How to Build, Source, and Design for a Better, Cleaner Planet

As part of the design and build industry, many have unwittingly become part of the waste problem. We’ve made the world more beautiful and efficient with our designs, but we’ve also fed the ugly, ever-growing monster known as waste. 

To combat this ubiquitous problem, Katie Storey of Storey Design, created the Good Future Design Alliance or GFDA. Founded in San Francisco, the GDFA is building a national movement of design and build professionals focused on reducing waste by 50% over the next five years. We recently sat down with Katie to discuss the important work of the GDFA and ways that designers, builders, and manufacturers can minimize waste and contribute to a more sustainable future. 

A Peek Into the Culture of Waste

Globalization has brought a lot of benefits to the design and build industry. It means shared knowledge and resources and access to higher quality products at lower prices. For many companies, it’s also increased exposure and broader customer bases. However, globalization also has a dark side that few of us think about: the transportation of goods.

The genesis story for the GDFA revolves around this darker side of globalization and design. It started with the curious case of a sofa. 

Katie found the perfect sofa for a project that she had been working on. The sofa was physically located in the neighboring city of Oakland which was less than 10 miles away. However, due to the furniture company’s shipping and delivery practices, the sofa had to be shipped from Oakland to North Carolina on the opposite side of the country and then back to the Bay Area. It was a journey of 6,000 miles for a sofa that was originally seven miles away. 

And to add insult to injury, the sofa was wrapped in unsustainable plastic packaging when it could have more easily been wrapped in a blanket and brought across the bridge. Then there’s the matter of all of the emissions it contributed to by being shipped across the country and back.

For Katie, packaging is one of the biggest offenders because it leads to so much waste. “We were doing this 20,000 square foot office space that we’ve been working on for a couple of years,” she recalls of a particular install weekend. “Instead of being able to see the beautiful space we had spent two years designing, all I could see were the piles of what was certainly cardboard.”

While a lot of packaging, such as cardboard is recyclable, most of it still ends up in landfills because few people take the extra time to sort and recycle. And then there are a lot of materials that simply aren’t easily recycled. This includes plastic wrap, packing peanuts, styrofoam, bubble wrap, and foam cartons, just to name a few.

Katie warns, “I live in San Francisco. We have an e­bike. We shop at the farmer’s market. We’re super sustainable here, but in the hustle and bustle of starting a business in an industry that is based on consumption, it’s very easy to lose yourself and lose your guiding principles.”

For many designers, this is a familiar problem. You may be committed to creating a design that incorporates eco-friendly materials sourced locally or through sustainable methods, but what about the packaging that protects your products in transport? Is there a way to order products that are eco-friendly in both build and delivery?

According to Katie’s research, 500 million tons of construction and demo debris end up in landfills each year, only in the U.S. alone. Of that, 500 million tons of waste, 12 million tons are furniture. “That’s sofas, lamps, mattresses, bedspreads, roofing materials, concrete, all of that just goes to the landfill, which seems entirely unnecessary and very unsustainable. Plus the emissions that it leaks and all the energy created to create the products,” Katie shares. 

Design for a sustainable future

Image courtesy of The GFDA

It’s this growing problem of waste that ultimately led to the formation of the Good Future Design Alliance. The network, which includes architects, interior designers, builders, landscapers, and product makers as members, is committed to dramatically reducing waste by half within the next five years.

“That means 50% fewer teardowns, 50% fewer packaging peanuts, 50% fewer sofas in the landfill,” Katie explains.

Why assign a five year deadline?

“The 50% over five years was an intentional decision because we wanted it to be a timeframe that people can wrap their heads around.”

It’s also a time frame that requires immediate action. If the deadline was pushed back to 25 or 50 years into the future, there wouldn’t be a sense of urgency to the GFDA’s call to action. But with a fast-approaching five year deadline, there’s not one second you can afford to lose.

How to Minimize Waste as a Firm

What are some practical ways you can minimize waste in your firm?

