By Samantha Allen
Sustainability in the context of the built environment can be a tricky thing to manage, especially when there is not a clear mandate for all offices in a portfolio. This is because sustainability is ultimately about efficiency. Efficiency in energy usage can depend on location, design, occupancy, and equipment. Efficiency in terms of space is about stuff—existing stuff (materials, furniture, and equipment) that must be maintained, re-purposed, recycled, or diverted from landfills to minimize using raw resources and prevent the release of carbon into our environment. As our need to understand environmental footprinting, especially in terms of carbon, has come into sharper focus, the role of workplace designers, engineers, contractors, facilities, and operations teams has begun to shift to one of environmental stewardship.
M Moser Associates is currently working on a grouping of offices for a large consulting firm who have a strong sustainability focus, with all of their workplaces pursuing LEED and WELL certifications. A central goal for the projects is flexibility and creating a wide range of space-types, that lend themselves to sustainable design. Careful consideration around material and furniture specifications ensure that what is included is adaptable, durable, low VOC, sustainably sourced (through certified chain-of-custody), and that considerations are made for the full lifespan of every element within the build. Perhaps counter-intuitively, offering more space types can reduce the materials and furniture used. Single areas are able to be utilized for a multitude of activities—reducing the number of traditional desks required if occupiers instead opt for different types of work areas and more open spaces.
It is crucial to select what materials and furniture will occupy the space as early in the design process as possible, as this will reduce the impact on budget. The increasing number of companies opting for agile and hybrid work, in part due to the pandemic, has also accelerated this trend of adaptable workspaces.
Another way to support the effort to decarbonize is through technology integration. Physical components such as automatic lighting controls, responsive ventilation and air quality readings, and auto-shutoff for desktops (which can also be an added security benefit) enable easier achievements in reducing energy consumption. In addition to these gadgets that help us in the workplace, the virtual built environment is quickly coming into play as a partner in meeting sustainability goals.
Originating at NASA as a way for engineers to simulate various conditions for spacecraft without the need to test it out on billion-dollar machinery, digital twins are virtual replicas of real-life, physical structures. Digital twins can range from a spreadsheet of data points to a large, unstructured data-pool, to realistic and interactive graphics.
This technology is now being applied to the built environment in the form of digital designs, such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) that helps designers and engineers test the performance of spaces that are yet to exist, and in turn aid facilities and operations managers with up-to-date monitoring and maintenance that are not reflected in documents like as-builts. In terms of sustainability, digital twins present an excellent opportunity to find efficiencies, or identify roadblocks, quickly. An example of this could be applying daylight simulation to a digital twin to identify lux levels throughout the day and throughout the year, as well as heat gain, and use this to inform where to best place artificial lighting and fan coil units to minimize energy use while maintaining occupant comfort.
Although digital tools will certainly help us to reduce our environmental footprint, we will still need to focus on the more tangible elements in our spaces, especially those we don’t want to keep. Successful waste management is therefore another key to successful environmental stewardship. The main goal here is to keep as much out of landfills as possible. Corporate real estate teams may dread the idea of reusing existing furnishings when moving to a new office, thinking them tired and unexciting, but this doesn’t have to be the case. At one M Moser office, existing solid-wood tabletops were sanded, painted, and refitted with sit-stand electric machinery to give employees much more flexibility in their workstations. Other projects have a mix of reused and new furniture, reusing existing celebration pieces, such as signature conference tables. For removal of existing furnishings at demolition, some companies opt to give or sell off furniture to help employees fit out their home offices, and others opt to partner with charities that take office furnishings for use in schools.
There are also a number of new standards and programs that companies can use to help guide them in reducing operational waste. The most challenging of these is from GBCI, (Green Business Certification, Inc., the organization that certifies for LEED and WELL), called TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency), which looks at measuring all types of waste and planning for year-over-year reductions. Another example is BLUE, a relatively new standard by Oceanic Global Foundation that focuses on eliminating single-use plastics and actions that help sustain water ecosystems. Both these standards and many others can help guide facilities and operations managers in becoming better stewards of the environment.
Many organizations have stated that they have sustainability roadmaps toward a net zero 2030, but one of the biggest challenges will continue to be the built environment—especially in terms of embodied carbon, and data on embodied carbon is still difficult to come by. The recent publication from the IPCC has suggested we may be beyond the point of no return with rising temperatures by 2030, unless we all quickly and dramatically change course now, and decarbonization is the key. More sustainable fit-out methods, more life cycle analyses, and more efficient technology, are all needed to make our decarbonized future a reality. As stewards of our buildings, facilities and operations teams have a key role to play in the environmental stewardship to help our businesses, homes, and societies reach their net zero goals—and beyond.
Allen is an Associate Director for global Sustainability and Wellness initiatives and projects at M Moser Associates. She holds professional accreditations in WELL, LEED, RESET, and BREEAM. Her work includes COVID mitigation, air quality management, carbon evaluation, building certifications, and more. Allen has held roles in research and development, evaluating building technologies, including a long-term project on IEQ sensors and a sensor-based smart home technology program for which she authored two patents. She also managed the marketing and communications to help bring an understanding of scientific research to a wide range of audiences.