Eco Strategies for Design Libraries

Oct. 1, 2008

As more green products are developed, more efficient ways of organizing the information about them will evolve.

By the 2008 IIDA Sustainable Design Task Force

Organizing and maintaining the myriad of catalogs, binders and material samples in a design firm's product library routinely presents a challenge. Concern for the environment adds an entirely different (and difficult) dimension to this unwieldy task. The IIDA Sustainable Task Force offers several ideas on how to spruce up—and green up—a product library.

Rely less on hard-copy binders and make better use of Web sites. Manufacturers' sites usually provide a wealth of detailed information, making product research a breeze from your desk. This is particularly true with furniture. With other materials, you'll often still need to provide samples so the client can see colors, feel textures, etc.; but with furniture, you can select styles while doing online research, drop them in a file, and bring them up to be printed later if necessary.

To implement this efficiency, the librarian can pull the catalogs off the shelf, create an alphabetized list of all the manufacturers with their URLs, and make the information available online without the bulk. Working online can streamline the ordering process as well. In an increasing number of situations, orders can be submitted without the use of paper forms.

What to do with the catalog binders that remain after the culling process? These can be labeled with a green dot on the spine if the products have an environmental story, enabling anyone to see at a glance which manufacturers offer green products.

A materials matrix is another good tool. Products can be identified according to qualities such as regional production, recycled content, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), low emitting, other designers' experiences with a product, etc. All this can then be entered into a database. When someone has a specific requirement or requests a product from a particular region, the information is readily available on the firm's intranet or another centralized location accessible via a computer terminal in the library.

Materials come in fast, though. In order to keep up with it all, you could spend eight to 10 hours a week keeping the database updated and investigating manufacturers' claims to greenness. Not every company can designate a team member for such a task, but others, particularly larger firms involved in multiple projects in the same regions, might find it's worth the investment.

REORGANIZE THE REFUGEESEven when we rely on virtual sources, some physical binders and actual samples will be necessary. Textiles, in particular, typically must be seen "live" to be fully appreciated, as colors, patterns, etc., don't translate well to paper representations. One way for an environmentally-conscious librarian to handle this is to organize samples by material content instead of manufacturer. For example, one firm considers "green" fabric to be wool or at least 70 percent recycled content polyester, and these fabrics would be separated from the rest. If you want to utilize green products, those would be the ones you'd show your clients first.

This approach, however, could make it more difficult for a manufacturer's representatives when they re-stock. You can remedy that by organizing the samples first by their material content as described, and next, within the resultant divisions, arranged by manufacturer. Then the reps can to go from one area to another and locate their products quickly.

Should products be taken off the shelves if they're deemed not green enough? That's up to the individual design firm. Some, for instance, have a list of items they do not support or specify. Other companies try to direct their clients toward green alternatives, but make a wide variety of materials available for those who require them.

IMPROVE YOUR CIRCULATIONDepending on where you're located, it might be possible to recycle unwanted samples by making them available to art teachers, artists and others looking for free materials for projects. One such program is The Boston Sample Drop|Shop. Many interior design education programs also accept these contributions. A list of CIDA-accredited schools in your area can be found at NO ASSUMPTIONS
How do we know if products have good "green" qualities? One way is by checking suppliers' claims against third-party sources. If a carpet manufacturer's Web site, for example, says its product is rated CRI Green Label Plus, the CRI Web site can verify this. Sometimes a certificate has lapsed, so the certifying body, whose Web site is more apt to be current, should be consulted for confirmation.

Another method of separating true green from greenwash is through the use of a questionnaire. A survey from IIDA's Web site titled "Is This Product Green?" was developed by SRG Partnership and SERA Architects, and is a good model for analyzing this type of information. A firm should develop its own survey according to its specific clientele and criteria, but be careful to phrase questions gingerly, bearing in mind the types of responses desired.

A survey can be especially helpful when responding to a vendor's request for a lunchtime presentation. Questions might be directed at the product's content as well as manufacturing and shipping processes. You also might want to specify that the lunch be comprised of local or organic foods and served family style to cut down on packaging waste—and no bottled water. This would make the vendor aware of the design firm's environmental commitment and the points it is looking for in a product. If manufacturers are serious about environmental responsibility, they should have no problem answering the survey.

WORK OUT WITH YOUR VENDORSManufacturers concerned about the environment are happy to work with you on this. Some, for instance, being conscious of the perils of packaging waste, will provide a return label to be affixed to the original packaging if a sample is not going to be used. Librarians disturbed by waste can tactfully suggest ways to reduce it, and the vendors are likely to thank them for their ideas. DEMYSTIFY THE JARGONNot everyone understands all the green words and phrases we toss around these days like "post-consumer" or "post-industrial." Libraries should provide a list, prominently displayed, of environmental terms and definitions. This will help designers know what questions to ask about the manufacturers and their products-enabling them to make more informed decisions. CLEAR THE AIR
Even the librarian who implements all these suggestions will have to deal with a number of fabrics, wood and other samples, which can result in unhealthy air quality due to the materials offgassing. Companies should make sure the library is designed with proper circulation and ventilation—not only for the sake of the librarian, but for everyone who enters the room.PUT ON YOUR RUNNING SHOESThese suggestions represent a place to start, but are certainly not the last word on the subject. As more environmentally friendly products are developed, more efficient ways of organizing the information about them will evolve as well. We hope you'll be able to use these ideas, refine and add to them, and develop your own green product library to be a model in the industry.

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