Q&A: Suzanne Drake, Senior Interior Designer for Perkins + Will

Suzanne Drake, senior interior designer for Perkins + Will’s San Francisco office, recently wrote a book entitled EcoSoul: Save the Planet and Yourself by ReThinking your Everyday Habits. Based on her experience as a green building professional, the knowledge and resources she has gained from implementing green design have led her to see a different view of environmental issues. She encourages other green building professionals to come up with their own personal green mission statements that can help them pursue a sustainable lifestyle. Green Building News talks to Drake about her book and how her green outlook enhances her life, both professionally and personally.

Q: In what ways does your book apply to green building?

Drake: As a professional in the green building industry, I have a lot of resources to implement green design. In the process of discovering these resources and learning what the issues are, I have gotten a very peculiar way of thinking about the world. That framework is what I try to share in the book.

While it’s not about green building directly, I think it’s more about the way of approaching the stuff in our lives. As a designer, I’m responsible for selecting the stuff that is in a building before the client moves in. When I think about making purchasing decisions, I’m constantly evaluating things way beyond how much it costs. I have a lot more criteria now because of what I have learned as a green designer.

I had my eyes opened around the idea of a lifecycle. Just imagining the thing in front of me: how did it get here and what will I do with it when I’m done? I’m a huge reader of labels now and that comes from realizing there is toxicity inherent in some building materials. We just take it for granted that when something is out on the market, it must be benign.

Q: What is the typical client like for Perkins + Will? Do they usually have green goals or do you have to persuade them to incorporate those elements? If so, how do you persuade them to do so?

Drake: We have quite a number of clients that come to us in the proposal stage and they’ll say they are seeking LEED certification. Once we’ve won the project, we discover that they don’t always know what that means. They’ll say, of course, they want healthy materials or energy efficient systems, but not if it costs more.

What that leads us to is the education of our clients. That’s a big part of my job; I look at where the client is coming from and if they are willing to actively search out and implement strategies that lead to more sustainable building. If they’re only concerned about costs, then I apply my usual stealthy green design and I just do it. If I meet my client’s goals, no explanation is needed.

Q: How do you go about educating clients that don’t really understand green building?

Drake: For that type of client, the thing that catches their attention is savings, whether it’s an initial savings or a savings over time. We can show them how a specific strategy or material choice can save them money. Making those arguments can become very time consuming, so we strategically select just a few items to pursue. We often work with the engineers and other project team consultants to show the return on investment. Based on the length of the client’s lease, we know that the investment has to be returned within that period of time or it’s not worth discussing. I’ve noticed that an eight- to ten-year ROI is the most acceptable range for most clients.

Q: What can green building professionals do in their everyday life to help enhance or change their habits to be more sustainable? In what ways can those translate to their jobs?

Drake: I applaud the move toward paperless offices. I make a big effort to keep my project files digital. Everything can be had digitally; it’s just breaking the habit of keeping the paper file. I also think paying attention to what things are made of is important. Being judicious about what you bring home or bring into your environment comes from the whole ‘What do I do with it when I’m done?’ philosophy. As an interior designer, for example, we get a lot of free stuff. But I don’t need that wine glass with the name stamp on it. It’s that kind of stuff that I can just say ‘no’ to.

Q: From your experience as an interior designer, what are key ways that you make commercial interiors more sustainable while still being cost effective?

Drake: We interface a lot with daylighting issues. So many studies have shown that daylighting is better for people and is beneficial on many levels, especially regarding productivity. I tend to be part of those conversations between the client and lighting designer or electrical engineer.

The other big one for me is looking for healthy materials. Perkins + Will created the Transparency website. We searched a lot of databases around the world for chemicals of concern and screened them for those that occur more commonly in building products. Then, we screened those for what we thought of as the worst of the worst, which are bioaccumulative and persistent substances that hang around in the air and water, or living tissue moving up the food chain. Anybody can search the site and become educated on which of these substances might be in specific categories of products. You can then ask manufacturers if they’re using that particular substance in the product you’re considering for your project. The thing that still surprises me is that a lot of times the manufacturer or sales rep doesn’t know. A lot of materials come into a factory from other suppliers, so it takes time to track down that answer.

I have created a worksheet for my firm, which summarizes the criteria you would be looking for both as a specifier, and as a specifier of green materials. There is a section for code issues, a section that summarizes the LEED credits related to indoor air quality and materials resources, and a section on human and environmental health, which references the Transparency list. A checklist is too simplistic to apply to building products, but this worksheet is the next best thing in terms of helping our designers ensure we’re tracking all of the issues.

Q: What is your personal green mission statement? And how do you apply it every day?

I believe a sustainable future for all can only be achieved through aligning one’s actions with one’s values. The book is the manifestation of my passion for teaching others what I am learning about making the world a better place. I believe there are a lot of others like me, striving to know what it is one stands for, then striving (though not always succeeding) to act on those beliefs. It is the striving that moves us closer to a sustainable future.