Category Archives: Green Buildings

When should you hire a professional interior designer?

I’ve been practicing commercial interior design for over 20 years, yet many people are still unsure about what I do.  The industry hasn’t been effective at making the profession as well-known as other design professions, and with overlaps with both architecture and interior decoration, true interior design can be seen as a bit of an unknown.

One key difference between interior design and architecture is scale.  To design a building is a much larger proposition than designing an interior space.  In my experience, there are benefits to having both architects and interior designers on a project team.  As in all professions, some members will have more or less experience than others.  Some architects are better at designing interiors while other architects are better at master planning.  Some interior designers are better at decoration than with details.

In some cases, you will be required to hire an architect – if your project is a new commercial building or adding on to an existing one, or if your project encompasses a renovation over 7,500 square feet.  Municipalities have their own requirements for when drawings and specifications need to be signed and sealed by a registered architect.  For example, in Charleston, if your project will cost more than $50,000 in construction, you’ll need an architect.

So, when should you consider hiring a professional interior designer?  Here are some answers to that question:

When your business is open to the general public.

Commercial interiors is vastly different from residential interior decoration in that the profession is concerned with the health, safety, and welfare of building occupants.  There are certain building codes, life safety codes, and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations which interior designers must address.  For example, there are minimum width requirements for corridors, slip resistance requirements for flooring materials, and specific requirements for ADA-accessible spaces, all of which will have an effect on the interior layout of a space.  These codes vary depending on the type of space as well; educational facilities have to meet different requirements than restaurants, which are different from office spaces, etc.

When you need space planning and functionality designed into your space.

The codes and regulations mentioned above do have an effect on space planning, and a professional interior designer knows these basic parameters.  We’re also trained to ask a lot of questions about how your business functions, how different groups or departments relate to each other, about work processes, and many other details.  We want to know where you store your office supplies, how many files you access on a daily basis, what types of meetings you have weekly, etc.  A professional interior designer is interested in designing a space specific to your business, to make you more successful, not something that is in a specific style or “theme.”

When you want the design to reflect a specific image or brand.

Many companies are sensitive to their projected image and rely on brand recognition for attracting and retaining customers and employees.  This can be fully developed as part of the interior design, not only in terms of style or colors, but also functionally.  (Think: Google and casual meeting spaces with lounge chairs.)

When new furniture or equipment is needed.

There are many places to buy furniture: local dealerships or furniture stores, online, even office supply stores and used furniture outlets.  Interior designers have access to many different varieties and manufacturers of furniture and do our best to specify the most appropriate pieces for you, which means we don’t receive incentives for doing this.  The best scenario is to retain an independent designer who can recommend specific furniture and where you can purchase it.  Other factors to consider include the power and data requirements in office systems furniture (cubicles), durability and warranties, functionality, materials, and manufacturing process.  Custom-made furniture can also be an option for specific design requirements or space configurations.

When special lighting design or interior details are desired.

As an interior designer, I am very mindful of lighting, particularly because the type and quality of light sources plays a huge role in how colors and materials appear in a space.  Light fixture selection and layout, combined with millwork details and other interior details can really bring a design together.  It truly becomes something specific to each client and will represent you and your brand, while being functional at the same time.

When you want to reduce your environmental footprint.

I’ve been involved with green, or environmentally-sensitive, building design for almost as long as I’ve been practicing interior design.  Plus, having worked among architects and engineers my whole career, as well as my experience with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Green Building Rating System since its inception, I’m able to provide an array of green building consulting.  This could include prioritizing systems for renovation, planning ways to deliver good indoor air quality for occupants, even designing for biophilia – bringing nature indoors either literally or figuratively.

Contact Watkins Design Works to discuss your next project…our mission is to improve the quality of life for our clients through the design of functional and beautiful interior spaces and by emphasizing the connection between the built environment and the natural environment.

Ingenuity Can Help WV Change (Charleston Gazette-Mail 11/25/15)

Senator Joe Manchin’s passionate plea to save what’s left of the coal industry is extremely discouraging for West Virginia.  Rather than show leadership during this time of energy transition, Sen. Manchin (as well as Senator Shelley Moore Capito, our Representatives in Congress, and most other statewide leaders) chooses to take the well-worn path of the status quo, and lacks the vision to see a real future for our state, one based on new technologies, services, and renewable energy.

