Bringing a green edge to office design
Many businesses across the UK are moving beyond merely placing recycling bins in kitchens and putting up notices asking people to print fewer documents as part of their green thinking in the workplace initiatives.
As companies pay greater attention to their own environmental footprint, they’re taking a closer interest in how their interior design and internal business practices can better support their external sustainability commitments and help to eliminate waste.
Furnishing new office space or refitting existing offices are often prime opportunities for boosting a company’s green credentials among employees and clients, says Stuart Finnie, Head of Design at Tetris.
“Many companies also know the value of a well-designed, modern workplace in attracting and retaining staff,” he says. “Yet each time a company fits out or redesigns its office space, it’s adding to its carbon footprint. The question therefore becomes how they can do it in a more sustainable way?”
During renovations, repurposing, reusing or recycling items from glass panels and carpets to laptops and desks is becoming a more popular choice. When the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) created a new office in London’s Shoreditch it retained and reused blinds, carpets, kitchen cabinets and network cabling, for example.
Other businesses are also considering how existing furnishings can be re-purposed to deliver reductions in both carbon footprint and costs when renovating office space. A project at the London offices of First Mile, a recycling business, saw 86 percent of furniture reused or remanufactured and existing flooring was recycled where possible.
There are financial incentives to doing so. In the UK, office waste costs businesses £15 billion a year, according to Business in the Community, the Prince of Wales’ responsible business network.
Green redesigns tie into the growing interest in the circular economy, which aims to keep materials and products in use at their highest value for as long as possible and then recycle or remodel them at the end of their life cycle.
Aleksandra Smith-Kozlowska, senior sustainability consultant with JLL UK, says the use of circular principles isn’t simply about reducing waste: “It’s about understanding what resources you currently own and how you can maximize their value, either by reusing them to make efficiencies or selling them on.
“Why not design buildings so plasterboard, ceiling tiles, glass, timber, computers and plastics can be easily removed and reused or recycled in the manufacture of new products?”
A new breed of recycled products
Advancing technology is driving progress by making the market for office furniture and furnishings more innovative - and eco-friendly.
Finnie says that manufacturers are increasingly taking ownership of the sustainable furniture space amid growing corporate demand as companies not only rewrite their own environmental policies but expect their suppliers to be improving their own carbon footprint too.
“The biggest shift has been in the way products are being developed,” he says. “Companies no longer have to choose between inferior products from sustainable sources and high-quality products with a big environmental impact. Even if it’s not immediately obvious that furniture and furnishings are sustainably sourced and made, it’s one area where they can really reflect their brand values.”
Take Innocent Drinks, for example, where their desks, like their drinks cartons, are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Elsewhere, discarded fishing nets are being used to create a range of products from flooring to office chairs, while reclaimed wood can be used in desks and plastic bottles are enjoying a second life as tables or even cushion covers.
And for companies who don’t want to manage the process of buying and disposing of their own furniture, there’s the growing office furniture leasing market, with IKEA the latest to join as part of its drive towards goods that can be repaired, reused, recycled or resold
“By leasing furniture, companies leave the responsibility for the product with the manufacturer, so it’s up to them to design good quality items that can last longer and be reused,” says Smith-Kozlowska.
Flex space growth rethinks design
The rise of flexible office space, enabling businesses to quickly upscale or downscale, also offers opportunities to design out waste.
“Modular systems allow office space to be reconfigured to meet a company’s changing needs,” says Finnie. “Plus, partitioning can easily be moved from one office to another and re-used across portfolios.”
Yet for some companies struggling to adapt to rapidly changing workplaces, understanding how to embed sustainable thinking and practices can be a challenging task.
Egle Sakalauskaite, senior sustainability consultant in JLL’s UK team says many businesses believe the circular economy is too complicated. “Although rethinking business models can be a complex task, it can be broken down into tangible steps all businesses can take – all it requires is a shift in mindset,” she says.
She believes companies will need to start considering the lifespan of products and use of space at the design stage, so they factor into their plans and costings exactly how materials and furnishings can be recycled from the outset.
Guidelines and legislation to help businesses design out waste, a move the UK government is considering, could make a difference in encouraging more companies to embrace sustainable office design, says Smith-Kozlowska.
Ever more sophisticated technology could also help to make sustainable products a more affordable option and growing public demand for companies to be environmentally responsible also have a role to play.
“There are always improvements to make when it comes to sustainable office design,” says Finnie. “Companies are ultimately making the decisions on workplace fit-outs but momentum around the use of greener products and materials also needs to build among manufacturers and the wider public.”