correct, and you can correct me if I’m wrong. But tell me a little bit more about what that consists of and what the goals are there.

Elna Albano 13:56
So Design for Freedom is a really fantastic program. And it’s something that actually just and myself and a couple other of our colleagues within Cushing Terrell, it was brought to our attention when we had the opportunity to attend a conference. It was actually Design for Freedom’s first annual summit in New Canaan, Connecticut, at a place called Grace Farms. In short, what Design for Freedom is is it’s really a grassroots movement that is geared toward first minimizing but eventually eliminating forced and slave labor in the construction industry. So just for like a couple of quick numbers, there are almost 30 million people worldwide held in forced labor. And a lot of those people, the vast majority are people who are already in marginalized communities or live in countries where their rights are just kind of diminished, typically speaking anyway. So Design for Freedom is really on the forefront of this anti-slave labor initiative, which is a pretty new thing, right? One of the things that we discuss a lot in this conference, and I’m learning more about this initiative, was the fact that like you were mentioning earlier, Sarah, we all know how bad chemicals and pesticides and things in our food are for us. And we can vote with our dollars around things like that. And one great similarity that can be drawn is, for example, the chocolate industry, where they have their PR crisis, where we all found out that so much cocoa is harvested using forced and slave labor. And we as consumers decided that we weren’t okay with that. And once that information came to light, we were all able to say, No, we’re only going to purchase Fairtrade chocolate, we’re only going to purchase chocolate that is not taking advantage of people. So that’s something that the construction and design industry has not faced, yet, we have not had our PR crisis. And therefore a lot of people are still able to pretty easily cast a blind eye to the epidemic of slave labor in our industry. And this slave labor really starts from the source, from the extraction of raw materials all over the world, and moves down into the production of those materials and everything. And this is really for things all the way from carpet tiles to bricks that we use and implement in our building projects every single day, and on a huge scale. So as kind of the honorary consumers, interior designers are really able to have a giant impact in this realm of things and make sure that we’re trying to be aware of this and specify materials that don’t have slave or forced labor. And like I mentioned, this is a really new grassroots effort, it’s pretty much just becoming something that people are thinking about and becoming aware of. So what we are trying to do internally at Cushing Terrell is just create more awareness by speaking to our product manufacturing reps, and telling this story to them, and hopefully getting them interested and excited about it as well. And then we’re hoping that those products and manufacturer reps will be able to kind of take this information further up their line of control and influence so that we can start to make an impact. And it’s one of those things that no matter how small, the impact is still gonna be really positive.

Sarah Steimer 17:26
That’s great. And that’s, that’s, you know, really moving back in this journey even further. You know, we talked about starting the journey with materials library, but this goes back to the source even more. Of course, we all know the the more you go to the source, the better things are going to be for everyone else down the line, everyone else down that journey. Well, thank you both for spending a little bit of time with me today to chat about this, I’m going to make sure that we put a link to get a little bit more information about this Design for Freedom in the show notes so that folks can check out a little bit more if they’re interested. But was there anything else that you guys wanted to mention before we go ahead and close up our conversation today?

Jessica Earp 18:08
One thing that I just want to quickly touch on is kind of circling back to the material library effort that we’re undergoing. Well, this is very much a huge challenge that we’re up against. There are some really great partners that we’re working with to overcome this challenge. And one of those is Mindful Materials. They’re an online database that creates an aggregated collection of information that we can pull data from to learn more about material ingredients. And then another one is Material Bank. They’re a sampling tool online that we can use to consolidate the number of samples and the boxes and packaging that we procure as we’re specifying materials. Both of those are really great tools that we’ve been using. And they’re helping us to reduce these terrible negative ingredients out of our libraries.

Sarah Steimer 18:58
Awesome. I love a resource. I wish I had more stuff like that just when I do like regular shopping, but I’m sure it probably exists. I’m just not looking hard enough. But thank you. Thank you both so much, once again for taking some time to talk. And hopefully we’ll be able to continue this conversation further down the line as things progress and as, you know, the organization and everyone else keeps moving on all this.

Jessica Earp 19:22
Yeah. Thank you so much, Sarah.

Elna Albano 19:23
Thank you, Sarah. This was wonderful.

Producer 19:32
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold, and a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening

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