Efficiency at Work

How innovation in workplace design can reduce our carbon footprint

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In a continuously urbanizing world, the design of buildings and interiors is a key element in the fight against climate change. In a report from December 2018, the AIA stated: “We believe that the climate change battle will be won or lost in cities. Three-quarters of global carbon emissions come from the 2% of the Earth’s land surface occupied by urban communities.” Indeed, almost 40% of all energy is consumed by the construction of buildings, which then produce carbon through heating, cooling and lighting.

Considering that the working population spends most of its waking hours at the office, the role that workplace design plays in this battle is significant, and one that should ultimately be addressed in systems, as part of a larger context. Here we’ll take a look at how different strategies –from the efficient use of space and selection of specific technologies and materials, to targeted legislation and human behavioural changes– can reduce our negative impact on the environment.


Open plan offices are one of the most spatially efficient solutions but the concept often conflicts with human nature’s desire for a modicum of privacy. Primo Orpilla, co-founder and principal of the San Francisco based design firm O+A, has built an award-winning portfolio of projects addressing workplace design. “Open plan is efficient, but a good workplace has to provide alternative spaces to respond to human needs,” says Orpilla.

Slack offices in San Francisco with privacy rooms and green wall, designed by O+A. Photo © Garrett Rowland

In other words, density is good, but if we give up our own private offices, we need to designate spaces for other activities like rest, phone calls, meetings, teaching, learning and presenting. Break areas should not be reduced to small compartmental rooms, but form part of a holistic approach of design that overlays daily needs with efficiency. Today this type of environment is being adopted by many start-up companies and large corporations. Designing an optimal workplace in which people are happy –and more productive, as a result– is viewed as an investment in human capital.


Efficient technologies and sustainable materials are also fundamental. Over the last few years the quality of LED lights has vastly improved, HVAC systems have become more efficient, and surface treatments have reduced (and in some cases eliminated) toxic carbon emissions. Materials with high embodied energy—such as concrete, which is responsible for 8% of global emissions—need to be reduced.

Selecting the right materials for office floors is also key, given the large surface areas that they represent. Royce Epstein, A&D design director at Mohawk Industries, one of the largest global flooring manufacturers, says Manufacturers need to understand their place in reversing climate change, in the sustainability cycle and how they can contribute to reduce carbon emissions.” As part of the Living Building Challenge, a standard of measurements and performances that expands LEED standards to include measurements on the users’ well-being on grading a project, Mohawk began the Living Product Challenge (also part of the International Living Future Initiative). Products are labelled to make the composition easy to understand, listing components and percentages as is done with food products.

Products are progressively “dematerialized” making it possible to provide the same quality and release fewer carbon emissions in its production process
Mohawk product installations. Photo courtesy of Mohawk

Through research and development, products are progressively “dematerialized”, making it possible to provide the same quality using less raw material. Many of their new products can be produced with up to 40% less energy, resulting in lighter materials that are also cheaper to transport. Royce emphasizes that the production cycle must also be efficient. Instead of a footprint, she says, production should have a handprint, signifying the resources that it gives back, such as clean water returned by a manufacturing process.


In a competitive market, developers respond to the demand for more efficient spaces, but often only when there are financial incentives. This is where legislation can play an important role. “California laws are very strict with mechanical and electrical power management systems; very small, partial refurbishments force you to upgrade the whole system to newer and more efficient technologies,” explains Primo. This would not happen if it were not legislated. Germany is a pioneer in developing sustainable policies, from recycling laws to building codes.

According to Primo, the USA lags behind Europe in the adoption of certain efficient technologies many times because a majority of people are accustomed to older systems and have no incentive to break old habits. Legislation and tax incentives could counteract this lack of demand resulting from cultural preferences.

Behavioural and social factors

From my own experience in producing workspaces, the key ingredient to success is when users themselves embrace the processes that are forcing a change in habits. Humans are creatures of habit and change is always traumatic, even when it is ultimately a path towards improvement.

Legislation can impose change from the top-down, but enforcing it is very difficult without acceptance. Companies that adopt new policies, whether it be open-plan offices or new recycling practices, need to clearly communicate how, and above all, why things must change.

Clearly, there are many factors involved in creating more efficient workspaces, including aspects such as biophilia and waste management that we haven’t had the time to mention here. But perhaps the most crucial factor to succeed is one that is not so easily come by: a leadership that beyond proposing and imposing change, practices what it preaches.

Main image: The communal table at the offices of SY Partners in New York City, designed by Forge. Photo © EFM NY

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