Sen. Manchin says that carbon capture and storage (CCS) “has not been demonstrated at any commercial scale power plant anywhere in the world.”  This is simply not true.  According to the Global CCS Institute, “globally, there are 14 large-scale CCS projects in operation, with a further eight under construction.  The 22 projects in operation or under construction represent a doubling since the start of this decade.  The total CO2 capture capacity of these 22 projects is around 40 million tonnes per annum.”  That is enough to offset the typical energy consumption of over 3.3 million American homes each year.  Several of these CCS projects are in the U.S.

According to Sen. Manchin, “the good Lord gave the state…an abundance of natural resources….”  I would argue that “the good Lord” also gave us beautiful natural habitats meant to be enjoyed by all humans and animals, clean rivers and lakes which have been polluted by industry, gorgeous mountains that draw West Virginians home yet are slowly being destroyed by the coal industry, and black lung disease as a grim reminder of years of dedication to ruthless companies mostly headquartered in other states.  The fact is we are burning through coal faster than the earth can regenerate it.  Conservation and energy efficiency measures will actually serve to help the industry long-term by reducing the demand of a non-renewable resource annually, thereby increasing its availability in the future.

Sen. Manchin also mentions that “by 2040, China will get 62% of its electricity from coal.”  What he fails to mention is that Beijing shut down four major coal-fired power plants due to hazardous air quality in that city [Bloomberg 3/24/15].  As America demands cheap products manufactured in countries with little human rights or environmental regulations, the demand for greenhouse gas-destroying fossil fuels by China will increase.  But at what cost?  There are environmental costs, for sure, but it also costs jobs here at home.  Contrary to those who believe there is a “War on Coal,” President Obama is not responsible for huge losses in coal industry jobs: these can be attributed to technological “advances” by the industry itself, such as mountaintop removal, over the past three decades.  Quick research will show that serious job losses began under President Reagan, and in fact, the losses accrued under the current administration are less than job losses accrued during the 1980’s [National Journal 11/4/13].

Sen. Manchin is right about one thing:  “American ingenuity should be harnessed right now to ensure our future at home and to be a leader for the world.”  However, clean coal technology hardly shows ingenuity…it shows a hanging on to 175 year old technologies that we have since learned are harmful to the planet.  Perhaps West Virginia can still be an energy leader by embracing policies which promote renewable energy (vs. alternative energy) technologies, manufacturing, research, and demand.  Perhaps our national and local leaders will recognize that “the good Lord” also gave us creativity, forethought, and real ingenuity to embrace change.

USGBC Strives to Improve Quality of Life (The State Journal 4/10/15)

As a commercial interior designer who’s been working in the building industry for over 20 years, I couldn’t agree more with Brooks McCabe’s assessment that the built environment is “more than just bricks and mortar.”  And as Chair of the U.S. Green Building Council’s West Virginia Chapter, this definitely holds true for me and our members.  The purpose of the organization is to improve the quality of life for West Virginians by transforming the way the built environment is designed, constructed, and maintained, resulting in buildings and communities that are environmentally, socially, and economically prosperous.  That is a big purpose, but doable within a generation.  We have to start now.

A little history and our role in West Virginia:  the U.S. Green Building Council is a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., formed in 1993.  It developed the LEED Green Building Rating System (LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) in 2000.  Many stakeholders are involved in LEED’s continual development including architects, engineers, interior designers, contractors, industry groups, government agencies, and non-profit organizations.  LEED has always been based on current scientific standards, energy standards, and best practices, but also strives to push the marketplace toward greener practices and building products.

LEED is essentially a checklist used by project teams to address all aspects of a building project in 8 categories:  Location and Transportation, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, Innovation, and Regional Priority.  Many “credits” within each category are interrelated and require close collaboration between design disciplines.  There are a total of 110 points available, with a minimum of 40 required to become Certified, the lowest of 4 levels of certification.  There are over 100 projects throughout the state registered with the USGBC and of those, almost half are certified, with the other half still going through the process.  There are nearly 100 LEED Accredited Professionals throughout the state.  These are people, mostly professionals in the building industry, who are familiar with the LEED process, have taken an exam to prove it, and who, in most cases, are required to attain continuing education credits.

