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Positive Impact: Mike Holland, Foster + Partners

Mike Holland, Foster + Partners’ Head of Industrial Design, discusses the practice’s pioneering approach to sustainability and its vision for the future.


5 min read

This article first appeared in Mix Interiors Issue 222

Foster + Partners has been a vocal advocate for meaningful sustainability action. Why is it important for the studio to lead the charge on this and what are the single greatest challenges within sustainable architecture and design?

Foster + Partners’ Industrial Design team produces furniture, lighting, building products and transportation, for clients across the globe. We work closely with our architectural studios, clients and manufacturers, to develop design solutions that are optimised for their performance and the planet.

Addressing crucial concerns about climate change and learning from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are focussing on creating products that are inherently flexible and have longevity. Our approach addresses sustainability holistically, from the efficient use of natural resources to circular economy strategies.

We have a responsibility to be transparent about our products’ sustainable credentials, to make choices clearer for manufacturers and consumers. In 2021, we completed our first Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for the LEVA chair designed by Mattiazzi – an industry leader in sustainable manufacturing. Mattiazzi were extremely open and supportive of the EPD process allowing access to their supplier networks, energy use and manufacturing techniques. Since then, we have been pushing for all of our new products to have an EPD by the manufacturer.

As a practice, one of the greatest sustainable design challenges is accurately quantifying and measuring the carbon content of any project. The EPD process has given us the opportunity to take a forensic view of where materials come from, how they are processed and everything that contributes to their carbon content. It is an extremely comprehensive and detailed overview that allows us to understand how our design decisions impact the sustainability of our products. With this knowledge we can challenge, encourage and guide our clients and product manufacturers on the journey towards more sustainable products.

Sustainability encompasses much more than environmental impact, of course. Can you tell us more about Foster + Partners’ work in emphasising and supporting wellbeing and community impact?

Sustainability is a wide-ranging subject with many definitions. Addressing crucial concerns about climate change, we believe our projects must also encompass the health and wellbeing of our communities.

Products such as the Cordoba Chair, produced in collaboration with B&B Italia, have been designed to enhance relaxation and improve wellbeing in the home or office. This is a chair for lounging in – whether you are reading a book or enjoying a balcony view. There is an honest, tactile quality to Cordoba, which carries through all our industrial design work at the practice.

We also enjoy creating furniture that celebrates the age-old tradition of craftsmanship in everyday objects. Earlier this year we revealed our new DATUM tableware range with FÜRSTENBERG, a series of plates, cups, mugs and bowls that provide exceptional functionality and flexibility. FÜRSTENBERG’s rich history in the production of fine porcelain and commitment to craft made them ideal collaborators.

We have always believed that good, responsible design is only possible with significant contributions from different disciplines. This approach has allowed us to rapidly explore a wide range of solutions from many points of view.

What responsibility does design have to improve our lives?

We believe that industrial designers and architects should be advocates for sustainable design. It is our duty to help clients and manufacturers realise their vision, in the most environmentally conscious way possible. Through processes such as EPDs, we are attempting to make sustainable choices clearer, at every stage of a project. We want to encourage and challenge the manufacturers to embrace more sustainable ways of working and create pieces that gather memories and meaning through successive generations.

Retrofitting is a high priority for the practice. How does Foster + Partners approach this specifically and where is the balance to be struck between creating new structures and reimagining existing ones?

Retrofitting existing buildings is crucial to meeting our net-zero carbon targets. By sympathetically adapting existing structures, we can enhance building performance and functionality, while reducing embodied carbon content.

For many of the same reasons, our Industrial Design team is always striving to design adaptable products which contribute to a circular economy of repair and reuse. The Cordoba Chair has been designed to last – beyond the typical lifespan of a fabric seating component. Material is elegantly pulled and tensioned around the frame of the chair to create an extremely supportive seat. The two parts of the wooden frame, which the seat is attached to,
can be taken apart and put back together again by B&B Italia. This gives customers the option to replace the seat material – significantly extending the chair’s life.

Similarly, the fabric panels which are an integral part of our Soft Cells wall and ceiling system can be easily replaced at the end of their lifespan. First developed for use in the Swiss Re headquarters in London, the tensioned material panels combine the aesthetic benefits of high-quality design fabrics with highly effective acoustic performance.

The practice has been unafraid to take public positions. What metrics or insight does the practice use to shape these positions and can you tell us more about the internal sustainability group, and its role in steering the practices of the organisation?

We have specialist in-house teams for carbon impact assessments, environmental analysis, materials research, landscape and workplace design, and environmental and structural engineering. Together with the design teams, they develop sustainable frameworks and identify environmental targets for a healthier world.

Our Sustainability Group employs the Foster + Partners Responsibility Framework (FRF) across all projects. The framework measures sustainability performance and captures and shares key data as evidence. This ensures that progress across all projects can be tracked, audited and reported.

The practice’s philosophy of working alongside manufacturers, carefully crafting products, exploring, refining and optimising each element, and
experimenting with innovative materials and technology finds reflection and resolution in every piece.

What does a sustainable future look like for Foster + Partners?

We believe an appetite for enquiry and discovery is essential for a sustainable future. By maintaining a commitment to research we are not only up to date with new developments and techniques but are also able to thoroughly evaluate their relevance for environmental and functional performance on individual projects. At the heart of our investigations is an examination into how we optimise a product or building’s potential for progressive change.

A sustainable future will also require meaningful commitment from designers, manufactures and suppliers – who must work together to create inherently flexible products and spaces, which can be easily adapted or reconfigured, to last for generations. The focus needs to shift towards recycling and repair, in order to reduce waste and create a closed-loop system.

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