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20. 6. 2024

Facts and myths about sustainable design

A few potted plants won't make an office sustainable, just as the word "eco" in the name of the products used won't make them green or environmentally-sound. The demands of ESG office design and client expectations mean that in many cases greenwashing, the unwarranted labelling of any products and activities as sustainable, comes into play. How can we design offices properly to avoid it?

As a recent Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor report shows, greenwashing is used by both multinationals and small local businesses. While customers increasingly value a 'green' image, few have the resources, know-how and capacity to achieve it by implementing truly sustainable measures. The European Union is now planning to introduce sanctions to curb greenwashing. This is because it does not do any good for the environment or for a company's reputation and, consequently, its profits.

Despite appearances, neither energy-saving technologies nor natural materials alone guarantee that an office is designed in accordance with a sustainability-focused philosophy. If you want to be sure that your office design is truly green, then you need data on all materials used, their transportation, supply chain make-up and recyclability (or how each material and element of the facility is reducing the building and the construction material’s overall carbon footprint).

What are other myths about sustainable design?

Myth: Every product made from recycled materials is worth using.

Fact: Just because recycled material is used does not mean the product has a small carbon footprint. If the process involves transporting components for processing from Europe to Canada, for example, and then the finished product travels in the opposite direction, the carbon footprint increases significantly and calls into question the benefits of such a purchase.

Myth: Natural materials are always environmentally friendly.

Fact: Items made of exotic wood, natural stone or leather imported from thousands of kilometres away just to adorn an office for the duration of a lease - this is incompatible with sustainable design.

The most sustainable materials are those of natural origin, which are the quickest and easiest to renew, and grown or produced preferably locally, such as tree species that grow quickly in a given climate. So if a natural raw material that is renewable but not local (such as exotic wood) is used in production, it will not be environmentally friendly. This is due to its carbon footprint associated with transport. Similarly, a product that uses a local but non-renewable natural raw material will not be sustainable.

Myth: The manufacturer assures you that their carpet can be recycled.

Fact: A distinction must be made between theoretical and practical recyclability. While flooring can be recycled, it is not always advisable due to process complexity and costs. Or because of regulations that prevent the transport of used floor coverings to the country where the processing plants are located. The starting point is therefore to choose products that are manufactured and recycled locally.

Myth: The cost of introducing new technologies to help make a building greener outweighs the savings and benefits that result.

Fact: New solutions actually work: intelligent lighting and climate control systems will automatically turn off lamps in empty rooms or reduce the intensity of air changes, and modern light fixtures will improve light distribution in the office. However, one must bear in mind that each of these features will need to work long enough to earn its keep: not only in a purely financial sense, but also in terms of environmental impact.

Myth: You can recognise a healthy production approach at a glance.

Fact: Relaxation zones and ergonomic desks are not everything. High-quality adhesives and building chemicals with low concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde are used in green office design, and while more expensive than average products, they are also significantly safer. Although users won't see the difference at first glance, they will feel the difference when they are in the office for longer periods of time. Better air quality means less frequent headaches and no skin irritation or fatigue caused by constant exposure to chemicals. There can be many similar small and hard-to-see improvements that have a significant impact on a healthy office environment. Even conveniences such as the ability to change the light colour and intensity in a particular workplace or to control zonal temperature in office spaces count.

Myth: Environmentally friendly materials are those that only come from the largest suppliers, because only they have certificates and documents to prove it.

Fact: A certificate usually gives us assurance that a product will have the performance we expect. However, sometimes entrepreneurs who do not have the relevant documents offer products that, thanks to local production (i.e., for items such as furniture) can also be environmentally friendly because they have a low carbon footprint. In many cases, local producers could easily obtain such documents proving their products’ environmental performance and may just be unaware of those certificates’ existence.

If you're planning to furnish and equip an office and are interested in making it truly sustainable, then you've come to the right place. At Colliers we know how to make this happen. Contact our experts to help you create ESG-compliant spaces.