Not surprisingly, there’s been some pushback in West Virginia to the LEED Green Building Rating System.  In part, this is due to some misinformation.  First, the USGBC is not a government agency and participation in LEED is voluntary.  The local chapter is made up of fellow West Virginians all concerned about sustainable design and construction practices.

Second, many believe that LEED projects are cost prohibitive.  In the half dozen LEED projects I’ve worked on in West Virginia over the past 7 years, all have come in on time and under budget.  Fear of the unknown often causes people to dismiss outright new ways of doing things, but what’s nice about the LEED system is that there is no “one size fits all” for every project.  The USGBC recognizes that every project is different, every site and state is different, and so project teams are offered a variety of choices toward certification.

Third, the USGBC does not require the use of untested materials or systems, thereby causing undue risk to project teams and their clients.  Decisions regarding which credits to achieve and how to meet the requirements are no different from decisions made during the design process.  Not everyone is familiar with the hiring of design professionals like architects, engineers or interior designers, but doing so, especially if their firms are national members of the USGBC and have LEED APs on staff, will bring an understanding of the synergy between credits and various approaches to meeting the requirements.

The building industry and associated development practices have a huge effect on climate, the long-term viability of earth’s resources, public health and general happiness of all of us.  The LEED Green Building Rating System is simply the best measurement of the positive impacts that can be made to improve everyone’s quality of life, beyond bricks and mortar.

Nature Can Be A Model For Success In WV

(from The State Journal 4/4/14)

Green building and issues of sustainability appear to be at a crossroads in West Virginia.  Several factors contribute to this.  One, the state legislature adopted the ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2007 for energy use in commercial buildings last fall.  Now, West Virginia energy standards are finally in line with the majority of the country, including our neighboring states, yet still not at the forefront of current code adoption.  (Maryland adopted the most recent energy code, ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2010.)

Two, the so-called “war on coal” and the collateral damage of climate change from burning fossil fuels has heightened our awareness of broader air and water pollution issues, the potential of transitional energy resource extraction such as Marcellus Shale, and the possibilities of renewable energy generation technologies statewide.  Of course, awareness and action are two completely separate concepts that we must reconcile.

Three, the chemical leak in the Kanawha Valley garnered residents’ attention statewide to the importance of infrastructure security and protection.  Most people assume that their water and air and soil are safe.  Many people trust corporations, utilities and elected officials to look out for them.  West Virginians continue learning the hard way that this is not always the case.

What could all this mean for the future of a truly sustainable economy in West Virginia?

In a word: growth.

Growth and true sustainability can happen through three proven means:

One: Invest in increased resource productivity by improving efficiency.  This simply means filling the gaps in our current economy to make its residents more resilient and less vulnerable to influences of the global economy.  Many communities and organizations around the state are already doing this.  Some examples:

  1. Energy efficiency programs create jobs and save money.  This is the impetus for the Charleston Area Alliance’s “Energy Efficiency in the East End” project.
  2. Local ownership can generate wealth in communities.  The dilapidated buildings legislation that just passed is a good step in this direction.
  3. Develop connections between local buyers and suppliers.  Many organizations are involved with this, including the Sustainability Institute at Bridgemont and the Center for Economic Options, among others.
  4. Downtown revitalization creates many benefits for residents.  There are Main Street organizations throughout the state and projects like the WV Community Development Hub’s “Turn Around This Town.”
  5. Community supported agriculture is becoming more popular, not only among individuals, but also among schools and businesses who focus on the health of their users.
  6. Business mentoring can be crucial for entrepreneurs and start-ups, and the WV Department of Commerce provides free training and mentoring in communities all around the state.