Katie has offered several beginner-friendly ideas which are expanded upon in the toolkit that you’ll receive when joining the GFDA, including:

  • Shopping from sustainable vendor lists
  • Donating, consigning, and redistributing products
  • Implementing a sustainable checklist
  • Working together with other designers to share resources that one client may no longer want (which often happens in remodels)

“Everyone is talking a lot about the circular economy right now, and in a way, this is kind of it,” Katie shares. 

When starting a project Katie suggests considering the following questions:

  • Do you need to use new products for your entire design or can some of it be salvaged?
  • Are there opportunities to repurpose pieces from the original design?
  • Can you source items from local shops, such as vintage or consignment stores?
  • Are there ways to add more sustainability into your build process?
  • Can you donate used goods instead of throwing them into a landfill?

These aren’t just high-level principles, but those Katie has used personally. She was able to incorporate the ideas of recycle, reuse, and reduce from the GFDA toolkit for a client’s bathroom remodel. For example, Katie sourced tile from sustainable tile company Heath Ceramics, an approved GFDA vendor. Katie used the app Next Door to give away her client’s old tub to someone locally who needed one. She used reclaimed wood for the vanity and cabinetry. According to Katie, you can incorporate used goods in new and exciting ways.

Design for a sustainable future

GFDA founder Katie Storey’s bathroom remodel, using Heath Ceramics

Manufacturers Doing Their Part

In addition to Katie, we also spoke with Eric Edelson of the architectural tile company Fireclay Tile, and Dave Charne of the San Francisco furniture manufacturer Fyrn, both members of the GFDA and who actively employ eco-friendly practices to help reduce their company’s waste.

Fireclay Tile

Design for a sustainable future

Image Courtesy of Fireclay Tile

Eric Edelson of Fireclay Tile shares, “I think the GFDA plays a role in terms of elevating

the conversation on waste and really trying to expose people to this idea [that] there is waste, [and] you contribute to waste… And it’s a terrifying conversation.”

But it’s a necessary conversation.

Design for a sustainable future

Image Courtesy of Fireclay Tile

Eric shares, “One of the biggest wins we ever had was [when] we… reduced our energy need to produce a square foot of tile by 60% over two or three years. All of these productivity enhancements have these massive energy savings that we just didn’t even think about.”

Sustainability is the driving force behind the work done at Fireclay Tile. Not only is all of their signature ceramic tile handmade by domestically-sourced materials, but they also incorporate over 4,000 lbs of recycled granite fines into their work — material that would otherwise be discarded. Fireclay Tile is on a journey towards zero waste, which includes eliminating sing-use plastic from production and reusing an impressive 100% of its tile scraps. 


Design for a sustainable future

Image Courtesy of Fyrn

Dave Charne, co-founder of the furniture manufacturing company Fyrn, also supports the GFDA. “I love what Katie is building. It’s an evolution that we as designers and manufacturers have a responsibility for participating in.”

Fyrn is 100% committed to sustainability and eco-friendly practices and has taken a planet-first approach to business. For Fyrn, this means creating a fully circular product system that considers impact from design to delivery. Their products are built to outlive us, not flash-in-the-pan products that tend to break down in a matter of a few years (or even months, in some cases). 

Design for a sustainable future

Image Courtesy of Fyrn

Fyrn has also taken major steps toward reducing consumption. Upfront, this happens through precision material use of domestically sourced North American hardwoods & metals. And for customers, the company recently created the Fyrn Buy Back program which allows customers to sell eligible items back to Fyrn. Pieces are then refurbished and made available for purchase on the company’s secondary platform, the Fyrn Exchange.

Final Thoughts

We have an opportunity to create a future that we’d want to live in, and that starts by producing, building, and designing sustainable spaces. If you’d like to become part of the growing network of design professionals who are actively doing their part to build a better planet, consider joining the GFDA community.

Firms interested in joining the effort to reduce waste are welcomed at the GFDA. In exchange for joining the organization, new members will receive a 10-step toolkit and other resources to support them in their waste reduction. 

Katie shares, “We realize this can be really daunting for people. Some people don’t know where to start. So if a firm wants to make a commitment, then we will do our part and give you the resources so that you can actually meet your goal.”

To learn more about the GDFA and join, click here.