How to design a Sustainable Shared Workspace

| Riccardo Del Bello | Sustainability and Well-Being

Last week a report by dwp investigated how to develop a sustainable workplace and the approach needed to obtain it. The first principle described, on which everything else is based is a holistic approach to the solution. The challenge must be tackled from a number of different perspectives. Thankfully, nowadays due to increasing awareness it is easier to start green projects, and sustainability has actually become an important marketing instrument for every company, regardless of the industry.

As a designer though, we thought it would be interesting to go a little more in-depth into the design aspect of this topic.

A workplace can vary a lot depending on the number of people that work in it and the activity they deliver, thus even when it comes to design sustainability the differences can be significant. So, we will focus on ideas and principles for a general shared workspace. The kind that we can find in a company’s office, co-working, or even the study room of a student accommodation.

dwp*Source: dwp

But first let’s review some of the most interesting points brought up by dwp, and then build from there

The report

The definition reported for sustainability is:
“The meetings of needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”

The mentioned holistic approach necessary to make a true contribution is something that involves people, activities and design altogether.

A sustainable workplace, in fact, entails also having people onboard and promoting healthy habits. Aligned values and objectives not only in terms of work but also sustainability can be a great way to develop a sense of belonging and also loyalty in the case of a single company. A good way suggested here is to start a group challenge, or green initiative, for recycling, reusing or reducing the use of materials, that involves every person in the office daily.

The second important aspect to consider is the introduction of natural elements, which we discussed as well in articles like Biophilic Materials for Interior Design: How to get it Right. Lots of this has to do with design, which we talk about later, but it also involves energy saving, that is one of the most important issues to solve in our mission to stop climate change, as remarked during COP26 a few months back. We went into the specifics of this topic when talking about energy saving for sustainable Interior Design. Along with these come all the benefits in terms of more healthy lighting, acoustics, water usage, air quality, and thermal insulation.

As lots of studies on Biophilic Design demonstrate, all these factors combined, not only bring down the carbon footprint of a workplace but also benefit the employees or people working in it, making the space more relaxing, helping concentration and performance.

What about the Design

Let’s get into the design side of the picture.

1. Materials

This starts from the materials research. Depending on the budget, there are different materials that can be employed that are at the same time durable, sustainable, and ensure good thermal insulation.

It must be noted, that in this regard the research has to go a little bit deeper. In fact, the options for sustainable materials are many, but the choice process has to take into account also the supply chain level. Natural materials like timber, cork, bamboo, and plastic ones like vinyl obtained from recycling, should be realised from carbon-neutral sourcing and production processes as well.

workplace materials

The first is indeed bamboo. It grows very fast and so it can be sourced sustainably very easily. It is also extremely resistant. So, it is suitable for a place with people coming and going regularly, more so than wood, that would also be a lot more expensive. Bamboo planks obtained with strand weaving, which compresses the material’s fibres, are very hard and durable. This flooring can come also in different shades that adapt to different environments but still give a natural feel to the space conveying a relaxing feeling.

An even more affordable solution is linoleum. Differently from other synthetic flooring materials like vinyl, this is obtained at 97% from sustainable natural materials. Along with being very resistant, its advantage is versatility. Linoleum, in fact, can vary in thickness and in the finish. It can come printed in different colours, or patterns, making it ideal for pretty much every environment.

Last but not least, for areas in need of high sound absorption like meeting rooms where carpeting is used quite often (at least in the UK), there are more and more options from brands developing it from waste materials like plastic.

For furniture and accessories, designers can get creative with a number of interesting sustainable alternatives. Smile Plastics is one we quoted a few times and used in different projects. A brand that obtains panels and planks from recycled plastic. Timber and cork can be used as well for interior pieces or panelling, granted that they are sourced sustainably, as said. Oh! and of course, all of this without ever forgetting plants and greenery as much as possible, whenever it is possible.

If you are worried about maintenance, there are some easy options to get greenery into commercial spaces. One example is the use of preserved plants which are real plants de-hydrated. They still look like plants (because they are) but they are technically dead so don’t require any water or light.

green workspace

Alternatively, some companies now offer plants with inclusive maintenance services for a monthly fee. While this has a bit of an effect on your monthly budget, it’s probably the most efficient way to have alive plants in an office space.

Plants have a very calming effect on humans and can massively boost our productivity and wellbeing so this point is well worth considering.

Even paint can and should be chosen with care. When it comes to improving air quality, as well as health & safety by limiting the spread of microbes wall paint can play an important role. Products like Airlite, are not only sustainable, as they are obtained from mineral powders, but promise also actively purify the air through a harmless chemical reaction through the interaction with natural light.

And this brings me to the next topic…

2. Lighting

Natural light is as important as the other elements if not more. Having a view and lots of natural light can help in many ways, from the reaction with the paint just mentioned to helping morale and overall feeling of the people working. Here, choices are often limited, especially for existing buildings, but new-built ones should take this factor into consideration.

workplace window

One thing that is also very important to note is that in an office, the furniture layout needs to interact with natural light carefully. By that, I mean that generally desks are placed perpendicular to external walls, with the short side next to the window (never the long one). This is to avoid glares on computer screens.

3. Waste reduction and energy efficiency

The waste reduction issue touches several aspects. First of all, the materials’ choice (as indicated before) should take into account the thermic insulation capabilities. When we talk about waste, in fact, the biggest contributor, and also a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions is the energy required for our houses, offices, and other buildings.

Heating and cooling are probably the major causes of it. The reliance on fossil fuels should be reduced or completely substituted with other sources. Renewables are one, but we know that (at least for now) they can rarely provide all the energy needed to maintain our activities unaffected.

Luckily, there are several options to improve a building’s energy efficiency and make it even energy positive in some cases. A trigeneration system is a relatively new application that allows for the production of electricity and thermal energy at the same time. These can also produce cooling energy using the same process. They are already used in several industrial contexts helping to reduce the plants’ carbon footprint. However, similar options are becoming available for buildings, houses, and offices too.

trigeneration system*Source: HUBER Heat Exchanger, developed to be used with wastewater

Similar heat collectors work also collecting domestic wastewater from sewer networks creating a positive cycle of energy preservation through a virtually endless source. Such systems can also help save costs in the long term. However, they are relatively new and costs might ultimately depend also on the location.

Finally, when it comes to waste reduction and energy efficiency, technology also plays an important part. Many businesses today are going paperless. Devices for voice commands, screens for communications, and other interactions between employees or staff are other elements that will contribute to the workplaces impact reduction on climate change.

Sustainability has become a central topic in our lives. For everyone in every industry. Fortunately, this means also that a lot of research goes on constantly to solve current problems and improve our conditions. Design can play a crucial role that undoubtedly impacts not just the carbon footprint of a building. It also benefits the health and performance of the people working in it, creating loyalty toward the brand, and in turn, can reduce costs through energy efficiency too.


Riccardo Del Bello

Written by: Riccardo Del Bello

Riccardo is the marketing manager and partner of A Designer at Heart. He is in charge of the development and brand definition of the company for its marketing activities.

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