Two: Shift to nature-inspired economic models.  When we work in concert with nature, rather than try to control or ignore natural systems, efficiencies are realized, waste becomes part of a supply and demand model (waste = food), jobs are created, and the health of communities and their residents are restored.  In West Virginia, we pride ourselves on the state’s beautiful natural environment.  We go to state parks for long weekends.  We go rafting, or hiking, or hunting.  Maybe if we’re lucky, we own a condo at Snowshoe in order to “get away from it all.”  If nature nurtures our soul, why do humans treat it as a separate concept?  A place to go to, rather than a place to be with?  Charlottesville, VA architect William McDonough said, “Imagine buildings that produce their own oxygen, distill water, accrue solar energy, change with the seasons, and produce no waste.”  In essence, design buildings like trees.  Design with nature; mimic nature.  Sound too esoteric?  Consider these real examples:

  1. Probably the best known example of biomimicry is Velcro, designed in 1941 by Swiss engineer George de Mestral.  The design of this familiar product is taken from the way burdock burrs attach themselves to our clothing.
  2. Columbia Forest Products, located in Craigsville, WV, developed a formaldehyde-free soy-based adhesive for plywood sheets that is designed to mimic the adhesive pads of blue mussels, organisms that can adhere themselves to many different kinds of substrates.
  3. Architect Mick Pearce and engineering firm Arup studied the tunnels and chimneys of termite mounds and designed a 300,000 square foot shopping center in Harare, Zimbabwe that has no air conditioning and uses 90% less energy than a typical building of this type.

There are many examples of manufacturing, engineering or building design opportunities that could begin with inspiration from nature.  Here’s one from

Beaver provide a striking example of how animals influence ecosystem structure and dynamics…. Initially beaver modify stream morphology and hydrology by cutting wood and building dams. These activities retain sediment and organic matter in the channel, create and maintain wetlands, modify nutrient cycling and decomposition dynamics, modify the structure and dynamics of the riparian zone, influence the character of water and materials transported downstream, and ultimately influence plant and animal community composition and diversity.

How could our traditional methods of stream diversion, valley fills or water treatment be redesigned to provide the natural benefits of beaver dams?  What would this mean for local ecosystems, including human communities?

Three: Reinvest in natural capital.  We know that natural systems provide us with products such as water, trees, fish, air, and coal, but natural systems also provide services, many of which we take for granted: cooling from shade trees, flood control from deep root systems, water and air purification from wetlands, pest control from birds and bats, the list goes on and on.  As human beings on top of the food chain and ever since the First Industrial Revolution, we believe we can design these systems as good as or better than nature itself.  Then we see (if we choose to) our failings when industrial accidents occur, when communities become fragmented and left behind, when we end up on the bottom of national lists in terms of health, education, happiness.

Perhaps the Second Industrial Revolution will ultimately position West Virginia not only as an energy leader in climate-neutral technologies, but also as a state that fully embraces its cultural and natural heritage by supporting all three of these systems in equal parts (the Triple Bottom Line) and by using nature as a model for success.  We can’t sit back and just wait for this to happen.  We can’t blame others for our own failures.  We can’t ignore our changing environment or the changing markets.  We cannot be the victims.  We have to work now to educate our kids, train displaced workers, support entrepreneurs, and really work together – all stakeholders – to make West Virginia’s future prosperous and flourishing.  Then all of us will be doing well by doing good.

[Many of the ideas in this article are taken from the Rocky Mountain Institute’s white paper, “Building Community Prosperity Through Natural Capitalism,” which can be found at]

Charleston Gazette Op-Ed 1/29/14

Whether we realize it or not, right now we’re seeing what happens when one leg of the Triple Bottom Line is broken.  We all understand a company’s “bottom line.”  Indeed, Freedom Industries must be well aware of this common business phrase.  But when we only consider the financial bottom line in decision-making (Economy), we leave the other two legs of Equity and Environment potentially damaged.

Economy, Equity and Environment – the “three E’s” making up the Triple Bottom Line.  Also think of it in terms of the “three P’s”: Profit, People, Planet.

We’re sold different stories regarding what our priorities should be.  One, we’re told that our state’s Economy (read: jobs) trumps Equity and Environment.  We make sure that industry and corporations do not face strong regulations because regulations kill jobs.  And even when regulations are in place, we do what we can to not enforce them, to ease the burden on business and not affect jobs.

