Sustainable office spaces – what the future holds for commercial design

30th May 2022

There’s no escaping the fact that sustainability has well-and-truly found itself a seat at the boardroom table recently – but is the notion of sustainability a longstanding principle that’s here to stay, or just another corporate buzzword?

Our development director, Kirsty Shearer spoke to PBC Today to look at how we can shape the sustainable future of commercial design.

The architecture and construction sector is not alone in its bid to minimise humanity’s impact on the environment, but we are perfectly positioned to play a part in creating a sustainable future for generations to come – with efficiency and moderation in the supply chain, use of materials, and employees proving central to its success.

While initial thoughts may skip to building information modelling (BIM) as the obvious solution, thanks to its ability to gather data throughout the project lifecycle – enabling faster, safer, less wasteful construction. This, coupled with more cost-effective and sustainable operations is a great place to start.

But our attentions shouldn’t end there.

When considering sustainability within the built environment, it’s important to look beyond the physical elements of construction and examine how we create commercial spaces which fit the bill in terms of function, form, longevity, and wellbeing.

By striving to create developments which not only create a better future for the client, the building, and its occupants, it’s possible to play a role in protecting the future of our planet, too.

Sustainable supply chain in construction

Of course, the ability to develop a sustainable design solution is only ever going to be as strong as those setting the brief, outlining the budget, and making the final decisions. But as ‘net zero’ ambitions make their way onto corporate agendas; it is the collective responsibility of all who operate in the built environment to be that ‘critical friend’ and challenge a brief if there’s a way to make a project more sustainable.

That’s why, rather than adding such a sentiment as a ‘nice to have’, there should be a sustainability target set at the very start – with all parties bought into the strategy and rationale behind it. And it should be revisited, tweaked, and referred to throughout the project roll-out.

Of course, that’s in an ideal world. But a great place to start is by making the case to source materials and labour responsibly – and preferably, locally. Negating the requirement to ship supplies across vast oceans in a bid to keep costs down, will help to reduce the emissions associated with ‘getting’ the infrastructure to site, but also means any product issues can be rectified quickly, too.

With a vast pool of sub-contractors to choose from – in most locations – it pays to be picky. As well as sourcing endorsement from ‘happy customers’, look for proven eco-credentials too, particularly when it comes to recycling, travel, and the firm’s own procurement.

Naturally, there will always be cases where a development is driven entirely by budget and ambition – rather than longer-term implications of the design – or when it’s simply impossible to procure goods in any other fashion.

But, even if you are surrounded by people for whom ethical construction sits at the very bottom of the pile, it is still possible to make a difference. Examine your own carbon footprint, implement change if necessary, and be sure to highlight your own ‘green credentials’ as part of any bids.

Sustainability is about more than bricks and mortar

When considering sustainability within commercial interiors, it’s important to look beyond the physical elements of construction, too. The past two years have given workers a ‘reset’ when it comes to where they carry out their jobs – and office space needs to be sympathetic to the needs and wants of those who use it.

While 2020’s overnight shift to homeworking was the start of a complete shake-up in terms of the commercial landscape it forced employees to consider what they want from their career too – as well as where they want their workspace to be.

The ambition to curate holistic design is on the up – and nowhere more prominently than within the office environment. Be it quiet zones for focused work, or relaxed areas which mimic the comforts of home, the new era of the workplace brings with it a very different set of specifics.

Although it’s not an approach which suits every corporate entity, many organisations have woken up to the need to offer sustainable solutions not just in the bricks-and-mortar sense, but via the attitudes and environment they offer colleagues.

Building sustainability into your HR and operational strategies

Going back to an earlier point around sustainability being more than simply striving to become carbon net zero, we mustn’t forget that colleagues expect the firms they work for to show their eco-commitments in all facets of company behaviour too.

Including a nod to sustainability in your company’s value proposition should hopefully be a given – but bringing those to life rests solely on the shoulders of the people who live and breathe them. Therefore, building your recruitment strategy around a desire to collaborate with those who share your way of thinking, is key.

Company leaders should not simply look to fill vacancies with people who have the right qualifications, experience, or background – there are plenty of capable project managers, architects, and developers out there. Rather, make it a priority to employ rounded individuals who are open-minded about bringing something new to the table and driving positive change.

By sourcing talent which truly embraces the opportunity to push the envelope, while challenging clients to genuinely think about the way they intend to use a space, it’s possible to start bringing about meaningful change.

Simply recruiting someone based on their ‘green’ interests isn’t where investment should start and end, though. Offering continued training around what it means to be sustainable to colleagues – perhaps through CPD-accredited courses – will pay dividends in the long run.

Paper-free offices are nothing new, but technology allowed many architecture, design, and construction firms to maintain some semblance of ‘business as usual’ during the height of the pandemic.

Switching lengthy proposal documents for concise PDFs, embracing 360-degree photographic reports, and implementing virtual walkthroughs and handovers are all solutions which are here to stay. And, to take that one step further in terms of operations, consider the potential of using green power to heat offices, reducing non-essential travel, and offsetting the environmental cost of commuting – both in-country and overseas. This can be done via initiatives which help to plant trees across the globe – such as TravelPerk – alongside a sustainability ‘code of conduct’ to ensure everyone upholds company commitments.

Of course, as a global population – never mind industry – we still have a long way to go. But as the people behind buildings that might outlive us all, it’s our responsibility to create them with the future firmly in mind.

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