The Right Stuff – Natural Materials

Architectural Historic Buildings in Scicli, Province of Ragusa, Sicily, Italy – (Palazzo Favacchio Patane).
Shutterstock © If not for the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Normans, the Islam, and the Spanish conquests throughout ancient civilization, we might not have the beautiful history and architecture that serves as the foundation upon which everything new has originated.

If you’re reading this, you’ve hopefully made it through what looks to be our first summer without COVID-19 ruining your family vacation plans. This was the summer of sequels to blockbuster movie hits from the 1980s like “Top Gun,” where our silver screen heroes like Maverick are older and wiser in their character development, and the messaging is muted. That said, good prevails, broken relationships from the past are healed, and there’s a happy ending.

The movie “The Right Stuff” is another movie hit from the early 1980s based on Tom Wolf’s non-fiction book about the early years of the U.S. space program and the astronauts whose lives literally were catapulted onto the world stage. This article is not about astronauts nor the movie, but it is about what the “right stuff” is today in interiors and specified materials. We frequently discuss the importance of hardwood flooring and the wonderful attributes it brings to a space.

Entities like the United Nations, the Global Center for Adaptation, and globally recognized design firms like Gensler are committing time, attention, focus, and strategies to “design places that have market value as well as social and environmental value.” These organizations also have “an increased appetite for mission-driven and responsible investment around the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) initiatives. Gensler, for example, has what they call the Gensler Cities Climate Challenge or GC3 with a portfolio designed to save “over 17 million metric tons of CO2 from being emitted on a yearly basis.” It’s important to note that firms like this one lead by example, and others tend to follow. Additionally, policies from agencies and entities provide the rewards for those who deliver on those promises of “decarbonizing” by design. What you may ask, does all this mean for me or my business? That’s an easy (and complicated at some points) answer…wood.

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If the design world is mapping steps to get to “net zero” anything, they’re looking at using low-carbon materials like wood. New construction can and should focus on low-impact and low-carbon resources. It’s important to note that the procuring, moving, and installing of raw materials in new construction accounts for 11 percent of emissions, roughly one-fourth of all annual building sector emissions. I love seeing references to projects built with cross-laminated timber beams and panels and chuckle at the commentary as if it’s a new-fangled material. I think it has taken a while for it to sink in that sometimes we have all that we need if we use our noggin. You, our reader, certainly would already know that the wood panels and beams sequester carbon dioxide rather than emitting it.

This past year, I participated in the University of Tennessee’s Interior Architecture classes on the subject of materials not only due to my interior design degree and background, but, more importantly, due to my use of materials as a designer. With various schools of design and design firms focusing heavily on educating about and specifying natural materials, then we should be researching and implementing new product innovations in our hardwood offerings.

Designer_BeachConfidentialLet’s look at materials and their impact. Wood has five times less embodied energy than steel. The longer any material is used, the better it is as an option. Whether it’s the structure itself or the furnishings and finishes used within the structure, wood beats out the other materials in carbon sequestration. Timber continues to gain popularity as a structural material, and most people are surprised to learn that cross-laminated timber panels and beams are fire-resistant.

Reusing and repurposing vintage furniture has become more popular partly due to supply chain disruptions as well as design styles changing. That said, reusing and repurposing interiors will become a massive movement. From the conversion of commercial spaces to residential living spaces to the updating of old buildings into new spaces, these adaptive strategies save money, time, labor, and materials, reduce what goes into landfills, and sometimes can help preserve historical value. Essentially, the extension of the lifespan of that which has been built is now climate-friendly.


Having come back from a recent trip to Sicily, we toured many beautiful and interesting places. Of those, some of our favorites were the cathedrals and temples that had been repurposed. According to our history lessons of the trip, the Normans were very practical in their use of what they had to work with as natural materials, changing the columns and walls of Roman temples to fit their own purposes. While I know they weren’t concerned with sustainability, they did see the benefit of using what they already had, rather than quarrying more marble or limestone and having it honed into what literally was standing there just to make it their own. We can learn something from these civilizations that valued what they already had.

As a daughter of an industrial and commercial general contractor, I am always excited to see a new building going into the ground, but there are times when it behooves us to examine what is existing and look for ways to make it our own without tearing it down. If not for the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Normans, the Islam, and the Spanish conquests throughout ancient civilization, we might not have the beautiful history and architecture that serves as the foundation upon which everything new has originated.

Emily Morrow Finkell is an interior designer, owner of EF Floors & Design, and an NWFA design contributor. She lives in Dalton, Georgia, and can be reached at

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