Two, we’re told that these are good jobs (Equitable), even though many are physically hard and potentially life-threatening.  Jobs in natural resource extraction might pay well in the short-term, but will cost more later in healthcare, weakening pensions, lack of necessary education, and environmental cleanups. (This doesn’t even address the fact that we’re extracting non-renewable resources and that the transition to renewable energy, as opposed to “alternative” energy, is one path to Equitable jobs.)

Three, we tout the beautiful Environment of our state in order to promote tourism, hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and other outdoor lifestyles.  These activities cross all economic classes, political divides and religious beliefs.  Love of the great outdoors is something we all share, something we all have in common.

Each of these three areas make up how we see our state, and our strong feelings about it, but any one of these cannot take precedence over the other.  Can we have a strong Economy without consideration of Equity (justice and fairness) or the natural Environment?  Can we have Equity without a diverse Economy or a healthy Environment that feeds us, nurtures us and makes us who we are as West Virginians?  Can we protect our natural Environment without an Equity that ingrains a sense of stewardship in us or an Economy that respects the complexity of ecosystems?  Ultimately, the answer is no.

So if that’s the case, then how do we go about joining these three seemingly separate priorities?  A couple ideas:

  1. View ourselves as part of the whole.  We humans have tried to separate ourselves from nature.  We believe that we have dominion over nature, that we are not savages like the animals found in nature, and that nature is to be either controlled or feared.  From The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building by 7group and Bill G. Reed, “According to Gerould S. Wilhelm, there were at one time more than 260 different Native American languages spoken in North America, and not a single one of them contained a word for nature. This is simply because these cultures did not conceive themselves as disconnected from natural systems; nature as a separate and distinct concept did not exist.”  We are part of nature.
  2. Embrace systems thinking.  Nature itself functions as a system, so if we see ourselves as integral to this system, we’ll be successful when looking at our actions, our projects, and our lifestyles as part of it.  This might sound like too large a responsibility to take on for everyday tasks, and too expensive.  But systems thinking might have prevented approval of a water treatment plant downstream of an existing chemical storage facility, and the cleanup costs, not to mention the costs to health and public trust, are far greater now than the planning costs would have been.  On an individual level, choosing to recycle all those plastic water bottles rather than put them in a landfill is a simple, no-cost choice that also takes the system of materials and waste into consideration.

Some people see participating in this overarching concept of sustainability as having to sacrifice something for the sake of the planet, or that we have to choose between jobs and the forests, between mountains and fairness, between justice and progress, but this is simply not the case.  By making sure our choices adhere to the Triple Bottom Line of Economy, Equity and Environment, we are assured of having an abundance of all three.

Green Building FAQ’s

1.       What is green building?

It is a design approach that goes beyond conventional building design by integrating the following elements:  sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, indoor environmental quality and innovation.  It requires an integrated design process that considers the many disparate parts of a building project and examines the interaction between design, construction and operations to optimize the energy and environmental performance of the project.  The strength of this process is that all relevant issues are considered simultaneously in order to solve many problems with one solution.

2.       What is sustainability?

The standard definition was developed in 1987 by the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission:

Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

A new definition developed by a member of the Society for College and University Planning goes further:

Sustainability is about remaking the human presence in the natural world in a manner that will allow all current and future humans to be healthy; have strong, vibrant, secure and thriving communities and nations; have economic opportunity for all; and restore and maintain the integrity of our life-support system – the biosphere.

3.       How much does it cost?

From Davis Langdon’s “Cost of Green Revisited”:

…there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the question of the cost of green.  A majority of the buildings we studied were able to achieve their goals for LEED certification without any additional funding.  Others required additional funding, but only for specific sustainable features, such as the installation of a photovoltaic system.  Additionally, our analysis suggests that the cost per square foot for buildings seeking LEED certification falls into the existing range of costs for buildings of similar program type.  We can conclude that many projects can achieve sustainable design within their initial budget, or with very small supplemental funding.  This suggests that owners are finding ways to incorporate the elements important to the goals and values of the project, regardless of budget, by making choices and value decisions.

As with any other design decision, green features can also have various cost implications.  Just as some clients might choose granite cladding over EIFS, so too some clients might choose to collect rainwater for landscaping vs. a traditional irrigation system.  We give our clients these options.

