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Mix Roundtable: How to get the interiors business moving on the road to sustainability

The journey to a sustainable office interior is a long one, and full of potholes. We’ve gathered seven of the sharpest minds in the industry at Interface’s new award-winning Birmingham UK HQ, to map the way forward.

Feature in partnership with Interface

24/11/2020 8 min read

Words: David Thame

The 10th floor of Birmingham’s Colmore Building is a great place to get your bearings. The city is spread out below, and beyond there are hills – green ones. Which made Interface’s new 8,180 sq ft UK head office – a Mixology20 finalist and winner of a regional British Council for Offices sustainability award and now a contender for the national prize – the perfect place to plot the journey to sustainable office design.

An office developer, a cost consultant, an architect, a designer, a surveyor with a specialism in wellbeing, and an academic sat down with us to assess the pathways to a circular economy in office design, the shortcuts that could lead to quick wins, and the skills gaps that could lead to detours and delays.

Their conclusions? That incentives need to come with a hard edge, and that sometimes clients want magic solutions to their sustainability problems. In short, as one of the participants pointed out, it’s all about sharpened carrots and carbon magicians.

According to Interface Head of Sustainability EAAA, Jon Khoo, the hardest lesson to learn is that many sustainability efforts do not aim high enough.

‘This isn’t a race to be less bad,’ he said. ‘We may have until 2030 to make the changes we need to make to the planet, or we may already have passed the tipping point, so solutions aren’t about being 20% less wrong or 20% less bad than we used to be. It has to be about doing more good, about being regenerative.’

Rider Levett Bucknall Head of Sustainability, Heather Evans, agreed. ‘It’s about more than getting away with the basics,’ she said. Gensler Birmingham architect, Matt Redding, who is part of the practice’s resilience team, said some larger corporate office occupiers now grasped this point, but that not enough realised ‘the curve of bad can’t just be allowed to plateau – that can’t be the aim. The curve has to come down.’

Property developers, whose business puts them in the middle of the fight about sustainability between occupier clients and property investors, pointed to a change in mood, which suggested doing good, rather than avoiding bad, was an increasing priority.

‘There is a growing sense of urgency,” Bruntwood Director, Rob Valentine, said. ‘Among the big office space users it used to be quite low, but talk to business leaders today and issues of sustainability are up there at the top. I’ve noticed that sea change quite recently – in the last 12-18 months – and it encourages me. Maybe we’ve reached a tipping point?’

If we have – and Birmingham City University specialist in experimental sustainability, Dr Matthew Jones, wasn’t sure we had – then it is thanks to a younger generation of practitioners. ‘There is a new generation of designers who want to practice what we’ve learned,’ he said. Matthew added that, rather than having passed the tipping point into standard good practice, we are now ‘at mid-tip’.

The view was widely shared. ‘Something does feel different now,’ said Jon, summing up the discussion.

So how can the good mood be turned into good deeds? Where are the quick wins on sustainable office interiors?

You could start with adhesives, suggested Ekkist Director and Co-founder, Olga Turner-Baker. ‘The sustainability issue can’t just be a theme, a box to tick, it has to be ingrained in everything we do – so look at the use of materials; swapping out stuff we know is worse for stuff that is better, because being smarter about what you select doesn’t need to be more expensive,’ she said.

So, for instance, an easy win is to avoid sticking things down – like floor tiles, because it they are stuck down we can’t re-use them even if the carpet tile itself is part of a sustainable circular economy, because we can’t cycle it.’

Jon responded that Interface has developed a product called Tactiles to combat this. They are little PET squares that connect the corners of the floor, replacing glues and making it easy to install, replace and remove – and put back into a circular economy.

But the quickest win of all might be to take time to think, suggested Oktra Design Director, Amina Akhtar.

‘It takes a lot more time to collaborate, it’s about getting everyone to buy in, because the client has to see the value in being sustainable. In areas like Design & Build, where I’m doing a lot of work, it is fast-paced, about producing turnkey solutions in a matter of months, so the time for collaboration is short. When clients think their lease is up on existing offices, they have to move quickly – but to achieve sustainable design takes time to organise. We have to sell the idea of sustainability as part of the design process.’

Becoming advocates for sustainability ‘is incredibly important’ replied Dr Matthew Jones, and Matt Redding reinforced the necessity to interrogate and question clients about what they want, and how they want it. ‘I’ve been told I say reduce, re-use and recycle too often, but it is always a good starting point for discussions,’ he said.

Even the problem of adhesives required more questions, said Jon Khoo. ‘Yes, you can find adhesive solutions for floor tiles, but what about wall tiles? That’s going to need some work,’ he said.

‘We’re working with suppliers to reduce carbon footprints, and what we’re saying to the market is that if you can make a carbon neutral product, why wouldn’t you? We have to be more ambitious.’

