Mavericks & Masters: Katie Storey on Creating Space and Sustainability
[Ed.] You’ve met those people, I know. The ones who glow with an inner light, but who also a good deal of grit to go with all that glow. They’re leaders of change, the ones who get things done, and get them done right.
Well, that’s how I’ve always felt about Joss member Katie Storey. A recovering banker, star interior designer, and now the founder of the Good Future Design Alliance — an organization whose mission is to increase the sustainability quotient in the design, architecture, and construction business — starting with waste. It’s a big idea, and a critically important one, whether you’re a designer or a design aficionado, or someone considering how best to feather their nest, with or without professional help.
People are waking up to the understanding that while design is an incredible force for good, the way it’s often practiced today is wildly consumerist and toxic to the environment and the economy. Last year was Big Fashion’s year to wake up to its environmental responsibility. This year, it’ll be the turn of interior design and architecture. Let’s see who has a bigger impact, sooner. With people like Katie at the helm, I think I know how to bet.
Tell us a little about your background.
I’m the founder and principal designer of Storey Design. We’re a boutique design firm based in San Francisco. Since I could walk, I began plotting how to create more space, carve better lines, and clear shorter pathways in every room I enter. Spaces to me are more than just a place where you lay your head or create your product. If designed well, they hold the power to help you take deeper breaths and put you back together again after a tough day.
I’m also the founder of the Good Future Design Alliance, which is an industry-wide movement to reduce our contribution to the landfill system by 50% in the next five years. Through our membership platform, we’re equipping professionals and businesses with the tools they need to make this dramatic shift toward a 50% reduction in waste.
I live in Bernal Heights with my husband, James Nestor, and our dog, Mima.
How did you get into the world and business of design? (WHAT a great pivot story!!!)
I went to undergrad at Georgetown University, then received an environmental masters certificate and spent years on Wall Street working for a sustainable investment firm. I consider that the fairly straightforward and buttoned up part of my life. Fast forward to when I left Wall Street to pursue my dream of being an interior designer in SF. I moved to Buenos Aires for a year before settling in San Francisco, where I began interior design school and worked part-time in design-related jobs to get a better view of what the interior design world entailed.
In 2014 I started Storey Design and have felt inspired and fulfilled nearly every minute of the adventure. I love my work (I’ve been rearranging rooms in my head since I was 10) and the opportunity to connect deeply with clients. However, after a few years I quickly became disgusted by the excess consumption and blatant waste created in the industry. So I started searching out other options for my own biz model and asking important Qs: Could things be done differently across the industry? The answer: “Yes. We have no other choice.” With grit and heart and the collective commitment of designers and builders, the GFDA is on our way. And a new era of Storey Design is in process.
What form did your interest in sustainability take in your design business before you founded GFDA? How did you translate what you’d been doing in terms of sustainable investment to your design business? Or was there a disconnect?
I always held sustainability in my mind while designing projects, but admittedly, there were times when the project deadline or budget took precedence and I had to let my environmental awareness slide. But then, the real turning point was being at a large commercial install downtown and seeing packaging peanuts, plastics, and styrofoam in piles everywhere. I realized that I had a role in this waste; after all, I had purchased all this stuff for my client. I had a bit of a breakdown. I wondered what I could do to change our industry, to make even a small improvement. I realized it wasn’t enough to make sustainability-focused, low-waste changes in just my small firm. There needed to be a greater alignment across sectors in the design industry. That was when I realized that the design industry needed a paradigm shift in our thinking. We needed a cohesive movement to make large scale change.
So how would you describe GFDA? What are your goals?
The GFDA is an alliance of architects, interior designers, builders, landscapers, makers, and retailers committed to reducing our contribution to the landfill system by 50% in the next five years. That’s 50% fewer sofas in the landfill, 50% fewer packaging peanuts, 50% fewer tear-downs.
