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 Weekin 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.