Mood board of Laura Ryan’s ImPossible House, a sustainable home.

6 Interior Design Tips for an Off-grid, Sustainable Home with Full Wow

So I want to build a 100% off-grid, sustainable home. But I want it to be inner-city cool, without a hint of hippie log cabin. And my interior designer Denby Dowling is going to help make it happen.

When someone says “sustainable home”, what comes to mind? A dank, mud-walled hut? A treehouse? A tiny house? Echoey shipping containers? Domed earth-ship?

Each of these options has their virtues and their devotees – no judgement from me! But a lot of home owners will run a million miles in the other direction at the thought of living in one. And I’m actually trying to get those people to run in MY direction, towards sustainable house design. So here’s how I’m doing my bit to change the “design” image of off-grid homes (or lack thereof) – against the odds.

Mood board of sustainable home concepts for an Australian heritage workers cottage

Challenges, I have a few 

So far, my ImPossible House has been one massive trial-and-error experience. No part of my build has been, or is going to be easy. Certainly not the interior design. 

I want to challenge the stereotype that being green is daggy, I want to remove that stigma. I want my eco-friendly home to be sustainable, but I don’t want it to look sustainable. I want it to look custom-designed, equal if not better looking than the homes my colleagues live in.

I want a designer home with a timeless and enduring feel. 

I want it to be beautiful, and reflect my personal style. I’m really into colour, so I have briefed my designer Denby to create lush and effusive interior design, with eye-catching wallpaper, beautiful furnishings, and state-of-the-art appliances. 

What I’m going for is a green home that people will visit without ever knowing it’s off-grid. I want to host dinner parties where people compliment me on my exquisite decor, not my incinerator toilet. The ImPossible House is about proving that the “impossible” is actually quite possible, including interiors that tick the sustainable boxes.

To add to the challenge list, this project has to be replicable by the average Jill and Jack all over the world. I need the cost of this renovation to be on par with that of any renovation of a similar-sized, comparable house. 

Denby Dowling’s mood board of beautiful and affordable interior design for Laura’s sustainable home.

6 tips for going green in your interior design

Here they are… I hope these tips help you create internal and external spaces that are every bit as tasteful as anything you drool over in design mags.

  1. Find the right interior designer

Easier said than done, right? I looked at a lot of websites and spoke to quite a few people before I found my person.

I am choosing to work with Denby Dowling because aesthetically, I love her work. (I mean, who wouldn’t?)  But just as importantly, she is as passionate about sustainable house design as I am. I throw a lot of constraints at Denby, and her solutions and ideas are always creative and gorgeous. 

If you are looking to build a sustainable home, find a designer who will collaborate with you and who “gets” your vision. This will make things a whole lot easier.  

Any building professional you hire needs to be prepared to put in the time. Real sustainability requires research. You’ll both need to pore over mags and samples and brochures. Make the calls, check the facts. Your designer has to care as much about the project as you do.

As a starting point, I suggest you ask lots of questions! Ask your designer to provide you with information that supports suppliers’ sustainability claims. In my case, Denby always goes that extra mile to answer my (probably very annoying) questions about the green credentials of her suppliers. 

Warning bells should go off if answers are vague or tentative.   

  1. Outline your standards

Compromising on your dreams and ideals — isn’t it awesome

Yeah, nah. But compromise is necessary. 

Every custom home build or renovation has goals and standards that matter to you, and your first step in the sustainable house design process should literally be making a list of them.

Then decide what you’re willing to compromise on and what you’re not. Every project will require you to negotiate some or all of them because of budget or other restrictions. 

One of your goals might be for all the materials you use to be recycled, for instance. But maybe you’re willing to compromise and opt for sustainably sourced and manufactured materials, when recycled materials aren’t available. (This was one of my compromises with the ImPossible House.) 

One of my “no-compromise” tenets is not to use any new concrete. Include all your “no-compromise” objectives in your contract. 

  1. Make a mood board 
Denby Dowling’s mood board of beautiful and affordable interior design for Laura’s sustainable home.

This can be a physical board on your wall, a Pinterest board, or a concept folder where you collect images and articles that inspire you and reflect your vision, in terms of both aesthetics and sustainability. A mood board gives your designer a solid starting point.

When I first hired Denby, I started a Pinterest account and shared it with her. Not only did that give her a really good idea of what I like, but I had fun dreaming about what my home would end up looking like (it’s a bit of a dump at the moment!). 

  1. Be savvy

There’s a lot of hyperbole and a lack of transparency when it comes to sustainable home building. Many materials seem the real deal at first, but when you look deeper into the sourcing or manufacturing, the story is murky. For example, you may find out that your renewable bamboo lumber is covered in a synthetic finish, or your terrazzo floor is held together by toxic glue. 

Some vendors label their products “green” but don’t actually know or share their sourcing and processing. Transparency is key in buying actual sustainable building materials. Don’t take the suppliers at face-value, don’t get suckered by green washing. Ask for information and supply tracing. 

(Stay tuned…we’re going to post a blog listing commonly greenwashed materials and actual green materials soon.) 

  1. Source locally when possible

For all kind of reasons – from saving carbon miles to supporting makers in my community – I’m trying to source as many products locally as I can. I’m also avoiding mass production because often the energy consumption far exceeds that of a hand-made product, (i.e., factoring in factories, transport). 

It’s also much more difficult to get the full run-down of all the key inputs, e.g.

  • Where did the fabric come from?
  • Was it made in a sweat shop?
  • Is it going to emit toxic chemicals?
  • Is the wood contributing to deforestation? 
Denby Dowling’s mood board of beautiful and affordable interior decoration for Laura’s sustainable home.

I don’t have the time to track down the source of every single item used in the production of say the new couch I want to buy. But if I talk to the local vendor I have a much greater chance of understanding the full life cycle of whatever I am purchasing

If you can’t buy local look for green certification! 

You can find a list of vendors we like and use at the bottom of my interior design webpage.

And I’ll say it again, wherever you can, recycle! However… green appliances are the exception to the recycle rule.

Old appliances are less likely to be energy efficient. Instead of retrofitting, buy new energy-rated refrigerators, ovens, and washers, and drop your old ones at a recycling facility. Denby and I are currently in the process of finding energy star performers right now. I might blog about that later.

  1. Talk to your local council 

Most city councils are beginning to adopt sustainable practices and will go out of their way to support your sustainable home project. Along those lines, I’d like to give a shout out to Sydney’s Inner West Council – Australia’s most progressive council. (I can’t really justify that claim with any official standing – just my humble opinion 😉)

One day we’ll be able to publish photos of my sustainable home – that makes me very excited. For now, you can read more about Denby’s ideas for my interiors here.

Oh, and one final consideration that you might be wondering about…

Can a prefab house be a sustainable home?

Yes, definitely. I’ll be blogging about my prefab home in a future post. Meanwhile, you can read a summary on my building & design page.

 

Can You Avoid Greenwashing In Building & Design Supplies?

Also yes! Look out for this blog too! Coming soon.