Environmentally-friendly or “green” production design is becoming the norm. It’s my marching orders for many shows, and all of my jobs feature some green elements today. I often suggest green alternatives to clients, and they’re starting to see how easy it is to take advantage of the options. But, admittedly, green set design is initially more expensive—with upfront costs 10 to 30% higher—so I need a show’s blessing to pull it off.

Even if higher upfront expenses are a given, the use of tax rebates and certain post-show practices offer ways to recoup those costs. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg is very active in the green movement and has instituted a number of green incentive programs. Many corporate clients like NBC have internal incentives to offset the cost of green set design. Producers need to explore the financial gain or loss associated with every decision in a production, but, in my experience, if they opt for green set design, they’ll either break even or come out ahead at the end.

Start Thinking Green Early
The most important issue in green production design is early involvement by the set designer. A majority of my clients, on a diverse roster of projects, now ask about green set options up front. If a client wants to go green, the production designer needs to know going in so he or she can start doing research, make apples-to-apples green vs. non-green budget comparisons, incorporate choices in the design process, and line up appropriate vendors.

All of that takes time, especially if you’re a designer who hasn’t worked green before; there’s a learning curve to take into account. Realistically, there may not always be time to implement all of the necessary pre-planning, but it is usually possible to put at least a few green decision into effect.

Fortunately, at least one of those steps has become very easy for production designers: sourcing green vendors. With a greater public awareness of green living today, you can get instant gratification in green shopping. The eco-superstore Green Depot, for example, which sells green building supplies and materials to homeowners and professionals, recently opened in Manhattan. When I designed the MTV series Real World: Brooklyn, the turnaround was so fast that there was no time to shop trade-only (traditionally the best way to locate green options). I had to go retail/commercial, but on Real World, I had plenty of eco-friendly choices.

Making green choices starts in the set designer’s office. Instead of working with paper, binders, and plastic, most work can be done digitally with a lot more flexibility. At Vibrant Design, we draft with CAD and store data on external servers. Although we still buy books for research, there are such wonderful design blogs and image sources on the web that 90% of the visual research I do is online. Even in situations where I don’t believe the computer works as well as traditional methods for me—such as client presentations where I prefer the tactile nature of paper—I can choose recycled paper products.

Green Options Multiply
Construction shops have reached a green critical mass in the last 12 months. Designers pushing them to work green have helped turn many of these shops in an eco-friendly direction.

I often work with Showman Fabricators in Long Island City, which has a green mandate in their business plan. They suggest green options for me to present to the client. With some other shops I have to specify exactly the kind of green materials I’d like them to use: low VOC paint, recycled glass and carpet, salvaged windows. Just about everything can be green these days but their usage has to be instigated by the designer.

It’s useful to have shops bid a job showing green and non-green costs. Or you can get bids from shops that are green and shops that aren’t. I do a lot of legwork comparing different bids and laying out products for the client, so it’s immediately clear what they get for their money; facilitating the understanding of what the choices are and why they should be considered makes it much easier for a producer to make a green decision.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Ellen Waggett’s discussion of eco-friendly options.

Ellen Wagget has extensive network television credits most recently designing the hip, colorful set for MTV’s The Real World: Brooklyn and co-designing NBC’s new Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. She was production designer on ABC’s Hope & Faith from 2004-2006 and art director on the first season of FX’s Damages; she won an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Art Direction in 2004 for her work on the NBC series, Whoopi. Waggett also served as production designer on Stephen Colbert’s A Colbert Christmas, Food Network’s Chopped, Worst Cook, and Food Detectives and the second season of Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style.www.vibrantdesign.tv