Notes from the Field Station: How to Furnish a Living Building

27 Apr

As the final touches are put on the exterior of the building, the interior becomes the next great challenge of the Bechtel Environmental Classroom project. I had the opportunity to ask Lorin Starr, of Lorin Starr Interiors, the interior design firm working on the project, about her experiences in the design world and her work on the current project.

How do you furnish a living building?

Lorin Starr Interiors is an Amherst based firm providing interior design services for commercial and institutional clients, specializing in educational facilities. Lorin has experience working with Smith, with past projects including the Haven House complete building renovation (2007) the Kind and Scales Houses complete building renovation (2000), and the Morrow House dining room renovation (2001). Lorin has also completed projects at Mount Holyoke College and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

Working as an interior designer for the past 18 years, Starr always approached projects with what we would now label an “eco-friendly” or “green” lens. More specifically, by re-using existing furniture and selecting durable items with long life spans she creates quality interior spaces built to last, resulting in less waste and decreased energy use.

In the winter of 2010, Lorin Starr Interiors designed a space called the Green Longue, an essential element in a major exhibition by UMass Amherst entitled “Greening the Valley: Sustainable Architecture in the Pioneer Valley.” The furniture used in the Green Lounge demonstrated environmental progress in the furniture industry to date in the “greening” of the manufacturing process; the use of recycled, sustainable and/or natural materials; the incorporation of materials that can be recycled; locally made products; and the refurbishment and reuse of existing furniture. Lorin identifies this project as the point at which she began “to take a closer look at how one might evaluate interior finishes and furniture in terms of their “greenness.”

Starr was delighted when asked to work on the BEC project. As the BEC is a highly unusual building, Starr saw it as a great challenge to do something a little out of the ordinary. Additionally, given all the current enthusiasm about making something “green,” Starr saw this project as a personal opportunity to “sift through that hype.”

One of the biggest challenges of working on green building projects like the BEC is the need to carefully consider all the choices that you are making, while keeping environmental considerations at the top of your priority list. What actually makes a piece of furniture “green” or “sustainable” is a very complex question. Starr attests to the fact that accurately assessing the environmental impact of a piece of furniture is extremely difficult, if not impossible. You begin with the materials that go into it (What are they? Where are they from?), then the manufacturing process (How clean?) and the distance pieces travel (How far?). Starr believes the development of a uniform rating system is essential if real progress in assessing the environmental impact of furniture is going to be made. That being said, we can still ask these questions and make wise decisions, keeping in mind common sense considerations like quality, lifespan, and re-use of existing pieces/materials.

Aluminum Lab Stool     Bent-Ply Stack Chair for Seminar Space

Below are some examples of the pieces that will be included in the project:

  • Select furniture (ex. a large table) locally made by millwork company using materials vetted for the building construction under the LBC
  • Chairs made of FSC-certified plywood
  • Aluminum stools made from 80% recycled aluminum – half post-consumer (soft drink cans) and half post-industrial (manufacturing scraps), 100% recyclable
  • Outdoor furniture made from 100% post consumer recycled material (primarily milk jugs)
  • Table tops made of MDF substrate that is 100% recycled wood fiber with laminate tops made from 100% corn and soy biopolymer

Not only will the interior design of the building embrace beauty, simplicity, and functionality, it also has the potential to serve as ateaching tool. By focusing on the selection process for different pieces in a room, highlighting materials, processing, and source, visitors will become more aware of the importance of this issue and how it pertains to their daily life.

Check in again soon to hear more about the progress of the Bechtel Environmental Classroom!

Jessa Finch (’12)

CEEDS MacLeish Intern

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