Long Product Life Equals Sustainability and Reuse in High-Quality Builds

April 19, 2022 | Sustainability

Interview with Interior Design Veteran Linda Moses About Sourcing The Best Materials for Client Projects.

Two of the three pillars of the circular economy are to design out waste and keep products and materials in use. (Number three is to regenerate natural systems.) When combined, design and reuse can produce powerful results, such as long product life. FreeAxez recently had the pleasure of speaking with Linda Moses (ASID), a 30-year veteran in the interior design industry and Director of Interior Design for Plunkett Raysich Architects, LLC. (PRA), a Milwaukee based architecture firm. The discussion centered around the practicality of sustainable design and the initiatives that her firm embraces in approaching materials for client builds.

FreeAxez (FA): As a manufacturer, FreeAxez understands the importance of sustainability and working with sustainable materials. In your experience as a seasoned designer and someone who has solved design challenges, how have you and PRA implemented sustainable design initiatives?

Linda Moses (LM): I’m going to celebrate 30 years this December. So certainly, I’ve seen the ebb and flow of the sustainability initiative. In my global view, it really seems like our quest has really never changed. PRA likes to specify products and create projects that are going to live on for many, many years. So for us, the sustainability initiative is less about selecting products with recycled materials. The focus is on how products are made and resourced. Specifiers select products that are going to last for a very long time. We don’t really do quick turn projects, like tenant improvements. The projects we do are investments in the future. That includes schools and even corporate projects. We do our best to afford the very best materials so that it lasts.

FA: FreeAxez has a similar approach, focusing on high-quality materials. The goal has always been making it easy for end users to install and reuse the Gridd product, and making moves, adds, and changes seamlessly when reconfiguring a room or upgrading technology.  

LM: Throughout the years, I have seen different initiatives become more in vogue. I have personally been involved with a couple of projects that have sought LEED certification. Over the last five years, I have seen a strong movement towards WELL initiatives, which may be more aligned with the global initiative of just making good choices. For us, what matters most is making really smart material and product choices. PRA talks a lot about lifecycle costs, and really trying to afford as much as we can with choosing good materials.

Last week, I came across some vinyl asbestos tile in a building with some bad materials in the glue that was leftover from the 60s. The irony is that those tiles lasted a long time. 

We rely on our reps to help us avoid products that are not good choices but we don’t delve into  this process on a day-to-day basis in terms of really analyzing the specifics of the contents. They guide us in making good choices to work with quality manufacturers that are trusted. There’s so much information surrounding material choices you could make.

FA: PRA has a beautiful portfolio, which can be seen on your website. What are some projects you feel are relevant to the discussion around sourcing high-quality materials that you’ve enjoyed working on?

LM:  Interestingly enough, I just visited a school and church that is looking to do a remodel. I don’t know how familiar you are with the designs and finishes used in K12 Education and Academic settings, but the school was probably built in the 60s. The floor was ceramic tile, it was a fanciful mosaic pattern. The walls were a glazed block. While the color might not be completely current, the glaze block walls were very neutral, which was great. The floor was a rust and brown medley of colors. That tile could be sustainable for another 20 years—completely intact and of excellent quality. 

PRA does a lot of work in education. When I started, I was doing quite a bit of design for education. The standard was using a vinyl composition tile (VCT), because it is a commodity product. In schools, you need a lot of tile. It is used all over the school in the corridors and in the classrooms. The issue with VCT is it needs to be carefully maintained. You have to strip and wax it every year, and it’s a big effort for the facilities workers. 

PRA chooses higher quality materials, like a rubber product, which we really strongly advocate for nowadays. It would not have any finish on it and can be easily maintained with a damp mop. The product would last 30 years and require less than half the maintenance. 

We prioritize considerations like how long a product is going to last and how much care is going to be needed, especially now that labor is such a big issue.  

FA: What you’re saying is choosing the higher quality products might look more expensive, initially, but when you put in the man-hours that it takes to maintain them over the life of a product, that’s where the real cost becomes evident.

That, actually, is one of the features of the FreeAxez’ Gridd raised flooring—it can be reused. Components that were purchased 25 years ago, fit into a new installation seamlessly with brand new components and vice versa.  

LM:  PRA loves that idea. We love it if we can go back to a manufacturer and they still have all the available parts and pieces for us to either reconfigure or reuse something. 

The other sustainable story, which is close to my heart, is a project for our own offices.

PRA moved from a building designed to house 150 employees that we had built for ourselves before the downturn in the economy. We are currently at approximately 80 employees, so we decided to move to something smaller. We found and renovated a warehouse in downtown Milwaukee, taking our Herman Miller furniture system with us.  This system is still available. We refaced and reupholstered it, lowering the height of the cubicles. They were previously 60 inches, and because there was no visibility, we added an open tile at the top. We were able to completely reuse the furniture system with a minimal investment. It’s so well designed, we know we can continue to use it and improve it and change it moving forward. It’s a proud moment for us because we realized we had made the right choice. 

When a business is making a major investment into a system like that, there are so many paths you can take. It’s sometimes a hard sell to someone to say, “Well, if you would go with this (higher-priced) option, you might have more flexibility in the future.” What holds people back is that initial cost. Like when you’re designing a school, you’re initially trying to sell a product that’s doubled the cost of something else. That’s especially true when the contractor is sharpening the pencil and looking for ways to cut costs. For any given build, there’s only so much money available. We try really hard to give our clients the right guidance to help them make the right choices.

With the move, we were on a quest to not make a lot of purchases. We repurposed everything—we painted the Herman Miller tables. At the point of moving, PRA rebranded our logo. The blue triangle changed to a green triangle. We had to really lose all of the color that we had done before. PRA had to consider if we would change again in the future, and go to a different color. Let’s make it so that any future changes can be done with a coat of paint. So when changing it again, we just have to repaint. We don’t have to change any wholesale items. 

We had some leather chairs that were in our lobby. We had those re-stained, because they were beautiful chairs. We only needed to update the color. The design team tweaked a lot of our existing furnishings. Instead of replacing, we repurposed. As a result, we didn’t buy any new furniture. We were able to outfit our new office with pretty much all of the things that we had previously. We innovated by using them in new ways, which was decided as we were planning the spaces as part of a cost saving initiative.

FA: Not only a cost savings but good for the environment. It’s the circular economy, preserving and protecting resources. That is really good.  

LM: I actually was sort of pondering our conversation this morning and thinking, I hope you’re not going to be disappointed that I’m not talking about PVC free. Because this week, we have tried that, and it actually failed us. With so much at stake, we’re very cautious about new technologies, and products that utilize recycled material that haven’t been tested. We’ve taken to heart the principle of making a good investment with an owner and making sure they make good choices. Obviously these choices come back to us. We want to be proud of all the projects and all the solutions and to be able to stand by them.

Product Life Strategy: Reuse Now and in The Future

In speaking with Linda Moses, we saw that products that retain their appearance and stand the test of time, are easy to maintain and function and can be reused throughout the life of the building are a good investment.

Though the processes of “designing out waste” and “keeping products and materials in use” are two of the pillars of “sustainability,” these strategies were once considered plain common sense. Individuals and businesses that adhered to these principles saw precious resources last longer while saving money in the long run. 

Investing in the highest-quality products and finishes that a client can afford is the best solution for everyone. It is these investments that end up being most cost effective, and sustainable in the long run.

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