Sustainability at your desk

Green projects
Fitting out offices isn’t just about adding chill-out zones, social rooms and flexible workspaces – it’s also one of the ways a company can reduce its carbon footprint to achieve its ESG goals

An office is a living, evolving organism. It needs to adapt to survive – and these days, the office has to adapt to changing staff numbers and the hybrid working model. It also increasingly has to foster productivity, creativity and a feeling of well-being. When we also add the need to function as a showpiece for the company and its changing visual branding to these requirements, the effective life of an office fit-out turns out to be no more than around five years. And then the fun begins all over again, as the old set of office furniture is sent out to the landfill, while another arrives straight from the factory. Which means that the carbon emissions soar.

Every office fit-out comes at a cost, which is not only financial but also environmental – a fact that both designers and their clients are increasingly becoming aware of. “To design an office based on sustainable development principles is to create space that is economical as well as user- and environmentally-friendly. This is why the most forward-thinking firms are now open and eager to adopt such an approach,” believes Dymitr Malcew, an interior designer who works with such studios as Hoof.

Ideally, what we are aiming to create as we try to avoid a global environmental catastrophe is a closed economy (otherwise known as a circular economy), where nothing is thrown away and is instead re-used. According to research and design studio Workplace, circularity is currently one of the five most important design trends in the post-pandemic world. “When we implement circular economy principles we ought to be guided by the ‘less waste’ ideal,” reads the company’s website.

CO2 emissions in the crosshairs

However, according to Anna Rębecka, the senior creative architect at Tétris Design Studio, the term ‘circular office’ might seem a little contrived when applied to the design and finishing of an office project, since it already involves many aspects that support a closed economy. “Designers operate more in terms sustainability and sustainable development. I’m talking mainly about reducing carbon dioxide emissions and waste, but also when it comes to the choice of suitable logistics companies and suppliers that follow ESG practices, along with, in the end, the use of recycled materials,” she says.

Over the last few years, Tétris has been implementing a sustainability code for its fit-out designers and project managers. “This system allows us to assess how close any given project is to the goal of zero net emissions. It also shows us how to reduce our carbon footprint through using the right finishing materials, furniture and greenery, as well as how to focus on the comfort of the user, save water and ensure the correct lighting and air quality,” reveals Anna Rębecka.

“Using the right recycled materials is only one of the many aspects involved in creating modern sustainable office space, but it’s also a very important one. Producers are becoming more creative in how they re-use materials. It’s now becoming commonplace to use plastic recovered from the sea to make furniture, fabrics or other finishing materials,” explains Dymitr Malcew.

Marcin Mazurkiewicz, the business development director of Massive Design, also makes the point that the amount of recycled materials used by the producers of carpeting or other such finishing products is verified by certificates such as Cradle to Cradle. “Such criteria are a guarantee for us that they contain environmentally-friendly materials,” he says.

Dymitr Malcew adds that the majority of leading suppliers also include in their range products that once used can be recycled many times, which lengthens their life-cycle. Ideally, materials should be used that have an EPD (Environmental Product Declaration), which assesses their impact on the environment from the moment they are created to when they are re-used or recycled.

Local and thoughtful

Where an interior design product comes from is also crucial in reducing CO2 emissions, since its transportation will also add to the carbon footprint of the entire project. “For example, office furniture supplier Vank, which works with Tétris, makes a point of using recycled materials, while its entire production takes place in Poland,” says Anna Rębecka.

According to Dymitr Malcew, it is very important to use durable, high-quality products to avoid them being replaced too quickly. “Throwing away furniture and buying new items – even those made from recycled materials – is contrary to the sustainable development ideal. This is why you have to use recyclable goods that can be easily reassembled as well as non-toxic finishing materials, but above all they must be durable and timeless,” insists the designer.

Just how important the small details in a design are for sustainable development can be seen in the work done for Danish energy company Ørsted, whose Warsaw office fit-out is based around the ‘less waste’ principle. “The size of the windows means that fully-glazed panes are used without unnecessary wastage. The ceilings are entirely assembled with panels to minimise the number of cuttings. The number of decorative panels that are going to be used is the same as those in a whole number of boxes supplied by the manufacturer,” explain the designers working on the project.

Is there a way of designing offices that is future-proof? “As early as the design and planning stage, we take decisions that will in future not only minimise the environmental impact, but that also save time and money. The key thing is to be flexible in the design, taking into account the future needs of the client and users, which is why we use light mobile partitions, sound barriers and podiums instead of more traditional walls,” explains Dymitr Malcew.

Before a project is planned and the shopping list is drawn up, it’s also worthwhile finding out what the company already uses. “Tétris actively encourages companies to use what they already have when equipping an office, such as furniture that is sitting in storage,” says Anna Rębecka, who goes on to explain: “Of course, this takes much longer and is more work-intensive, but it is beneficial for the planet. Sometimes, such furniture is much harder to fit into a project due to its colour or its style, but we have an answer to that. In such cases we can change the upholstery or renovate the wood. We would like to ask Polish producers to widen the range of their services to include furniture renovation.”

For Ørsted’s Warsaw Office, designed by Workplace, once an inventory was taken of the office furniture and by following the right approach, all the desks and chairs that were brought in were re-used items (after necessary renovation work was done to them). The Massive Design studio also follows such practices. “Together with one of our clients, we recently carried out an office renovation project that re-used many pre-existing elements, such as walls, glazed ceilings and light fittings. In fact, we managed to do this with 80 pct of the materials used. Any remaining fixtures that could be recycled were processed and any unused furniture was sold off to give it a chance of being used again. We also replaced any worn-out surfaces and used the spare carpeting in a new arrangement,” reveals Marcin Mazurkiewicz.

He also emphasises that the studio’s ‘reuse’ concept means less transportation, which not only means limiting the carbon footprint from this but also the use of supply chains, which is something clients began to appreciate during the pandemic.

A laboratory for peace

Dymitr Malcew, who works both with clients in Europe and Asia, feels that the trends when it comes to office fittings are very similar on both continents. “The biggest difference is that the scale of offices in Asia is huge and the rate of their development is very rapid. This means that innovations and new designs can be tested quicker and more often. And because of the shorter rental periods and the more dynamic business environment, the space has to be flexible and adapted quickly to the needs of new users. I believe that offices in Asia, such as those in Singapore, are in a sense a laboratory for the future in the approach to sustainable development applied to them,” he explains.

As war rages across our eastern border, it might seem absurd to be so focused on circular offices, recycling and corporate fit-outs. But we shouldn’t forget that the Russian invasion has been bankrolled by the global addiction to fossil fuels, thanks to which we have also grown accustomed to cheap mass-produced goods that are both easy to make and transport and equally easily thrown away. Up until now reducing hazardous emissions has only meant saving the planet. Now it has become clear that the prospect of peace around the world depends upon it.