Yet even the most thoughtful questioning, and most patient conversations with clients, can’t work if the client doesn’t know what they want. Getting it right early in the design process can save time, money and frustration later on says RLB’s Heather Evans.

‘It’s all very good having individual bright ideas, but it all needs marrying together and that has to be done at the project or master planning level. It needs to be done early. Suddenly asking in the middle of a project for BREEAM Excellent or net zero carbon is going to lead, often, to the answer that it is just too late in the day,’ she said.

And that is because designers, architects and developers are not carbon magicians, said Matt Redding. ‘Exactly,’ Heather agreed. ‘The watchword is: anticipate.’

For Bruntwood’s Rob Valentine, quick wins depend on government policy. Without it, progress will be slow and stuttering.

‘This is all about leadership, because the technology exists. We’re working on carbon neutral schemes so we know it can be done, but the house building community has too much pull with government, they call the shots, and they are holding it back,’ he said, and won instant applause from Jon Khoo, who added that the way the government approaches carbon taxes could be decisive.

‘There’s also a role for banks and lenders,’ Rob responded. ‘Lenders need to reflect the lower running costs of sustainable buildings.’

Could this mean mortgages that rewarded borrowers for making a more sustainable choice, asked Jon? Definitely, replied Rob.

And yet, even if the policy is right, and the carbon cycle is spinning, do the right skills exist in the right combinations to make it work? That’s not clear, said Olga Turner-Baker, particularly as projects near delivery.

‘Some of the skills are missing at the end of the building process, at the handover, when you get clients asking how you run these systems,’ she said. ‘There are too many examples of systems included in a building or fit-out, but never operated properly.’

Management skills in general need improving, said Heather Evans. Perhaps designers could take the lead in helping other stakeholders learn, particularly those in the construction sector?

The conservatism of some in the building process – ‘stuck in a rut’ said one of our guests, ‘running on tramlines’ said another – caused a groan around the table.

‘There are some – many – who care a lot, and they think it all the way through. Manufacturers and suppliers who consider everything: Who made this component? How? And so on,’ Heather continued.

‘And yet you suggest something new to some contractors, and they ask, ‘Has it been tested?’ And you say, ‘No’. You try to make it work, and it sometimes feels like they stick with old ideas just because they know them, and perhaps they are also worried about insurance?’

Most in the room agreed with Rob Valentine when he said there was still a long way to go.

‘We are a million miles away from where we need to be on manufacturing issues, but I’m encouraged even so. The government is talking about a green recovery, and about building back better, and that could be a real opportunity for designers and researchers to work with business to scale-up sustainable technologies.

‘It is up to the developer to take the lead, and help contractors if they want to take that step towards new ideas.’

Today, with policy obstacles and some ingrained conservatism, is the circular economy a real thing or just a pious ambition? The mood in the room was modest, but hopeful.

‘This is an area that’s definitely improving,’ said RLB’s Heather Evans. ‘But we’re not there, not by any stretch of the imagination, because you need to design for deconstruction as well as construction, which means simple things like screwing things together, not gluing or nailing. This kind of thinking is more mainstream, but there is still a long way to go.’

Gensler’s Matt Redding was also sceptical. ‘It is a bit of a buzzword. We’re a long way off because so many in construction don’t want to take the risks,’ and he pointed to Olga’s suggestion about fear of insurance risks. ‘For whatever reasons, some people don’t want to touch it,’ he said.

According to Dr Matthew Jones, the trade-offs between sustainable solutions and efficiency have not yet been calculated.

‘What we need to think about is what we do with buildings or fit-outs at the end of their life – how they are repurposed. That isn’t yet a mainstream issue. And yes, screwing timber together takes longer than hammering in nails, so we have issues here about efficiency versus the needs of the circular economy,’ he said.

Interface’s Jon Khoo agreed. ‘We can make our flooring from waste fishing nets, waste nylons, and we can make beautiful stuff out of waste, but we also need to think about what happens at the end of our product’s life – so takeback schemes can work – but maybe we also have to get away from the idea of the economy being perfectly circular, where one object becomes another. What if it ends up in five different outcomes? It would give more options to the designers,’ he said, ending with a call to value waste at its proper, higher value. ‘If we don’t put a proper value on waste then it will always be easier to burn or to bin,’ he warned.

Oktra’s Amina Akhtar appealed for developers to resist standardised solutions (or assumptions) about occupiers. ‘Too often, the issue with CAT A floorspace is that the occupier comes in and starts to fit out to CAT B, which immediately means that out go the expensive ceilings – literally hundreds of thousands of pounds chucked out because you can’t re-use them. It’s outrageous, it’s crazy,’ she said.

Rob Valentine didn’t demur. ‘It comes down to building quality. We need to build less waste in,’ he said.

The route to a greener office interior is paved with good intentions. But walking down it will take more than warm thoughts.

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