A Circular Solution to a Linear Problem

#DesignPopUp brings the architecture and design community together to connect with peers and thought leaders and to learn about the latest solutions available to the market. Bureau Group were delighted to join this year’s event in Glasgow to lead a panel discussion on circularity.

Reducing waste in office design is a subject we’re passionate about. Sharing our passion were fellow panel members, Morag Dearsley from Form Design Consultants and Peter Kerr from Atelier Ten. Both represent businesses like Bureau Group, who are supporting clients on their journey to net zero. Caring deeply about our impact on the planet, we’re on a mission to reduce carbon emissions, re-use materials and protect natural resources.

Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.

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What does circularity mean to your business?

Morag – I think it’s important to clarify that with circularity you’re really trying to avoid taking things out of the ground. So, we start by analysing a site to see what can stay; viewing it as a materials source. They all have a carbon footprint, they all have a monetary value, so what can we keep? We’re looking at a hierarchy of waste, and recycling comes quite far down, and re-use is high up. All of that is captured and documented at the beginning so it will be costed as well. And we’re challenging suppliers. For example, do manufacturers take back that ceiling tile, what happens to these products? We have a list of questions that we need to talk to manufacturers about.

Circularity informs how we design. Designing not for now but for the future. There’s something like 30 to 40 fitouts throughout a building’s lifetime with tonnes and tonnes of waste taken out.

Peter – There’s a significant amount of carbon in buildings so we’re always looking at what we can re-use. That’s where we have the biggest impact. Our earth is a limited resource so the more we can re-use what we’ve already taken from the ground, that’s a major thing.

Also, we look at design for deconstruction. In the design process we should be asking what’s going to happen to that element that I’ve specified. If you talk to demolition experts, they’ll tell you that raised access floors, for example, go straight in the bin. Re-use and continued re-use are really important for us.

Jennifer – Over the last few years Bureau has been looking at what kind of support is needed to simplify sustainability for our clients as an FF&E (furniture, fixtures, and equipment) practice. Unlike the building itself, the procurement cycles for FF&E, driven by the rental market, occur every three to five years. So, you might find most people are sitting on a five-year lease with a three-year break or ten years with a five-year break.

And what you find is that with a high turnover of clients within that space you see a high volume of turnover of FF&E. And the priority has really become how can we specify sustainably at the front end — products that can be deconstructed, reused, repaired, remanufactured. How can we mine the urban environment we currently live in and look at what furniture, fixtures and equipment we already have existing within markets and within buildings. How can we utilise things we already have and change them to fit our different client preferences and what they want to achieve in their design aesthetic. And that’s really what we focused on, particularly in the last year.

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To what extent are clients looking for accurate reporting on carbon emissions in the fit-out of their workspace? Does better reporting reduce greenwashing’?

Peter — Yes, the embodied carbon calculation methodologies are looking at products as well as buildings. The biggest challenge you face is supply chain. Unlike Bureau, a lot of companies don’t have information associated with those products. But if you demonstrate that most of these products are recyclable then you can still get some element of credibility. We talk about material passports’ ‑identifying every material in every part of a product and it’s quite a big exercise. It’s a major exercise for manufacturers and suppliers. There are metrics available to people and benchmarks out there so that you can do the assessment and get that result. So again, carbon reporting is a big thing especially when you look at scope three emissions for tenants, and big corporate companies have to look at that. They need to count all the carbon, and that can even include people working from home who use a gas boiler in their house. But they can all be measured to a certain extent and just because you don’t have information doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and get it.

Jennifer – Does better reporting reduce greenwashing? The answer in no’. We’re talking about material passports, EPD (Environmental Product Declaration) and I think the reality is that we’re going to exclude a large part of the market. You have these big manufacturers that can afford to have these EDPs and have them verified, but it can cost up to £40k for one chair!

What you have to do is look behind the EPDs because that it isn’t where your question stops or where you’ll find the real tangible data on the supply chain. It’s really hard as a manufacturer to offer reverse logistics or to offer sustainable accreditations to get on your tender. What we need to do is challenge manufacturers about what steps they’re taking and what is the trajectory for getting there.