4.       How long will it take to pay back an initial investment in green features?

There is no one answer to this question either.  Factors to consider include: life of the building, energy or water savings, maintenance and operating costs.  For many clients, the life of their building is 50 years or more (think schools or military facilities), so payback becomes less of an issue when lower operating costs and energy savings can be had annually.  If true integrated design occurs, and a single design decision can solve multiple problems, upfront costs will be reduced.

5.       What is LEED?

LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  It is a green building rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council – a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.  It was created to encourage and accelerate adoption of sustainable green building and development practices through the implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria.  In the newest version of LEED (v4), there are 10 categories:  Integrated Process, Location & Transportation, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy & Atmosphere, Materials & Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, Performance, Innovation, and Regional Priority.  It is based on a point system, with a minimum of 40 points needed to become Certified, up to a maximum of 110 points for Platinum.

6.       What’s the difference between a green building and a LEED certified building?

In many cases, there is no difference.  Also from the Langdon study:

There are low cost and high cost green buildings.  There are low cost and high cost non-green buildings.  There is such a wide variation in cost per square foot between buildings on a regular basis, even without taking sustainable design into account, that this certainly contributed to the lack of statistically significant differences between the LEED-seeking and non-LEED buildings.

7.       How important is it to get a building LEED Certified?  Is it worth the money? 

First, LEED certification provides independent, third party verification that a building project meets the highest green building performance measures.  It is the only such measure of sustainability.  The surest way for our clients to claim that the buildings we design are green is through LEED certification.  Second, many states and municipalities require either LEED certification for new buildings, or that projects are at least designed according to LEED standards.  Using LEED now keeps us ahead of the curve.  Third, there are great marketing opportunities upon certification through the USGBC website and print materials.

Registration and certification fees charged by the USGBC are minimal relative to construction costs.  Soft costs required for documentation are minimal to moderate (we already employ many of the methods needed to achieve LEED credits).

8.   Do the recent increases in energy costs make green design more desirable?

Yes.  A large portion of the LEED rating system centers on energy efficiency.  Many manufacturers are rising to the challenge of bringing more energy efficient equipment to the market; however, design decisions have a significant effect on the amount of energy used in a building.  Options range from siting the building properly to take advantage of the sun, to net metering with photovoltaic panels.

9.   Why is indoor air quality better in a green building?

Since we spend 80-90% of our time indoors, one of the critical aspects of green building is the indoor environment.  The EPA states that indoor pollutants can be 2-5 times higher than outdoor levels.  They recommend that VOC levels occur between 200-500 mg/m3.  Higher levels can cause eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; fatigue and dizziness; among other symptoms.  Traditionally, new buildings will have levels of 600-1000+ that eventually drop off over time.  The State of Washington determined that 96% of all VOCs found in the interior air are product-specific.  In other words, they could trace an individual VOC to a specific product.  In schools, the issue is centering on the fact that asthma rates have doubled in the past 20 years – 1 in 12 students are afflicted.

LEED deals with indoor air quality in a number of different ways:  low/no VOC products, increased ventilation, and monitoring systems, all of which require little, if any, additional funds.  The result is a building without that “new car” smell, and VOC levels within acceptable levels on opening day.

10.   Shouldn’t I be worried about adopting risky materials or technologies?

No.  Neither LEED Certification nor green building requires that a client, design firm, or contractor take on adverse risk.  Innovation can occur through creative thinking, new uses of existing technology, or the introduction of existing technology into a new market.  The integrative design aspect of sustainability brings all stakeholders – client, designer, manufacturer, contractor – to the table during the decision making process to discuss any concerns.

11.   What type of green activities happen during the construction phase and what can contractors do to help implement green design?

Contractors play an important role in the success of green buildings, and getting their buy-in during the design process can help the entire team.  Areas where they play the largest role include pollution/stormwater/erosion-prevention during construction, protecting habitat during construction, recycling, donating or salvaging nearly all construction waste, adhering to an indoor air quality plan during construction and just prior to occupancy, coordinating with an outside commissioning agent, and purchasing regionally manufactured materials with high recycled content and low VOCs.