Climate Action: How to Design Sustainable Workplaces

Gensler’s Dawn James explores strategies that will best lead to more resilient, sustainable workplaces.

sustainable workplaces
Credit: Garrett Rowland

Hours after being sworn in, President Joe Biden announced the United States would rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. The administration has also set a goal for the country to reach Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. Today, the built environment accounts for 39 percent of the country’s energy consumption, which includes the impact of making buildings (embodied carbon) and using buildings (operating carbon). In that context, what strategies will best lead to more resilient, sustainable workplaces?

Reduce, reuse and recycle are not new concepts. In fact, they are the guiding principles for third-party sustainability certifications, like LEED, and can be applied to workplaces of the future to meet new, more challenging goals that will help alleviate the effects of climate change. By consistently integrating these core concepts into each step of the design process, from concept to occupancy, we can create more resilient, sustainable workplaces. However, reaching Net Zero carbon emissions will require offices to operate above and beyond current jurisdictional energy codes.

Reduce

Passive design strategies that enhance the workplace environment, such as natural ventilation which reduces the reliance on HVAC systems or exterior shading devices to mitigate solar heat gain and glare, have proven to be attractive, low-cost approaches to reducing energy consumption. Some office buildings are also equipped with on-site or off-site renewable energy technologies that diminish carbon emissions. Similarly, tree and plant-rich terraces and courtyards remove CO2 from the surrounding air while providing a connection to nature and a viable extension of the office.

Workplaces with energy-efficient systems that include increased ventilation and improved indoor air quality can offset operational carbon and provide a healthier interior environment. Creating appropriate zones and controls for HVAC systems optimizes energy performance and offers the added benefit of increased thermal comfort. Energy Star equipment and appliances with timers or occupancy sensors help reduce plug load demand. In some cases, offices can even leverage building systems with renewable energy.

Reaching Net Zero carbon emissions will require offices to operate above and beyond current jurisdictional energy codes.

Lighting presents another opportunity for decreasing carbon emissions. The reduction of Lighting Power Density (LPD) can lower operational carbon emissions. Those include LED fixtures, occupancy and daylight harvesting sensors, which are readily deployed in many workspaces. Advances in lighting technologies not only reduces power consumption, but they also tie into occupant wellbeing by mimicking the body’s circadian rhythm. Clients appreciate these lighting strategies because they create a healthy interior environment that promotes employee wellness and productivity, as well as delivers cost savings throughout the life of a lease. This especially rings true for businesses operating on flexible and shift-hours.

When selecting materials and interior finishes, it is important to consider the energy required for their production and transportation. Durability and longevity of materials and products are also critical factors. Moreover, opting for timeless palettes of materials and color can help eliminate the need for frequent replacement when trends go out style. Given the quantity of offices and numerous leases with varying terms, specifying materials with low impact can have a positive effect on reducing embodied energy across the board.

Opting for timeless palettes of materials and color can help eliminate the need for frequent replacement when trends go out style.

Flooring, and in particular carpet, has high embodied carbon content. Some manufacturers in the industry are taking the lead with their commitments to zero emissions, thus making the case for prioritizing their products in workplace design. For example, solution-dyed carpet tile features fade-resistant yarns that do not require as much energy to produce, compared to piece- or yarn-dyed.

Many tech and creative companies elect to expose the structural slab and celebrate the beauty of concrete. Concrete is a high carbon emitter, but leveraging it as flooring in the workplace, for example,  reduces the need for additional interior finishes. Creating consistent and comfortable acoustics for sustainable workplaces can be accomplished with treatments for ceilings and walls that include environmentally-friendly cellulose, felt and recycled wood panels. Each of these materials is produced with minimal emissions and can further draw down the overall carbon footprint of an office.

Reuse

“Surgical renovations” are becoming more common as clients are purposely seeking lease space that meets their desired program needs. Thoughtful planning and due diligence studies can help determine the best fit when selecting from multiple building locations. Doing so maximizes the reuse of existing hard-walled construction and infrastructure, as well as reduces the demand for new materials, which lessens the impact of embodied carbon required for a minor renovation versus extensive demolition and construction. This strategy is an attractive option not only from a sustainable mindset, but also from a financial perspective given the cost-savings achieved by reducing the construction timeline.

Opting to refurbish existing furniture will significantly reduce embodied carbon in the workplace

In tandem with minimizing new construction, opting to refurbish existing furniture will significantly reduce embodied carbon in the workplace. Limiting the need for extraction of new materials, such as wood and the production of plastics, also eliminates the costs to transport them to the construction site. Purchasing used furniture locally has a similar positive impact and can lead to a shrinking carbon footprint.

Recycle

Interior finish materials that are renewable or have high recycled content are beneficial because they reduce our reliance on natural resources. Limiting the amount of materials sent to the landfill can be controlled through construction waste management plans and by planning in smart modules to limit material waste. Integrating reused or upcycled products make for unique expressions in the workplace and can help support a client’s Zero Waste policies. Composting bins in the workplace are becoming more common alongside recycling stations, which helps reduce the number of receptacles designated for landfill trash.

Holistically applying reduce, reuse and recycle strategies can be a real game changer in designing efficient, low-carbon spaces.

Wood is a sustainable and renewable material, which naturally sequesters carbon. Using reclaimed or salvaged wood in workplace design significantly cuts down on the amount of CO2 being re-emitted into the atmosphere. Sustainable workplaces also frequently use wood because of its universally-appealing characteristics of texture and warmth. Sourcing local species limits the transportation costs associated with the material use, helps support the local economy and creates a tangible connection to the community.

Holistically applying reduce, reuse and recycle strategies can be a real game changer in designing efficient, low-carbon spaces. Identifying opportunities early on and committing to them throughout the design process can have a big impact on effectively mitigating carbon emissions. The challenge ahead is to simultaneously make smart decisions from a climate perspective while still creating functional and aesthetically-pleasing workplaces.

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