Designing With The Environment in Mind

Forests are vital to preserve the Earth's biodiversity. This is one of the least visited national parks in Madagascar called Zahamena.
Forests are vital to preserve the Earth’s biodiversity. This is one of the least visited national parks in Madagascar called Zahamena.

Recently I have come back from a trip from Madagascar. It was a research trip as well as our honeymoon to find out more about the unique biodiversity of this island and the incredible environmental destruction that has put its endemic species of animals and plant at risk of extinction. We were invited to spend one and a half weeks with Eden Reforestation Projects to see and experience the incredible work that they are doing with a remote fishing community on the west coast of the island and also their new dry deciduous forest trial zone. On the second week and a half we spent touring the east of the island and visiting some of the remaining truly incredible primary rainforests and seeing and hearing the call of the indri, the largest lemur in Madagascar, echo through the rainforest valleys.

Green Design

Being a retail interior designer the trip highlighted the great need to really be aware about designing shops and restaurants with the environment in mind. Not simply creating an engaging environment for the customer but ensuring that the design is energy and water efficient and even further in ensuring that the materials used in the construction of the fitout come from renewable resources. Many shopping centres have begun introducing regulations that ensure that environmental issues are accounted for in the design.

Rainforest vista from waterfall towards the deforested hills on the edge of Zahamena National Park in Madagascar
Rainforest vista from waterfall towards the deforested hills on the edge of Zahamena National Park in Madagascar. Rainforests play an important role in regulating the weather and providing rain. This was very evident when we drove to Zahamena National Park early one morning and the park perimeter was covered in a fine layer of moisture laden mist and the surrounding areas were totally dry.
The After-Life of the Design

Not only is it important to take into consideration designing the tenancy so that it performs to the wear and tear of staff and customers and is uses less energy and water, but it is also important to think about the after-life of the materials used in its construction. Researching and using materials that have less impact on resources and also that can be recycled is very important.

Unique flora Madagascar
Forests contain such incredible biodiversity. Many of the species of animals and plants are yet to be discovered and described, many of which may provide us with future cures to many of humanity’s diseases.
Responsibilities of the Designer

The trip to Madagascar has made me even more aware than I would have been of my responsibilities as a designer and to practice ‘green design’. It is no longer just a concept but has taken on more of a reality after visiting Madagascar’s dwindling rainforests and its unique wildlife. In the past I have to admit I have used precious timber veneers, unaware of where they were sourced from, such as Rosewood. However, what I have become acutely aware of is my responsibility as a designer to research the materials I use in my designs and with knowledge and information make informed decisions so that I may be empowered to use alternatives.

Souvenir Hunting

On the last day of our journey we did a spot of last minute souvenir hunting. We stopped at one stall that had a set of exquisite bowls. My first question was what wood were they made from. They were Rosewood and Palisander. Both these timbers are illegally harvested from old growth rainforests in Madagascar. Even though these bowls were unique, in that moment I decided not to buy them as this would only encourage the black market sale of these precious timbers.

Zahamena or Red Tree - a semi precious rainforest timber species from Madagascar
Zahamena National Park is named after the ‘red tree’ or Zahamena – a semi precious timber species only found in this area of Madagscar. Zahamena National Park is under threat from illegal miners prospecting for sulphur.
The Importance of Preserving Forest Systems

Traveling through Madagascar we witnessed such environmental destruction that it was heart-breaking. In fact, it was incredible to believe as we flew in helicopters and light aircraft and drove for many hours to see bare earth and eroded hills devoid of forest. It was hard to believe that all these areas had once been covered in verdant forests. Forests are the lungs of the earth providing clean fresh water and renewable resources if they are carefully managed and are home to such great biodiversity. In fact, forests are more valuable left intact than cut down, for they contain a wealth of animals and plants, many still unknown to science, which have given us many of the drugs we use today.

90% of the Madagascar’s forests have disappeared as a result of slash and burn farming, burning to make charcoal and deforestation caused by timber extraction.

Changing Attitudes

As the weather patterns change around the world and we experience more and more environmental disasters many people are beginning to realise that global warming is a reality. Additionally we are beginning to understand that the Earth’s resources are finite. It has taken the good part of 30 years for attitudes and government policies to change here in Australia. In Australia, I remember the effluent used to be pumped out to sea not so long ago, into an ocean that we believed could handle endless amounts of pollution and where land clearing and destruction of forests was encouraged by the government and seen as developing the country.

Environmental destruction in Madagascar has reached a critical stage
Land degradation through traditional practises of slash and burn, and clear felling for charcoal production and extraction of timber are serious problems in Madagascar which has seen 90% of its original forests disappear.
Finite Resources

Recent global environmental events have heightened the need for the utilisation of renewable energy such as solar and wind power and the reduction of finite resources such as green house producing oil and coal. Forests are a renewable resource and unlike static like coal and oil, they can provide timber and useful drugs and at the same time they help to regulate the climate and provide clean drinking water to grow crops. The importance of forests cannot be underestimated.


The word ‘resource’ is interesting if you break it down. ‘Source’ comes from the Old French ‘sors’, from ‘soundre‘ to bring forth and from Latin ‘surgere’ to rise. ‘Re’ means again. So literally, resource means to bring forth or rise again and again. Non-renewable resources such as oil and coal can’t do this, unlike forests that not only continually regulate the weather and water but can continue through careful management to provide for us all and for future generations. Over 1.6 billion people it is said rely directly for forests for their survival, but the fact is, we live in a closed system where everything is connected.

The endangered Coquerel's Sifaka of Madagascar
This is the endangered Coquerel’s Sifaka which we saw a band of 7 individuals. They live in a tiny patch of forest surrounded by bare red earth and the occasional eucalypt that stretches for hours on end of driving – a veritable desert. More and more species are becoming isolated because of the massive loss of habitat.
Responsible Design

Our trip to Madagascar has enlightened me on designing with the environment, from all angles, in mind. Designing for the customer and staff that use the space, and energy and water efficiency, but also choosing to use products whose environmental and social impact is positive and life affirming. It has taught me to research carefully the provenance of raw materials such as timbers and understand the life cycles of the products that I specify from how they are made to how they are recycled rather than becoming more landfill.

Designing To Last

Just before we left for Madagascar I received a call from a client who’s lease was coming up for renewal. The tenancy which is in a local shopping centre only required at the 5 year mark a simple repaint of the shopfront. The 10 year lease renewal has finally arrived, and to both our delight, the homewares store has ‘weathered well’ not only in the finishes showing very little wear and tear, but the design still looks fresh and current. This has meant that the client will require very minor works and has made me realise that I have been practising green design long ago simply by designing stores that last.

Design to last
We need to change our attitude to consumption. Once upon a time things were made to last. Design should also be about creating retail experiences that have longevity. Classic should be a priority over being ‘trendy’ and ‘fashionab;e’ and short-lived.

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