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Mix Roundtable: Dismantling the Sustainability Myths

We explode some of the myths surrounding sustainability; consider whether good in practice trumps perfect on paper; and ask if sustainable design is an ongoing journey, not a destination.

Feature in partnership with Tarkett

04/07/2022 6 min read
This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 220

Words: Harry McKinley


We’re in the heart of Clerkenwell at Tarkett’s showroom. The huddle of streets surrounding are a sardine tin of suppliers, manufacturers and design brands. It is here that the decisions are made, projects envisioned and, perhaps, the future decided – with lead times seeing the products selected on these thoroughfares today, defining the shape of the built landscape tomorrow.

Once on the periphery and now at the centre of design discussions, sustainability is arguably the defining issue of our times. But are we making those decisions based on sustainability fact or fiction, and how honest are the sustainability narratives driving commercial interior design projects?

Our assembled roundtable participants are all experts in their fields, all passionate proponents of a more environmentally conscious path, and each representative of an organisation of scale that has – to some degree – an ability to move the needle. But we’ve assembled not to discuss what they know to be true, but what they know to be false, in a bid to dismantle the myths surrounding sustainability and tackle the misunderstandings corrupting how we address it.

“Well, firstly, people often don’t understand exactly what’s involved, how deep it runs and how complex it can be,” says tp bennett’s Chris Webb. “It’s quite an emotional subject that means a lot of different things to different people. One of the biggest misconceptions is that ‘sustainability’ is one objective when, in actual fact, it depends on the individual.”

BDP’s Lucy Townsend agrees: “And because it means different things to different people, there’s a commonly held view that approaching something sustainably requires sacrifice; that a sustainable decision comes at the detriment of something else.” Or, as many around the table note, that it will come at a heightened literal cost.

Weighing up investment on a commercial interior can be nebulous: there’s the ticket price, the cost over lifetime and, of course, the impact that one decision could have on other elements or factors – and the associated cost impact there. But ultimately, at its most fundamental level, does designing sustainably cost more?

“No, of course not. I don’t think sustainability has to be more expensive at all,” explains ISG’s Anna Foden.  “That’s absolutely a myth. But what is accurate is that you have to do the work. I’m not saying it’s easier.”

For Tarkett’s Michael Aastrup however, it needn’t be more difficult: “Another myth, then, is that you can’t find products to tick all the boxes a specifier needs. It’s absolutely possible to find truly sustainable products, without compromising on design, functionality and even price.”

Granted, it may not easier, but if no more difficult, then it might be tricky to understand where the rub is. Yet the journey of development and design is a long and sometimes tangled one. Regularly quoted research by the EU Eco-Design Directive suggests 80% of a building’s impact may be decided in its formative stages; that within the first 1% of budget commitment, 70% of lifecycle costs could be determined. Those numbers are, admittedly, debated, but the table bristles.

“Well, there’s the next myth,” notes Landsec’s Diane Karner, “that it’s possible for us to solve these issues alone. Let’s be honest, there’s quite a big gap between what we’re talking about and what’s actually possible. It’s very difficult to actually design and deliver a sustainable building or interior. The parameters need to be set at the very beginning of a project and everyone needs to be on board. So not just the designer or the developer, but also every single supplier and every manufacturer, so they’re all working together. If we all start from the same place, then we can get it right.”

For Woodalls’ Ana Rita Martins, it’s also about involving all stakeholders at all points: “A client can’t get to a late stage in development, realise they haven’t introduced strong sustainability ambition, and then try to force it in. That only leads to poor outcomes and spiralling costs.”

A more inclusive process, greater sustainability consideration from the outset and a recognition that making the right choices may pose a few challenges:
it all sounds a rather easy fix, but one predicated on a ‘business as usual’ approach. For Perkins&Will’s Clay Thompson, it’s not so simple. In fact, he attests, what we really need is radical, rapid change.

“All of us here have a certain way of looking at the world, which is maybe a little bit more utopian. People earlier downstate in the process see the world in a slightly different way, if we’re being candid. So the biggest misconception we have to grapple with is connected

to the scale and urgency of the issue,” he says. “A lot of people are saying that now’s the time to act. But the truth is, we should have been acting 20 or 30 years ago. And I don’t say that from a point of negativity, but as a kind of impetus to push us forward. We really need to be  radical in our aims and quite ruthless. It’s not the time to walk slowly if we want to make real impact.”

“Which means looking at sustainability from all angles,” continues Etain Fitzpatrick of John Robertson Architects. “The UN has 17 points for sustainable development, which encompass poverty, wellbeing and everything that would contribute towards a more sustainable world. As professionals, we can probably address specific points in terms of construction and the products we specify, but we can also do more to engage with programmes and local communities. And we forget that individually we can make an impact as well, through the choices we make as consumers.”

“We have to pick our battles a bit,” continues Webb, even if, for Aastrup, the built environment is a good place to start: “It represents the largest area for consumption of energy and it’s the source of 60% of waste, after all.”

If our cities, our buildings and our workplaces are contributing so ominously to the climate emergency then what are myths driving poor decision making with poor tangible outcomes, and what can be done differently?

“People often think they’re doing the right thing, but the best way is to interrogate the choices; ask questions,” says Foden. “Ask a facilities manager if they’re really going to use 500 heat meters on every floor. If the answer is no, then don’t put them in. Has anyone else ever tried to install rainwater harvesting? Has it ever worked? I already know the answer is no. Great idea, but one of thousands that in practice don’t really work.”

For Rita Martins, it comes down to usage: “We need to ask how we make buildings useful for the most amount of time. There’s a huge misunderstanding that if you design a space sustainably, it’s therefore sustainable. But if you only use it 20% of the time, how sustainable is that?”

“And how sustainable was it really, to begin with?” poses Karner. “I was once tasked retrospectively to do embodied carbon measurements as part of a furniture installation. I contacted all of the suppliers and manufacturers and, digging deeper, most of the information was completely valueless, because it was just taken from some benchmarking documents; so looked great on paper, but actually meant nothing. So one solution is to dig deeper.”

Responding, Townsend notes the need for longer term engagement: “Sustainability isn’t a straightforward target. We don’t do anywhere near enough post- occupancy evaluation. Back to that misunderstanding that you either make a good or bad choice – in reality, sometimes it’s necessary to go back three years down the line and see what worked and what didn’t. In terms of driving us successfully, sustainably forward, that kind of examination is what we need.”

“The industry absolutely doesn’t consider beginning-to- end enough,” Webb agrees. “I mean, 30-years is a great lifespan for a Tarkett product, but a 25-year warranty from a supplier is meaningless if someone is going to rip it up after seven years.”

“Which is why end of life and recyclability is as important to us as how well a product functions when it’s in use,” Aastrup acknowledges.

One of the core messages our table agrees on is that myths and misunderstandings are fuelled, mostly, by a lack of education and not by unsound judgement. In that respect then, they coalesce around the idea that combating them won’t come from criticism or condescension, but from solidarity.

“We all need to approach this challenge from a position of positivity,” FItzpatrick explains. “We have to work together to achieve our aims and it’s vital we take everyone along on the journey.”

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