Priorities in workplace design can sometimes get misplaced. How else can we explain why sustainability has almost fallen off the corporate workplace radar in recent times? Despite certification schemes and commitments around social and environmental responsibility, designers, architects, strategists and clients have been talking up a storm about wellbeing, experience, amenity and social buzz but giving sustainable design the silent treatment.
Given construction generates one-third of all waste in the EU, this is not just inexplicable – it is also perverse. Sustainability sits at the heart of building efficiency and the first wave of smart office infrastructure was intended to lessen the environmental impact of the workplace. Somewhere along the way, the green deal got taken for granted; a new rationale for smart building technology was built around the buzzwords of wellness, collaboration and productivity. Even the craze for biophilic design is framed in terms of talent attraction rather than protecting the planet.
In 2019, however, the pendulum is swinging back. The scenery has shifted, with Extinction Rebellion disrupting the heart of London and British broadcaster David Attenborough and Swedish teenage sensation Greta Thunberg doing the heavy lifting on articulating the dangers of climate change. At Milan Design Week in April, curator Paola Antonelli’s exhibition Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival reminded designers just how fragile things will become if we don’t reverse our carbon footprint. Within the workplace industry itself, there are signs that sustainable thinking is back on the table.
An intelligent new book called Future Office: Next-generation workplace design, compiled by Nicola Gillen of Aecom, has set a trend by coupling workplace design with the circular economy. When Gillen spoke recently at the inaugural Worktech Copenhagen conference, she lamented the practice of ripping out brand new fit-out floors and ceilings when new tenants arrive. Her message about circular economy principles certainly resonated with her Danish audience. But then Denmark has always sought the highest sustainability goals in office design and construction – it hasn’t dropped the green ball the way some UK workplaces seem to have done.
Perhaps the biggest driver of the ecological reboot is the millennial workforce, touted as the most sustainability-conscious group ever to join the global workforce. Millennials want to see their employers do the right thing by the environment. They increasingly choose companies on the basis of corporate behaviour on climate change and – like the Gen Z cohort they will manage in the future workplace – they want to see action rather than words. It all adds up to a ‘perfect storm’ of positive change. But before we all don the hairshirt, consider that the current buzzwords of workplace experience, vibe and social buzz perhaps have more in common with sustainability than you think.
More than ten years ago, on a hot day in Australia, I visited what was then described as the greenest office building on the planet – Melbourne City Council’s CH2 building by architect Mick Pearce, known previously for studying termite ecology to design offices in Zimbabwe without air-conditioning. The project wore its sustainable credentials on its sleeve – from the wind turbines, photovoltaic cells and solar panels on the roof, to the vertical planting, shower towers and chilled ceiling panels. But its gloomy concrete interior made for a dispiriting environment more akin to an underground car park than a busy office space.
As a result, staff were thin on the ground and occupancy rates low. Essentially, what the building gained through conserving energy, it lost through inefficient use of space. The more efficiently that existing office space is used, the less need to build new space. It left me thinking that perhaps the most sustainable offices are not necessarily those that put a wind turbine on the roof, but those that use space and time most efficiently to guarantee high occupancy levels. Perhaps the most sustainable offices require social buzz and animation as well as rigour in recollecting rainwater. It’s something to consider as workplace design priorities go through their umpteenth reset.
Jeremy Myerson is the director of Worktech Academy
As originally featured in the July 2019 Green Issue of OnOffice (145).
Sustainability is at last making a welcome return to the workplace agenda, but let’s not forget that there’s more to energy efficiency than wind turbines