We’re an industry-led movement, and through our membership platform, we’re equipping professionals and businesses with the tools they need to make this dramatic shift toward a 50% reduction in waste. But, more than that, we’re asking the industry to make a huge shift in the way we do business. We’re asking people to do more than comply with regulations, to do more than the least amount required.
You founded GFDA to reduce the environmental impact of the design, architecture and building industries on the environment, starting with waste. When did you realize that it was such a problem? What was your epiphany that something has to be done?
I was at a large commercial install downtown and I remember seeing packaging peanuts, plastics, and styrofoam in piles everywhere. I realized that I had a role in this waste; after all, I had purchased all this stuff for my client. I had a bit of a breakdown. I wondered what I could do to change our industry, to make even a small improvement. I realized it wasn’t enough to make sustainability-focused, low-waste changes in just my small firm. There needed to be a greater alignment across sectors in the design industry. That was when I realized that the design industry needed a paradigm shift in our thinking. We needed a cohesive movement to make large scale change.
Why start with solid waste?
Let’s consider the numbers: 500 million tons of construction and demolition debris and 12.2 million tons of furniture and furnishings end up in US landfills every year. So much of this is single-use. I realize that our industry is built on consumption. We sell new things to make a living. But it doesn’t have to be that way; we don’t have to produce so much waste.
Why did you decide to start a NEW organization? Weren’t other players in the industry trying to do this already?
Certainly. There are many firms doing great work to become LEED certified and energy efficient with net zero emissions. However, there was no group focused on waste. And no group that incorporated all the sectors in the industry. It’s the cross-pollination that I believe can elicit change in how we design, build, and manufacture.
From a process perspective, how did you go about forming GFDA? Did you do a lot of research with potential members? How did you go about recruiting your advisory board?
We spent about a year researching what was already out there (i.e. LEED, BCorps, etc.) to make sure we weren’t directly competing with any group already in existence. Then, in Spring 2019 we hosted a dinner with leading Bay Area design professionals to have an honest, transparent conversation around waste and what the major sticking points were around this issue. Were people concerned about it? Was anybody doing anything about it? If so, what? If not, why? From there, we brought on the original 16 members who helped us define overarching goals, membership pricing, resources for the toolkit, and launched the paid membership platform in January 2020.
What does success look like in year 1? Year 5?
We’re a new alliance, and know we’re trying to tackle a big issue within an even bigger industry. This is not going to be easy or straightforward, but we are committed to making a dent in the amount we contribute to the landfill, and in how we operate as an industry. We’re doing this by creating a self-auditing movement of professionals who want to innovate, share trade secrets, and revolutionize the industry.
We’ve recently opened up our paid membership platform. We’re starting in the Bay Area, and by 2021, we’ll be branching out into other cities. Again, it comes back to the impact of scale. The goal is to get as many businesses involved in low-waste practices to make the biggest possible impact.
This is both a movement AND an organization! How do you plan on building the movement?
We started this as a platform through which we can figure out the solutions together. We give various sectors of the industry an action oriented toolkit to hit their goals, but we also connect the dots. It’s this cross-pollination that I believe can elicit change in how we design, build, and manufacture. Look at the companies who have led the way so far. Heath Ceramics is zero waste. Coyuchi has a fully circular economy. Herman Miller has been working on ways to minimize their environmental footprint for decades. Just imagine if all sectors of our industry join in, with a common goal-we’d make a tremendous impact. We want people to join us in accomplishing this together.
How is GFDA changing the way you work in your design business? And how does having this kind of legacy project change the way you go about your life? (Other than cutting into sleep.) What I’m trying to get to here is this belief I have that a sense of legacy-even more than a sense of purpose-creates a different way of working and being. It’s a hypothesis right now, so just curious!
It’s dramatically changed the way I operate. I source differently. I dispose differently. I approach projects and clients differently. I’m essentially beta-testing the membership platform and it’s working. I’ve significantly reduced my waste without impacting my bottom line. My clients understand my priorities and appreciate the approach.