How to create a truly sustainable workplace

What are the key considerations architects and designers take into account when designing and building sustainable workplaces of the future?


Sustainable office

The last decade has seen a noticeable shift in the way architects and builders formulate and construct a workplace. For Nicola Gillen, head of total workplace, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Cushman & Wakefield, having a sustainable workplace design is paramount for productivity. “A bad office can really impact on output and happiness,” she insists.

To create the most productive work environment, Gillen recommends companies focus on three key areas: the psychological benefits and the wellbeing of workers; how technology integrates and enhances workflow; and the sustainability of the initial build and ongoing maintenance.

Not only is the world’s understanding of sustainability growing, but so too is the technology and expertise involved. The number of practitioners working and innovating in this sector is the highest it has ever been.

Designing smarter office buildings

Design scientist and systems theorist Dr Melissa Sterry says this growth spurt is a promising sign for the world of sustainable workplace design, as more talent equates to greater potential. “It’s a very exciting time to be in the built environment industries,” says Sterry. “We’re in the very early stages of a paradigmatic shift unfolding at considerable speed.”

While exciting changes are afoot, the secret to effective sustainable workplace design does not lie in outlandish architecture or extreme artificial intelligence (AI). The problem requires a simplified and thoughtful solution.

“The foremost factor to remain consistent in the workplace is the impact of a company’s culture on its employees,” says Sterry who emphasises the importance of the key principle that humans are a social species. “Little else matters more than relationships in business,” she says.

Old theories informing new sustainable designs

It’s arguably for this reason that core principles haven’t drastically changed since the early days of workplace design formed at the turn of the century.

Architect Gary Clark, chair of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Sustainable Futures Group, says the most significant change is the understanding of the importance of daylight. “Architecture through the late-1900s became sealed glass boxes ironically with poor quality of daylight and a corresponding lack of personal control,” he says.

Rather than designing things that can only be used once, we’re designing them so they can be disassembled and used again and again

The White Collar Factory in London’s Old Street opened in 2017, complete with flexible and customisable workspaces, adaptable common spaces, floods of natural light and a running track on the roof.

“What the current generation is doing now is effectively rediscovering the passive design principles of the Romans, the Renaissance, the Georgians and the Victorians,” says Clark.

The RIBA Sustainable Futures Group, for example, is reintroducing these principles into their coursework and giving awards to designs that are both sustainable and humane. Preferred characteristics include no fixed desks, mobile technology, working in a setting that suits the mood and activity, sticky spaces for deep collaboration, blurring inside and outside, contact with wind, sun and greenery, as well as mixing eating, working and socialising.

Google’s London HQ is an outstanding example of these design principles on a large scale, while a smaller example of best practice is the 19-strong collection of co-working offices by London-based brand Club Workspace.

Constructing a sustainable office using a circular economy

What were once optional extras for designers have become imperatives in the creation of sustainable workplace design. However, designers can still lose their way, says Sterry. “We still see a lot of very crude, and in the worst instance, misguided approaches,” she says, referencing placing plants on balconies and roofs without checking for potential risks, for example.

Sustainable design involves recycling materials for use in construction. For instance, engineers and manufacturers have problem-solved how to create an entire flooring system using recycled materials, such as ghost or abandoned fishing nets.

Rather than designing things that can only be used once, we’re designing them so they can be disassembled and used again and again

Currently pushing the boat out in this sector is British startup Biohm. Not only is the company working towards fabricating construction materials from waste products, such as paper and even dried orange peel, but it’s also working towards an off-site modular construction approach.

Gillen favours a so-called circular economy as a streamlined solution to sustainable workplace design. “It’s about designing for modularity, disassembly and re-assembly,” she says.

This could involve avoiding some adhesives in furniture construction and instead employing slotted techniques, upcycling and maintenance of cupboard frames while only replacing countertops. She says: “Rather than designing things that can only be used once, we’re designing them so they can be disassembled and used again and again.”

She estimates that the average organisation goes through a physical office change roughly every 18 months. Therefore, eliminating waste and creating reusable products are central to sustainable workplace design.

Cutting carbon footprint and increasing energy efficiency

“The typical office is a receiver not a giver of resources, of energy, water and other materials,” says Sterry. But technologies are fast developing that enable businesses to flip workplaces into resource production. This could include the micro-harvesting of energy through solar panels and wind turbines, as well as the use of AI water technology by companies such as Living PlanIT to harvest and process rainwater.

Green office stats

There is also increased pressure for businesses to turn waste streams into resources. Some multinationals, including Microsoft, have made the commitment to become carbon negative, for example.

“In many sectors, including tech, employees are typically more informed and thus concerned about environmental issues, including climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss,” says Sterry. “Climate change and its consequences will render some currently habitable sites unsuitable for homes, offices and factories, due to increased flooding and coastal erosion, among other reasons.”

An eco-friendly approach will attract the brightest talent

An organisation’s sustainability agenda is becoming as important, if not more so, as its bottom line. While profits will always remain a priority, increasingly stakeholders and employees expect a measurable commitment to sustainable best practices.

“We have a strong bottom-up pressure for workplace sustainability and wellbeing,” says Gillen, who references younger generations pushing for meaningful organisational change. “Soon there will be a time when, if an organisation cannot prove strong targets and certifications, people won’t want to work for them.”

Yet all experts warn that decision-makers no longer have the luxury of time to deliberate the perfect approach to sustainable workplace design. “We cannot wait to find the holy grail,” RIBA’s Clark concludes. “We need to act now with our current knowledge and with a holistic sensitivity to any unintended consequences.”