How Can Designers Specify for the Environment in a Disposable Era?
Amanda Schneider, president of ThinkLab, offers research-backed insights on the challenges and opportunities designers are facing.
Generally speaking, our culture has become a bit hypocritical when it comes to the environment. On one hand, research suggests that 79 percent of millennial employees are loyal to companies that care about their effect on society. Yet at the same time, in 2019 millennials made 60 percent of their purchases online, contributing to the more than 80.1 million tons of containers and packaging piling up in landfills, as estimated by the EPA.
In fact, across all generations, people claim to want to support the environment but partake in practices like fast fashion—buying inexpensive clothing that lasts only a few wears—or drinking their coffee from disposable cups (Starbucks uses an estimated 8,000 of them a minute).
In the interiors industry, this gap becomes a bit of a balancing act: How do you specify responsibly while acknowledging the demand for flexible design?
THE PERFECT STORM AFFECTING THE INTERIORS INDUSTRY TODAY
For starters, we must pinpoint the source of the issue. A company’s average tenure on the S&P 500 today is half what it was 40 years ago. That is coupled with a rise in coworking and the general consensus that flexibility tops the list of any corporate specification requirements. Our on-demand, I-want-it-now lifestyle is a culprit underlying our industry’s shifting priorities.
Many companies don’t even realize they are part of the problem. In recent ThinkLab research, we came across a company that refused to use K-Cups because of the product’s impact on the environment. While this is an admirable notion, that same organization chose to specify stools that were rated up to only 100 pounds even though the specifiers knew the company had employees who weighed over 250. Think about how many K-Cups you’d have to go through to equal the amount of waste from one broken stool.
What’s more, despite the fact that new technologies for more sustainable materials are available, we don’t always use them—often for convenience or time savings. Sustainable construction alternatives such as prefab or demountable walls exist; however, ThinkLab research suggests that demountable walls are used in only approximately 30 percent of commercial projects. When traditional walls come down to accommodate a new tenant or even a new office layout, an estimated 75 percent of the drywall ends up in landfills. For more on this, I recommend reading the book Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets by Barry B. LePatner (University of Chicago Press).
Our actions speak louder than our words, and when it comes to favoring flexibility or the environment, our specification choices suggest that the former wins. But some forward-looking design firms suggest that doesn’t always have to be the case.
TAKE FLEXIBILITY TO THE NEXT LEVEL BY SEEING THINGS THROUGH A NEW LENS
It wasn’t so long ago that we talked about the notion of the paperless office. As our world went digital, many believed paper storage would no longer be needed. In reality, we did not go paperless but instead became “print on demand”—we print, recycle, repeat.
Sometimes the best way to improve our approach is to take current concepts that work well and expand them. DLR Group principal Jeremy Reding explains: “Circular economy thinking, known as designing for disassembly (DfD), has long been an element of workplace design. Today, we’re expanding the DfD lens beyond key players like demountable systems. We’re exploring dual programmed elements, like neighborhood partitions that also host plants or storage via simple routing of readily stocked materials, which are fastened together with screws for ready disassembly when the time comes.”
This is not yet common practice, but as our world moves faster and faster, design for agility and flexibility will become increasingly important.
REDUCE AND REUSE
With the shrinking durations of companies on the S&P 500, we see a lot of turnover. And with it, we see a lot of construction waste as spaces are refitted to accommodate new occupants. To get away from our disposable mindset, we must develop creative ways to reduce what we discard.
Dwayne MacEwen, principal and founder of DMAC Architecture, shares: “Recently, we transformed a 5,300-square-foot suburban auto transmission repair shop into a mixed-use building with an upscale restaurant at ground level and a rental office above. During demolition, we saw beauty in the raw patchwork of mixed block and brick with decades of car paint baked in, and convinced the client to save the building. That wall was exposed and now lives as a design feature of the restaurant.”
While we can’t always reuse things like furniture or even layouts of an office building, we can incorporate creative strategies into our lease structures. For example, according to a recent CBRE flash call, many commercial landlords agree that one of their biggest concerns about the future is the pressure to create more agile leases. As these new contracts evolve, how will we handle the tenure of the products that go in those buildings and make them friendlier to the environment? More demountable walls and DfD products? Furniture as an on-demand service that aligns with the length of your lease? Flexible-use scenarios like coworking? The opportunity is ripe for innovation and could have a positive ripple effect on our environment.
When we think big picture, it isn’t an either-or choice between sustainability and flexibility; rather, concern for the environment can open up design possibilities. As Rachelle Schoessler Lynn, director of workplace at Gensler, puts it, “We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that sustainable performance is a trade-off or compromise in terms of design when in fact it is the foundational path.”
Amanda Schneider is president of ThinkLab.
You may also enjoy “This Sustainable Office Does More with Less.”
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