San Francisco Chronicle
Green Design can be Profitable

Lynette Evans, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Printable Version

Green design is nothing new at the San Francisco Design Center, but at last week's Winter Market the emphasis was not only on how interior designers can specify earth-friendly products for their clients, but on how green design can actually be profitable.

Indeed, the themes of the various showroom presentations during the three-day annual market seemed to be: selling luxury to high-end clients, selling sustainability to those same clients, and - not to be overlooked - selling luxurious green design to high-end clients.

After Wednesday's keynote panel, at which marketing experts profiled the luxury customers for designers, Thursday's opening panel featured Penny Bonda, eco-editor of Interior Design magazine and the Green Zone on, interviewing Stefan Mühle and Sherry Caplan, general manager and designer, respectively, of the new Orchard Garden Hotel, San Francisco's, and indeed California's, first LEED-certified hotel. The topic: "How Sustainability Became Profitable." At an afternoon presentation at Wroolie & Co., "Eco/Nomics: The Greening of Design," Linda Delair, a LEED-certified consultant with Green Fusion Design Center in San Rafael, coached designers on how to sell clients on sustainable design and green furnishings.

Profitability is different for designers than it is for clients, of course, but more than one speaker pointed out that if designers can prove to their clients that they will profit from opting for sustainable design - in energy savings, in health, in the marketplace - the designer stands to make money as well.

In the case of the Orchard Garden Hotel, Mühle said, such things as European-style key cards that control lights in the rooms are saving 12 to 25 percent in electricity costs, and in a city with 35,000 hotel rooms, being green gives this hotel a competitive advantage. Guests are staying there "not necessarily only because we're green but also because we're green," he said, adding that it usually takes a new hotel "18 to 24 months to reach a point of stabilization," but that will happen within 11 months at the Orchard Garden Hotel. Caplan noted that in a city notorious for dragging out the building permit process, San Francisco has given priority status to applications for buildings seeking LEED certification - another motivator to clients seeking to build locally.

Mühle, Caplan and Delair all stressed the need to debunk myths that sustainable design will be more costly and that green design and luxury are mutually exclusive. Mühle - whose own "greening" started accidentally several years ago when the original Orchard Hotel, up Bush Street from the Orchard Garden, put in a heat exchanger and energy-efficient lightbulbs to save money - said that upgrading to LEED standards added no more than $100,000 to the $21 million price tag on the new hotel.

Although higher-end green design is a relatively new and still-growing market segment, natural products are no longer relegated to the rustic. More fabrics and finishes with the sheen and luxury usually associated with high-end furnishings are being made from natural, washable, sustainably grown and fair-traded materials - and toxins, such as those used in carpet backing and to make fabrics flame retardant, are being replaced with healthier materials. Furniture and case goods are being made from sustainably grown or recycled woods and finished with water-based varnishes, and, as Delair pointed out, all those wonderful antiques designers are so fond of are green by default.

The designer "stands between the end user and the manufacturer," Delair told a listener concerned about professional liability in specifying products that may turn out to be unsafe, "and that's a position of power" to promote ever more green materials and finishes. But individual designers needn't know it all: The number of experts, Web sites and suppliers who can steer designers and their clients through the new green maze is growing exponentially.

In the end, it may not be designers who persuade clients to opt for environmentally friendly materials. When it comes to issues such as off-gassing of toxins from building materials, Caplan said, "I'm amazed at how knowledgeable our clients are. It's definitely become a lifestyle decision."

E-mail Home&Garden editor Lynette Evans at

This article appeared on page G - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle Wednesday, January 30, 2008


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