Sarah Barnard: “Empathy as a foundation of successful design”

Single-story homes are becoming highly sought-after for their universal design appeal. The term universal design has been often associated with senior populations, but that’s only part of its appeal: Universal design also supports people of different ages, abilities, and awareness. Homes that adhere to all users’ needs routinely incorporate features such as wide doorways, slip-resistant […]

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Single-story homes are becoming highly sought-after for their universal design appeal. The term universal design has been often associated with senior populations, but that’s only part of its appeal: Universal design also supports people of different ages, abilities, and awareness. Homes that adhere to all users’ needs routinely incorporate features such as wide doorways, slip-resistant flooring, curbless showers, and easy-grab hardware. Seamless indoor/outdoor spaces that maximize exposure to the outdoors can also benefit occupants by reducing anxiety, regulating circadian rhythm, boosting immunity, and increasing serotonin levels.


As a part of our series about “Homes Of The Future”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Barnard.

Sarah Barnard is a WELL and LEED accredited designer and creator of environments that support mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. She creates highly personalized, restorative spaces that are deeply connected to art and the preservation of the environment. An advocate for consciousness, inclusivity, and compassion in the creative process, Sarah’s work has been recognized by Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Real Simple, HGTV and many other publications. In 2017 Sarah was recognized as a “Ones to Watch” Scholar by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve lived in many historic homes across Los Angeles that were rich in character and charm, yet in need of substantial restoration. I have always been drawn to nature, spending endless hours in the garden tending to edible plants and watching birds congregate near the feeder. These experiences fostered a deep appreciation for historic preservation and the natural environment, prompting me to become a LEED Accredited Professional in 2007, and some years later, a WELL Accredited Professional. Sustainability, empathy, and wellbeing are fundamental to my interior design practice.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I tend to draw inspiration from projects’ natural surroundings, whether I’m working on an oceanfront property or a desert retreat. I’m also just as focused on preserving those environments while creating a client’s dream home. We often work with clients who wish to have it both ways: a beautiful, luxurious home experience that is healthy for people and the planet. Here’s a recent example of how those goals can appear to be at odds. A client recently requested gray water irrigation for extensive landscaping. They also wanted a salt-based water softening system in the home. The problem is that salt typically used for water softening is damaging to the environment. We researched an alternate softening system that relies on potassium and is safe for use in the garden.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Since the arrival of COVID 19, clients are not only requesting so much more function out of their homes — offices, gyms, resort-like amenities — they’re also seeing how their environment’s health is more crucial than ever. I recently celebrated 13 years as a LEED AP. In 2017, I became a WELL accredited professional. The WELL Building Standard® is a certification program that prioritizes the health and wellbeing of building users. By combining elements of LEED and WELL, my interior design practice helps people live their healthiest, happiest lives. While empathy, inclusivity, and wellness have always been our focus. Recent world events have moved many of these ideas from back-burner “concept” to front-burner imperative for many people.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Three years ago, I was honored as an inaugural ‘Ones to Watch’ Scholar by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). Being a part of this leadership program allowed me to form tremendously valuable relationships with a network of leading female designers from diverse backgrounds and specializations. As an interior design scholar, my role included speaking to aspiring designers at the 2018 ASID SCALE Conference and, most recently, speaking about the healing power of interior design as part of the keynote presentation at the 2020 ASID Virtual Conference.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I’ve been reading “The Evolution of Beauty” by Richard Prum, which discusses beauty as a tool of evolutionary innovation and a guiding force in shaping the natural world around us. As a designer, I’m continually thinking about beauty and function. This book provides fascinating theories about the aesthetic agency of birds and other living creatures, encouraging the crossover of science, philosophy, and art to better understand the world around us. I’m passionate about nature, art, and the benefits and functions of both in the home, and it’s been interesting to read about the role of design in the broader natural world.

A friend recently turned me on to Francis Anderton’s architecture and design podcast on KCRW. I love the way she engages with the design challenges of now. For example, a recent episode explores how architecture and design might combat the “epidemic of loneliness.” In another, she explores how Los Angeles might be “greener, cleaner and slower” post-COVID 19. These explorations resonate with me, as I strongly believe in creative design solutions that promote healing and improve lives.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

William Morris, a 19th-century British designer and pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement, once said: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This quote is akin to the ethos of my design practice, which centers on practicality and personalization. I strive to design homes for my clients that enrich their lifestyles and reflect their personalities.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Homebuilding in the US has grown tremendously. We’d love to hear about some of the new trends and techniques that are being used to build the homes of the future.

