- What’s the single most important thing the workspace design sector should be doing right now to improve our chances of creating an environmentally sustainable future?
- This was the question posed by Neil Usher, Chief Workplace and Change Strategist at GoSpace AI to panelists at the Workspace Design Show back in November.
- When you look closely at the fit out industry, waste is created because of design change, and design change starts at the very early stages of any project.
What’s the single most important thing the workspace design sector should be doing right now to improve our chances of creating an environmentally sustainable future?
May Fawzy is the founder of MF Design Studio, an award-winning boutique interior architecture consultancy based in Surrey and London, UK.
When Neil Usher, Chief Workplace and Change Strategist at GoSpace AI, posed this question to a panel at the Workspace Design Show in November, “reducing waste” was the first thing that sprang to Fawzy’s mind.
“62% of UK waste is generated by the construction industry. When you look closely at the fit out industry, waste is created because of design change, and design change starts at the very early stages of any project,” Fawzy explained.
According to Fawzy, waste can occur just after the Cat A stage, when the building’s mechanical and electrical elements are in place and internal walls, receptions and lift lobbies have been constructed.
This tends to happen in the absence of collaboration. A key stakeholder or a designer might decide to change aspects of the Cat A to accommodate their Cat B vision, for instance.
Refitting a building throughout its lifecycle is also problematic from a waste perspective.
“Every time we do that we demolish, take it back to a Cat A standard and then another Cat B design goes in and here we go again – more waste.”
Mitigating waste through mindsets and collaboration
Why does the workspace design industry have such a culture of waste? It’s all about mindsets, said Fawzy.
Understandably, stakeholders – including agents and occupiers – want their workspace to look as “fantastic” as possible. What’s more, “we as designers always want to create great things and [it can be] bad news when you’re told that you’ve got to reuse.”
A simple mindset shift could lead to more sustainable workspaces. Fawzy thinks it’s time we reframed what we mean by a “unique” and “wonderful” space. Does it have to be new? Do we always have to take an interior back to Cat A and start again?
Closer collaboration can also help workspace designers mitigate waste at the intersection of Cat A and Cat B, says Stephen Guy, Chief Integration Officer and Chief of Staff, McCann Group, who contributed a tenant’s perspective to the keynote discussion.
“When we were doing the search for our new building we saw so many that had been fitted out with Cat A or were in the process of it, and they were hiding all of these beautiful original features.”
“I’d expect owner-developers to allow us to use our imagination a bit more. We were very lucky because we had a turnkey operation with our landlord where we could start from scratch before anything was done.
“When we were in the process of seeking out new buildings, bringing together all of our partners, sustainability was a big part of our brief. Some came along with great insights that helped us form our strategy, but others didn’t.”
The role of VR technology in sustainable design
VR technology can be a useful resource for reducing waste because it facilitates the visual communication of ideas effectively, including stakeholders in the process, and enabling them to make more informed decisions.
“The more we communicate [our ideas] the better the results because the end user knows what they’re getting. It minimises the design change throughout the design and construction process and so minimises waste,” said Deepak Parmar, Design Director at MCM Architecture.
“[VR] is a lot more flexible and shows the potential of what their space can look like. Instead of conventional Cat A, we can have a virtual reality walkthrough of the space where you can visualise what it can look like and avoid the waste,” added Fawzy.
Of course, there are certain aspects of workspace design that can only be experienced effectively in person, such as the furniture. Occupiers want to feel the fabrics and test out comfort levels for themselves.
However, as Parmar acknowledged, there’s room for compromise. “You don’t have to kit out an entire mock up space; you can see furniture out of context and still appreciate it.”
Embracing a circular economy model
The traditional linear economy model follows a “take-make-dispose” sequence.
A circular economy, on the other hand, “involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible.” The goal of a circular economy model is to reduce waste and pollution.
According to Parmar, a circular approach should be the default for those operating in the workspace design sector. “The time has ended for excuses around budget or lack of choice or knowledge. We’ve run out of time, frankly.”
There’s no reason why developers can’t reuse and recycle Cat A design materials, argued Fawzy. We should be aware of and plan for the lifecycle of design elements. Will the manufacturer recycle it for you when you no longer need it, for instance?
We’ve published an article on embodied carbon in workspace design, which was inspired by another keynote discussion at the Workspace Design Show.
It contains a case study on the sustainable hotel brand Inhabit, which managed to divert 100% of its construction and fit out waste from landfill. 60% of waste was recycled and the remaining 40% went into energy recovery.
Designing a sustainable WFH experience
There are lots of ways organisations can measure – and thus mitigate – their office carbon footprint.
For example, Guy’s firm recently completed a complete audit with the Carbon Trust. After examining the building, an engineer recommended actions and changes the business can make that have the best paybacks and carbon savings.
But how do we measure sustainability in a work from home context? This question has been playing on Parmar’s mind.
“For some reason when we talk about sustainability in the workplace we’re only really thinking about it when people are in the office. What about the other 60% of the time when they’re out of the office and working virtually?
“During our journey to becoming a B-Corp we were asked some really challenging questions around how we nudge or influence our employees to act sustainably outside the office. Do they have green energy suppliers? Do we provide them with LED lights at home?
“As individuals we all have a responsibility. There’s an app that I use to measure my own personal carbon output. The technology is there, there’s no reason why you can’t gather that data…some gentle nudging by employees would probably have a huge impact.”
Has coworking nailed sustainable interior design?
“Is [coworking] the most responsible model that we have at the moment, and does it call into question the client-led drive to strip out and refit spaces?,” asked Usher to the panel.
“I think coworking spaces have nailed it in terms of an adaptability and flexibility perspective and I can’t see why Cat B can’t be adaptable and flexible,” said Fawzy.
Coworking spaces often use flexible partitioning systems and moveable parts that enable areas to be recognised on an ad hoc basis to suit changing requirements.
While certain design elements can be altered and added, Cat A and the majority of Cat B stays the same in eco-friendly coworking spaces. In other words, space evolves in a less wasteful way; it transforms gradually.
“We can learn from the coworking model in the design approach and how adaptable it has to be because otherwise it doesn’t work. And maybe implement some of that in the way we design for end users for the Cat B model,” Fawzy added.
Do we need to take workspace design waste more seriously?
Despite the climate emergency and the publicity that COP26 garnered in 2021, sustainability still isn’t at the top of the workspace sector’s agenda.
“Don’t get me wrong, over the last 12 months we’ve had clients pushing for more sustainable solutions,” said Parmar. “But the main concern at the moment is [around how to get staff] back into the office. Sustainability can still play a huge part in that, but budget and time frames still fall higher on the agenda than sustainability.”
According to Fawzy, sustainability will top the list of priorities when “we don’t do it as a tick box exercise; when it’s done with everything taken into consideration; during design construction and beyond to occupation.”
“I think the baseline has to be much higher so people know there is a bare minimum that they have to comply with. I don’t think the bare minimum is sufficient at the moment; there should be somebody pushing that forward.”