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“Education is key.” With Penny Bauder & Sarah Lahey

For me, it was a coming together of several things in my life that I loved; science, writing and teaching. Given what I knew about sustainable design, I wanted to write a novel set in the midst of a climate change catastrophe, where sea levels have risen, clouds have disappeared, and the planet is heating […]

For me, it was a coming together of several things in my life that I loved; science, writing and teaching. Given what I knew about sustainable design, I wanted to write a novel set in the midst of a climate change catastrophe, where sea levels have risen, clouds have disappeared, and the planet is heating up. I thought if people read this, they might understand more fully what life would be like in a world affected by climate change.


As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Lahey.

Sarah Lahey is a designer, educator, and writer. She holds bachelor’s degrees in interior design, communication, and visual culture, and works as a senior lecturer teaching classes on design, technology, sustainability and creative thinking. She has three children and lives on the Northern Beaches in Sydney, Australia. Her first novel, Gravity Is Heartless, is set in 2050 and imagines the world in the grip of a climate catastrophe, will be released in June 2020.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Igrew up in a rural country town, located a few hours north of Melbourne, in the Australian bush. Ours was one of only two houses in the area, and we couldn’t see our neighbors. It was a very isolated environment. In the evenings there were no other lights signifying habitation or progress; it was just our family, alone in the bush.

The landscape was filled with dense vegetation — eucalypts and gum trees — and lots of native animals — possums, echidnas, koalas, kookaburras, which we hand fed — and plenty of snakes. Our house was built of stone and wood, and it had dark blue-stone walls and pale timber floors and ceilings, and an open fire, which we often cooked on. It was situated on the side of a steep hill, and at the bottom of the valley was a wide, brown river, called the Yarra — meaning ‘ever flowing’, in aboriginal dialect — which we swam in every day.

I was the middle child, I had an older brother and a younger sister, and for most of our childhood we were left to our own devices. As long as we went to school and did our chores, we could do whatever we wanted, as long as it didn’t involve hanging around the house. So, for over a decade, we swam and fished, and foraged for yabbies’ in the Yarra River. The river was our activity center, our gymnasium, and our mediation zone. There is something about living and growing up by a river that gets inside you; it can nurture you through the tough times in your life that lie ahead.

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become an environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

I’ve been an interior designer for over 30 years, and I started teaching and lecturing university students in 2010. At the time I was asked to write content for a subject on sustainability. I asked my students if they believed in climate change — less than half the class raised their hands. So, I thought, how am I going to teach this? What does sustainable actually mean to our industry? Why don’t people believe in climate change; it’s a proven, scientific fact?

In my research I came across the Our Common Future document, also known as the Brundtland Report, in honor of the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s role as Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). The report is dated 1987, and is now over 30 years old, but it gives a clear definition of sustainable development;

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

This definition was a great starting point and I thought more people need to understand what sustainable design actually means. My students, who would be designing and building cities and homes of the future, needed to know this definition, because we only have one planet. We need to accept the fact that the Earth’s capacity to absorb and deal with pollutant and contaminants has declined, natural resources are in decline, and that climate change has begun, and this is a scientific fact. Future generations should be able to live full and healthy lives and use the resources that the planet has to offer.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

Sustainable design is a broad and complex topic, and there are many different approaches to how it might be tackled. My advice would be, you can’t be across everything, so find the area, or the concept that most resonates with you, and start there. Then seek out unique and unusual ways to get your message across.

For me, it was a coming together of several things in my life that I loved; science, writing and teaching. Given what I knew about sustainable design, I wanted to write a novel set in the midst of a climate change catastrophe, where sea levels have risen, clouds have disappeared, and the planet is heating up. I thought if people read this, they might understand more fully what life would be like in a world affected by climate change.

I set my novel Gravity Is Heartless in 2050, one generation into the future, in a world that my children’s children would inhabit. I asked myself, what will the world look like in thirty years’ time? How will humanity survive the oncoming effects of climate change? But I also wanted the novel to be accessible to the youth culture of today, so it needed to be fun, an adventure, and above all optimistic.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example?

Construction and manufacturing have a huge impact on the environment. As designers, we need to be committed to producing sustainable design by setting up overarching parameters on all our projects. This includes things like, adopting an integrated and communal design approach, and assigning an environmental delegate to large projects.

When specifying materials and finishes for interior projects we must look beyond initial sustainable credentials of a product and also consider broader issues like it’s origin and transport (buying local is far better for the environment), how it will be installed, it’s lifespan, and end of service life; will it end up in landfill, or how will it be recycled?

