We often talk about green in terms of sustainable and regional building materials, improved indoor air quality and increased energy efficiency. Less frequently do we chat about the soft objects that fill our “sustainable spaces,” especially those that touch our bodies literally and figuratively. As an Interior Designer and LEED AP, most of my clients are somewhat educated on sustainable design, that’s one of the reasons they hire me.
Fortunately, today there is a preponderance of information available to the interested homeowner. One aspect of sustainable design that is beginning to garner lots of attention is the health impact of the softer side of design. I often find myself guiding clients through the mundane but incredibly personal task of purchasing a new bed frame and mattress.
WHAT/WHY: There are a number of reasons why a person might want to make the switch from conventional mattress to an eco sensitive mattress. In my experience the driving force is health.
As we become more aware of how the objects in our home affect indoor air quality, it is only natural to want to start cleaning up the bedroom first. When we consider how much of our lives we spend in our bedrooms, and specifically how our bodies regenerate during sleep, it is easily understood how a mattress made of petroleum based materials is less than desirable. All conventional mattresses and even most eco-esque mattresses are held together with chemical adhesives that will off-gas to some degree.
Additionally, buyers need be concerned with the idea that conventional and eco-esque mattresses that contain synthetic materials are required by law to be treated with chemical flame retardants. A mattress that is completely natural, void of any synthetic materials and typically with a organic wool cover may pass fire regulations without the use of additive flame retardants (wool has natural fire retardant properties).
A completely natural bed can often provide improved air quality and make a marked improvement for chemically sensitive people and/or people who suffer from allergies. Relief from headaches and morning stuffiness has been reported by folks who have switched from a conventional mattress to a natural latex one.
HOW: Searching for an eco-mattress can be daunting. Unlike conventional mattresses which can usually be sampled all at once in a big chain store like Sit and Sleep, eco-mattresses (although partially represented at chains like Sit and Sleep) are scattered all across town in eco-boutiques like Denizen gallery (www.denizendesigngallery.com), and forward thinking shops like Design Within Reach (www.dwr.com). Design Within Reach represents the Be Well mattress by Bau Biologist Mary Cordaro that in my observation is completely chemical free (unlike most others which are ‘almost’ chemical free) and made in California.
WHAT ELSE: A number of materials that are typically used in bedding such as microfiber, polyester and goose down/feathers have been found to irritate some people. Alternative materials are gaining popularity and are becoming easier to find (for quite reasonable prices). One material that is on the rise is kapok. I am really excited about this material gaining in popularity. My clients are eager to try a material for bed pillows that is not down or synthetic. Many people feel uncomfortable at the thought of animal cruelty and others are actually irritated by the goose down while sleeping. Kapok is a fiber that comes from a tree pod and has a natural resistance to dust mites. Bed pillows are readily available to be purchased from Mary Cordardo’s company (www.h3environmental.com).
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. A “good” sleeping environment is a subjective experience and consumers must do their own informed compare and contrast. Purchasing a mattress is often a minimum a ten year commitment and no one wants to make a mistake. Comfort is a very personal experience and natural latex mattresses do have a somewhat different feel. Finding a balance between comfort, health and responsible purchasing can be tricky but is achievable. Ask around, read consumer surveys and make sure the bed that you purchase has an included “comfort exchange guarantee”.
All that being said--Occasionally I will have a client who takes one look across the showroom floor at a beautiful puffy fluffy Cadillac of mattresses made of conventional materials and simply won’t look back. What to do now? Consider organic cotton sheets, a chemical free wool mattress pad and a kapok bed pillow. Baby steps are still better than no steps at all.
Sarah Barnard is a professional interior designer, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers, is certified by the National Kitchen and Bath Association and is recognized by the United States Green Building council as a LEED accredited professional. Her firm undertakes a broad range of projects, all of which are grounded in smart design and mindful of healthy living. Currently Ms. Barnard is working on the restoration of a handful of historic properties, the design and decoration of private residences throughout Southern California and most recently the new corporate offices of National Geographic Entertainment in Beverly Hills. For more information, please visit www.sarahbarnard.com.