Regional professionals gather to discuss the future of sustainability

Interface holds roundtable to discuss the future of sustainability in the Middle East

In the past month, a group of designers and architects came together to discuss the status quo of sustainability measures taken in the Middle East, as well as predict what the future holds. Organised by Interface, one of the world’s leading carpet manufacturers that deals with providing sustainable solutions, the roundtable was an eye-opener. While we can discuss the advantages of sustainable design all we want, it’s important to listen to the reality of those who are explicitly trying to incorporate more sustainability into Dubai’s growing design and architectural fabric.

David Oakey, world renowned for the Net Effect collection as well as his own David Oakey Designs company, started off the discussion by openly asking: “Where is sustainable design on your client’s radar? Is it an integral part of the process, or an afterthought?”

Ellen Edwards, vice president interiors of RSP, responded: “People didn’t care about sustainability. But in the past few years—maybe two or three—due to action by local government entities, sustainability is starting to become more [important] and it’s causing a big shift in [the industry].”

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Most of the participants in the roundtable agreed with Edwards. Ben Corrigan, founder of Bluehaus Group, added: “It’s certainly improved. In projects in Saudi Arabia, it’s really not a priority. So where is it on the clients’ radar? They like it, they want it—but the reality is it always comes back to the cost and there is still a perception that delivering a sustainable interior is expensive.”

According to the designers, ‘sustainability’ still seems to be a taboo word among clients. It insinuates agreeing to avoidable costs, and many clients will shy away from high prices that cover more conceptual applications of design. Sustainability, while it’s a growing necessity for international cities like Dubai, is still just a concept to many people. It’s the idea that to be green is good, but an unnecessary hassle.

Corrigan continued: “Ten years ago, Dubai was considered a hardship post. Why are they going to support sustainability when they’re gone in three or five years? Now, Dubai is a lifestyle choice. It’s a nice place to be… It’s now the place where people are sticking around. There is still an element of people not thinking this is a priority market, but that’s changing.”

Oakey positively insisted that designers, especially those who are trying to create sustainable designs such as himself, should rely on younger generations. The younger generation, said Oakey, is the one to push forward sustainable initiatives.

Oakey said: “It’s the young generations that think it can be part of the future, not the CEOs. We might never see a world where we run out of resources, but the next few generations might be here for that. Companies are starting to realise that consumers can make a decision with their dollar.”

Steven Allen, director of Artillery, disagreed with Oakey concerning the younger generations being able to push forward sustainability. Allen noted that he felt younger groups tend to latch onto ideas that are trendy, rather than fully understanding them.

Allen said: “I think it’s more about it being a cool trend, rather than them understanding sustainability. So they might buy a green water bottle, but not for the right reason. A lot of these people don’t know what a carbon footprint is and that’s what it comes down to.

“I think there are very few believers or pioneers waving the flag. People care about the cost of fossil fuel, not the idea of running out of it.”

While younger generations are known for following trends that are either good or bad, when they’re following one that is good does it really matter why they’re doing it? At the end of the day, it’s the effect of their actions that means the most, rather than the reason they’ve done them.

Understanding sustainability could also come after blindly following the trend. While Allen has a valid point, it is perhaps leaving out the idea that trends open people up to certain issues—and while not at first, they do later on. There’s an element of awareness in the consumer’s conscience, and that’s the first step.

Oakey then asked whether clients here were being influenced by local or international design trends. George Kahler, design director for design worldwide partnership, said: “It depends on the client. We deal with quite a few local clients and there is definitely, whether you like it or not, a local aesthetic…a sort of ‘beigy-beigy’, tone on tone with gold bits.

“But there is some really nice sort of high-end executive offices which is normally for the local, upper management. There isn’t a work place completely influenced by international design trends. It’s more a hospitality look and feel, which I think is relevant to the way the local business community have done business in the past. [They prefer a] hospitality setting rather than a western style work place environment. So it’s a mix of both.”

The roundtable discussed the use of open-plan offices. While they work for some people, Oakey confirmed that there’s a kickback to the trend occurring in Europe and the U.S. “Some people can’t work like that at all,” he said. And this kickback is leading to a big market for sound-controlling devices as well as a return to sound-absorbing carpet tiles.

However, in the Middle East, while an office might apply an open layout, it will also have enclosed spaces, or more personal areas. And this comes down to the basics of cultural differences.

Edwards said: “In Ryadh, we found the normal office worker was very, very modern. They wanted modern influence as much as possible. But the CEO’s head office was completely different. It was almost like a hospitality-type of interior, almost like a hotel.”

Later she furthered that Arabs do business differently than western clients. “They aren’t going to go to a board room,” Edwards said. “They’re going to have a coffee with someone.”

Her colleague, Rama Turkmani-Mouton, senior interior designer, RSP, said: “It’s about relationships and knowing each other and finishing the deal off with that coffee; so it gets personal very quickly, and that’s where the international and local culture is coming together to create new places to work.”

According to Turkmani, something to keep in mind when designing a public or private space is pulling off a lavish finish. She said: “I found in some situations that clients are always criticising carpet tiles and classifying them as cheap, which I think is not true. To have a plush luxurious finish is a question in a lot of projects we work on. I think something that could be investigated is how we can have something that feels a little different than just a carpet tile.”

Oakey agreed, noting that regardless of what product you’re providing your client, it has to be beautiful. “It’s my constant looking at nature,” he said. “If you asked nature what a surface should look like, it wouldn’t say flat. It would say have different textures.”

Oakey added that during his global travels and his recent visit to the Middle East, he noticed a growing leniency toward hard surfaces as well as a simultaneous return to soft coverings.

The Net-Effect creator concluded: “This is only our third day here, and we’re learning. But globally there has been a shift to hard surface, in Europe for example and now in the States. Real wood, fake wood or stained concrete—it’s just sweeping. So as a soft floor covering business, we wonder if we’re going to go out of business. The question is, is there a future for soft carpet?

“We’re seeing now a backlash against hard flooring because of the noise and health. I think there will always be a place but there we have to change and adapt ourselves to create things that are more attractive.”

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