Buildings should also be designed to achieve optimal thermal comfort — heat loss and heat gain — with careful consideration given to the site analysis and understanding the local micro-climate. When most of our energy comes from fossil fuel it is particularly important to design buildings that work with the orientation of the site, to optimize solar control. This works to minimize the use of heating and air-conditioning, which often use large amounts of energy. Other elements to consider include –

  • Maximizing the use of heavy building materials in construction, like brick and masonry, as these act as heat sinks and stabilise interior temperatures.
  • The inclusion of insulation and thermal barriers, which minimise heat loss or gain.
  • Good air flow and ventilation is crucial in reducing heat and humidity in the summer months.
  • Windows are often considered weak points in thermal comfort, as they allow heat to escape in winter, but they also allow summer sun to enter house, so their position and size needs to be optimised.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

1. Reduce your consumption; reuse and recycle everything you possibly can and encourage your friends and family to do the same.

2. When you do buy something, do your very best to select sustainable products. For example; the textile industry has a long history of environmental issues and a big carbon footprint, but many companies are striving to create more sustainable fibres, like piña cloth, obtained from the leaves of pineapple plants, or bamboo, which is fast growing,

3. Before you switch on any appliance, light or air-conditioner, pause, and think about where your energy comes from. If it is coming from fossil fuels, then consider if you really need to flick the switch right now. Can you wait another hour, can you pull on a jacket?

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

  1. Explain what greenhouses gases are and what they are doing to the atmosphere of our planet. Young people are empowered by climate change, but I find some don’t actually understand the cost of carbon; what the burning of fossil fuels, farming, deforestation and some industrial processes are doing to the plant. The greenhouse effect is one of the main factors determining the temperature. These gasses in the atmosphere trap heat that would otherwise escape to space, thereby keeping the planet warm. In the 1800s (pre the industrial revolution) carbon parts per million were around 260. Today they are over 400 parts per million, and this is a direct result of our energy consumption.
  2. Reduce your meat and dairy intake. If you do eat meat, then buy top quality and keep it to once or twice a week. On any given day there are 1.4 billion cattle roaming the planet and 19 billion chickens (3 for every person), and this is too many.
  3. In your daily life, and before you purchase anything, practice the seven ‘R’s: Reduce, recycle, repair, reclaim, renew, re-purpose, then re-evaluated your purchase.
  4. Teach your children to value craftsmanship and turn your back on the poorly designed mass-produced products using artificial materials. Celebrate and appreciate the incredible effort that goes into good design — everything from a drinking glass, to a pepper grinder, or a well-designed chair.
  5. Education is key. Learn as much a possible about sustainable design and research the products you bring into your home. Something might appear to be sustainable, but it’s also important to understanding terms like embodied energy. This is the hidden energy — the energy that is required to make things. The energy that’s ‘locked up’ in manufacturing, and it can have a large ecological impact.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Sustainable design is simply good design. Caring about the environment, your staff and your clients is simply good business. If companies are not implementing sustainable design into their projects, then they are already at a disadvantage. In the last decade the marketplace has changed, and clients are now savvier. They want design that creates healthy buildings. Design that does not destroy or harm the environment or deplete natural resources. Design that strives to reduce material and construction waste.

Clients want to know what products are going into their homes and workplaces. They want to feel safe, and they don’t want to be surrounded by toxic chemicals, such as volatile organic compounds, (VOCs) that might leach from non-sustainable building products, such carpets, adhesives, solvents and paints.

A good ecological building should have little environmental impact. It should strive to achieve optimal thermal comfort, employing solar and kinetic energy sources. It should recycle water and waste materials. These things will reduce the impact it has on the environment, and also save on the on-going maintenance and overhead costs for the client. It’s a win, win scenario.

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

I’m going to nominate Greta Thunberg. She has changed the thinking of a whole generation, and she has changed the dynamics of my classroom. I’m still teaching sustainable design, and these days, when I mention climate change, all the students raise their hands. I feel I have Greta to thank for this.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Much of the world’s wealth is held in property ownership, which makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for younger generations, or those with less economic means, to enter the property market. Having a secure home should be a fundamental necessity in the 21st century. The impact it has on wellbeing and self-esteem cannot be under-estimated.

Public housing and social housing projects, where affordable housing is provided by governments, or community sectors, is particularly close to my heart. There is a huge shortage of housing worldwide, not just in underdeveloped countries. Having a roof over your head, in so many ways, changes your life, and many of us in the Western world take this for granted.

There are many not-for-profit organizations funding and striving to help people into affordable homes, and high-profile architects are also getting on board. Last year the UKs most prestigious architecture prize, the RIBA Stirling Prize, was awarded to the Goldsmith Street social housing project, in Norwich. The eco-friendly design was created by Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley, and it was the most sustainable of all the projects. This sends a clear and powerful message to the public and private sectors about what’s required in the industry today.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

“We shall need a sustainable way of thinking if humanity is to survive.” Albert Einstein 1954

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

Design blog: https://theautomaticpencil.tumblr.com

Instagram Account: @sarahklahey

Website: http://sarahlahey.com

Twitter: @SarahkLahey

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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