Expanding the Conversation

Penny Bonda, FASID, LEED Fellow, HBN Board Member | June 01, 2011 | Policies


Designers are sometimes guilty of bad or even dehumanizing design. I know this because prior to my career switch in the late 1990s to environmental communications, I practiced interior design for 27 years, as the owner of my own firm and as an employee of architectural and interiors firms.

I have personally created some of the most awful environments - offices that stifle, suppress, choke and at the very least, bore their occupants. I've put people in overly bright rooms with enough glare on their computer screens to guarantee nightly headaches. I've stuck them in dark, confined spaces and surrounded them with co-workers they can hear too loudly. I've specified materials that off-gas noxious chemicals that have likely contributed to untold health problems. I've sat quiet when decisions were made, based solely on economics, that I knew full well would result in unsafe environments. If I did speak out, it wasn't forcefully enough. Much of what I have done has been harmful, and at some point I began to question my ability to do this kind of work.

Epiphanies such as mine often occur as an "ah-ha" moment. For others they are a gradual realization that "times they are a-changing." The Healthy Building Network played a role in my understanding of the profound impact of my work and that of my professional colleagues on the quality of buildings and their effect on occupant health. Many others I know have been similarly influenced by HBN's provocative, daring and creative advocacy.

In my work I have tried to emulate HBN's proactive championing of health and social related building practices, with some success but not enough. Now, with this column I proudly join the Healthy Building Network family of communicators, who have for more than a decade tackled our industry's thorniest issues.

Bill Walsh, the longtime author of the HBN newsletter, and I will share this space as I attempt to introduce an additional perspective - that of the design team. Bill and I go back to 2001 when we met through our efforts to educate the building community on the dangers of highly toxic chemicals such as dioxins and phthalate plasticizers. I sit on HBN's Board of Directors and am an enthusiastic Pharos fan that can hardly wait for it to reach its full potential.

I bring to this task a lot of experience in tackling daunting challenges. I've been writing and speaking on green design issues to sometimes-skeptical audiences for more than ten years, and as the primary force behind the development of LEED for Commercial Interiors, I've tackled the naysayers and obstructionists who have wished us gone.

We have, however prevailed. Along with a large and stridently committed community of green building advocates I have championed healthy buildings, earning along the way the moniker "the mother of green interiors." I have received gratifying feedback from these efforts including many from designers who credit me with their own sustainability epiphanies. I have been told that my widespread and positive influence on the direction of green design and my ability to clearly communicate in designer-friendly terms has significantly advanced sustainable building practices where they matter most to building occupants - in the interior. My career has taught me that designers have more power, influence and ability than they might think.

We have work to do. See you next month.