Morag – When you’re designing you have to take a balanced view and not every product will have an EPD. It’s really becoming informed about the right questions to ask. You see made in Britain’ but it might be only assembled in Britain, and you need to weigh up where that material has come from, is it virgin material? is it recyclable?

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If reducing carbon emissions is the goal, how do we need to approach new projects and what is important right from the outset?

Morag – firstly establishing the parameters of the client and doing that upfront work to see what’s important to them, what the priorities are. And you may need to do that carbon assessment first. But have that upfront planning time before you start doing anything.

Jennifer – upfront engagement, asking the questions what do you already have? can we do an audit of that? what are we doing with the stuff that’s already here? what can we obtain from the secondary market? Because some clients may be unaware that the market even exists or how to approach it. There’s a misconception that second hand means tatty, 1980s desks but it doesn’t, and it can be a real strength and contributor to the circular economy and a business’s ESG targets.

Peter- We do a workshop on ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) and the core elements of ESG and provide that education piece. In terms of fitout, that can be fast paced but taking time to get tenants engaged in the journey, in the carbon story is key. Now we’re talking to tenants about how we’re throwing things away and not re-using. Some tenants don’t know that there are a lot of options out there and expect to have everything new.

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Do designers have to compromise to achieve a more sustainable/​circular solution? Can clients still achieve their desired look and feel whilst making better choices for the environment?

Morag – No and yes. I’ve seen a massive change. I did a project about four years ago and tried to find the information about products and their environmental credentials, and it was really difficult, especially furniture. But now it has taken massive leaps and it’s much more exciting. It’s being more strategic and designing more cleverly and designing with less waste, designing for deconstruction. That office might get redesigned in five years so whatever you put in you have a responsibility for what happens to that material. Using fewer materials, using them well, avoiding glue, material passports is something we look at. We don’t want to have the most sustainable products if they don’t have any longevity.

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Is carbon in FF&E given as much consideration as the building and materials used in projects with ambitious carbon reduction goals? If we’re refurbishing old buildings and re-using materials — should we be putting the same emphasis on furniture re-use?

Peter – Simple answer is no. You’re turning that FF&E over every five years so that can quickly add up. It might not have a big prevalence in the carbon calculation of the whole building but if it’s changed every five years that becomes proportionately bigger. The things that are loose are the things that get thrown away. I’m thinking about how we push this more on our projects because the lifecycle and future lifecycle of FF&E is important. It should be given more prominence for sure.

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There has been a lot of discussion about the waste created by CAT A fit-out. Is it time to stop this and are there other practices that are no longer tenable too?

Morag – yes, I think it’s time. It’s crazy that we put in ceilings into offices and worse when it’s a Breeam A rated space and then we go in and take it down to build partitions. There’s technology out there CGI, iPad, VR — clients don’t need a ceiling installed to imagine what the space could look like. Raised access floors have very high carbon, for example, and inevitably have to be pulled up to put in partitions. It’s a discussion with landlords, developers, clients that’s needed.

Peter – Virtually everything is recyclable but raised access floors and plasterboard are just not salvageable. If you were coming in as the tenant and you make these changes then you carry the carbon impact because you’ve chosen to take that intervention not the landlord. You have a tenant come in and rip out the CAT A and then have to rip all the good stuff out again at the end of a lease to put another CAT A back in. You reduce the buildings value by taking out good material and putting it in the bin.

How can specifiers and consultants support their clients to achieve more sustainable outcomes from their projects? Are the solutions currently available or is there more work to be done?

Jennifer – There are solutions available in terms of what you can plan for. We’ve taken on a refurbishment facility, so we now offer that in house. We offer to take back all the furniture that’s specified and ensure it has another lifecycle and where it’s not fit for purpose its recycled ethically and sustainably. So, we now commit to that upfront and we offer a single point of contact. And we’re conscious when specifying FF&E that we’re looking at the types of products that are easily deconstructed or have a robust warranty.

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If you would like A Circular Solution to a Linear Problem’ presentation for your team, email us hello@yourbureau.com to find out more.