'I'll Take The Hemp Chair': Home Design Goes Green, Sprouts New Careers

Eco-friendly architects, designers seeking to reform housing industry.

Hemp. Recycled glass tiles. Reclaimed wood. Jessica Helgerson's list of work supplies reads like an inventory of items found at a recycling center or a commune.

But looks can be deceiving — these earthy materials are actually essentials in Helgerson's successful green-centered interior-design business.

As society slowly becomes more environmentally conscious, green-motivated individuals such as Helgerson are combining their professional interests with their environmental ethics to reform the housing industry. As the green movement continues to flourish, eco-minded activism isn't just saving the environment; it's also spawning a whole new breed of careers.

Spurred by media messages like Al Gore's cautionary film "An Inconvenient Truth," skyrocketing fuel prices and general awareness of environmental issues, many people are seeking a lifestyle change. Luckily, an army of green professionals is more than happy to provide it.

Several years ago, Helgerson was working for an architectural firm that built lavish homes in California's famed Orange County. In her free time, however, she was devoting time to working with an organization made up of members of the green building field.

"My job needed to be more in line with my own personal ethics and the stuff that made me happy," she said.

In what she describes as a leap of faith, Helgerson decided to open her own green interior-design business and ended up filling a void that she didn't realize was so large. Swarms of people wanted to decorate or remodel their homes and not feel guilty about it, Helgerson said.

Though still flying somewhat under the radar, the specialized field of green design is supplying the growing eco-friendly population with design alternatives that are both chic and environmentally friendly.

Green designers typically rely on such materials as reclaimed wood for floors, bamboo shades, hemp upholstery and energy-efficient lighting. Special paints reduce indoor air pollution and contain few volatile organic compounds.

Giving credence to the saying "One man's trash is another man's treasure," California interior designer Lucinda Bailey boils her design philosophy down to the mantra "reduce, reuse, recycle."

Before the greening of homes was trendy, Bailey — armed with a degree in ecosystems from UCLA and a degree in design from L.A.'s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising — was trying to convince clients to update old furniture or reupholster interesting pieces from salvage yards. After all, the approach was not only earth-friendly but thrifty as well.

"Encouraging people to think outside the box is part of being a green designer," Bailey said. "You have to be willing to look at something with a really creative eye."

And while green interior design is emerging as a viable career option for the design- and earth-conscious professional, it is not the only eco-friendly career path available in the housing industry.

The number of home builders producing environmentally conscious houses is expected to grow by 30 percent in 2006, according to a survey conducted by McGraw-Hill Construction and the National Association of Home Builders. The report forecasts that residential green building would be worth between $19 billion and $38 billion by 2010.

With such a promising outlook, it's not hard to see why so many people are going green in their professional as well as personal lives. In response to the rising demand for environmentally friendly homes, the field of green architecture is rapidly expanding to accommodate green building.

Marilyn Crenshaw, a California green architect, attributes her interest to her ability to "design and build an environment in a way that can actually heal the planet and heal humans instead of contributing to this ongoing wastefulness and environmental crisis."

"[It's] a way for me to be around people who are vibrating on that same level," she said.

Crenshaw, a conventionally licensed architect, has always been interested in implementing solar design into her projects, but she didn't officially "go green" until California's 2001 energy crisis. Motivated by her architectural background, eco-friendly nature and concern for her health, Crenshaw equips clients with homes that meet their needs without harming the planet.

A green homeowner herself, Crenshaw designs and builds homes with such mother-nature-approved features as solar panels, solar hot-water capabilities, nontoxic building materials and water collection systems.

The push for sustainable homes and their builders is becoming stronger. Brad Pitt recently teamed with the environmental organization Global Green USA to assist the rebuilding of New Orleans, which is still suffering housing crises and devastation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The sustainable design competition, chaired and co-conceived by Pitt, called upon architects to implement green elements into their designs in order to create sustainable, affordable housing in New Orleans. Architects had to design a green 12-unit apartment complex with the goal of cutting energy costs for cash-strapped victims of the disaster. The ultimate aim is for the complex to provide as much energy as it consumes.

As evidenced by the contest, jobs serving the greening of the home are getting more attention. Helgerson said she is constantly contacted by people seeking jobs in her unusual profession. One woman even shadowed Helgerson for two weeks, free of pay, to scope out the job.

Interest has also been stoked by the number of green programs being established at the collegiate level that actually teach eco-friendly building design.

With young people often at the forefront of the green movement, environmentally conscious jobs will most likely continue to emerge. Green real-estate agencies and home-consulting firms also are cropping up, and many more green careers are sure to follow.

"I think that [the green movement is] somewhat self-sustaining, and no matter what corporate America might try to do, their time is past," Bailey said. "Kids today, their whole approach is going to sustain this."

To find out more ways you can become environmentally independent, check out our Breaking the Addiction campaign.