Our studio’s extensive portfolio of biophilic design projects often brings clients requesting restorative spaces that blur the line between indoors and out. The average American spends 90 percent of their time indoors, which can adversely affect mental and physical wellbeing. Creating a tranquil, nature-inspired retreat focused on wellness is a great way to disconnect from technology and recenter our thoughts. Whether it be a yoga studio, meditation pavilion, steam shower, or sensory room, there are infinite ways to escape without ever leaving the house. These spaces may incorporate plants, organic elements, natural materials, and earthen artwork to establish connections to the outdoors. Research has shown that biophilic design can lower stress levels, boost creativity, and improve mood. “Especially now, with travel on pause, the focus on outdoor space is even more heightened. We’re currently working on an expansive off-grid compound with an outdoor kitchen, organic vegetable gardens, and even dedicated areas for wildlife — places for birds and animals to eat, drink, and nest.

Can you share with us a few of the methods that are being used to make homes more sustainable and more water and energy efficient?

Our clients are partial to FSC certified hardwood, which is sourced from responsibly-managed forests, meets ethical and environmental standards, and comes from within a 500-mile radius of the project. Another non-toxic, renewable building material that our clients often request is sheep’s wool insulation. It’s a long-lasting, renewable fiber that can regulate noise and temperature levels.

As more of our clients transition to solar, we see increased calls for solar storage batteries. These systems can store excess solar energy, offsetting utility costs, and grid reliance. The batteries can also function as a backup power source, making them a more environmentally responsible alternative to home backup generators.

There is a lot of talk about Smart Homes. Can you tell our readers a bit about what that is, what that looks like, and how that might help people?

My approach to smart home technology comes from a place of empathy and compassion. Voice command systems can assist users of all ages and abilities. Smart home devices can control overhead lighting, unlock the door for household staff, or adjust temperature settings as we move from room to room. Even while you are away, technology can be harnessed to live stream CCTV footage and mimic your presence via smart lighting.

Aside from Smart Homes, can you talk about other interesting tech innovations that are being incorporated into homes today?

Smart glass is a captivating home feature that allows the user to change the glass’s opacity through voice command, a smartphone app, or the touch of a button. It enables some natural daylight to pass through while reducing glare or necessitating heavy window treatments. Our clients commonly request smart glass in creative spaces such as a home office, where it can be switched on during an important phone call to prevent distractions or instantly adjusted to transparency, allowing the user to enjoy calming views of nature.

Can you talk about innovations that are being made to make homes more pet friendly?

At-home pet amenities that enhance your lifestyle are well worth the investment. Consider incorporating a dog shower for rinsing off muddy paws or an enclosed ‘catio’ where you and your tabbies can bathe in the sun’s rays together. High-energy pooches could also benefit from a dedicated outdoor play space, complete with a dog run, agility course, and training area.

How about actual construction materials? Are there new trends in certain materials to address changes in the climate, fires, floods, and hurricanes?

Here in California, the “new normal” fire/flood cycle has made clients increasingly aware of their personal choices’ environmental impact. They seek out our firm because of our long-standing commitment to wellness and environmental sustainability. Taking the time to study and source sustainable materials is a large part of our environmental stewardship commitment. Our studio’s creative interior design solutions are tailored to each client’s specific lifestyle, needs, and desires.

For someone looking to invest in the real estate industry, are there exciting growth opportunities that you think people should look at more carefully?

Single-story homes are becoming highly sought-after for their universal design appeal. The term universal design has been often associated with senior populations, but that’s only part of its appeal: Universal design also supports people of different ages, abilities, and awareness. Homes that adhere to all users’ needs routinely incorporate features such as wide doorways, slip-resistant flooring, curbless showers, and easy-grab hardware. Seamless indoor/outdoor spaces that maximize exposure to the outdoors can also benefit occupants by reducing anxiety, regulating circadian rhythm, boosting immunity, and increasing serotonin levels.

We fuse high-quality, beautiful elements with the tenets of universal design, so clients are experiencing the best of both worlds.

Let’s talk a bit about housing availability and affordable housing. Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

I believe in empathy as a foundation of successful design, both in residential and community spaces. I would love to see more public design embrace empathetic design practices, with cities supporting our most vulnerable populations. Empathetic public design includes accessible housing options that support community members’ wellness and public spaces designed to serve the broadest range of people possible.

Is there anything that home builders can do to further help address these problems?

I want to live in a world where public spaces, federal buildings, schools, homeless shelters, and other common domains embrace the tenants of WELL and LEED so that all members of our society can benefit from a healthier built environment. LEED-certified buildings are built to reduce energy consumption, carbon emissions, and toxin exposure. In addition to supporting building occupants’ wellbeing, the LEED rating system provides economic and environmental value to the greater community.

The WELL certification advances the physical and mental health of building employees, residents, and members of the general public. Improved community wellness can be achieved by enforcing rigorous performance standards and making data-driven design decisions. Through my work as an interior designer, I create healthful and inclusive spaces grounded in an appreciation for art and nature.

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