Emerging Sustainability Trends in the Workplace


By Laura Crawford
WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff Associate - Sustainability

I recently had a conversation with a friend – a construction industry outsider who works in the advertising sector – about workplace design and she accurately pinpointed much of the rationale for current trends: “It’s … like companies never want you to leave work!”

And she’s right, of course.

Companies across the world are providing workplaces and benefits that fit with organisational culture and values – providing wellness facilities, feeding staff three times daily, installing fireman’s poles, aquariums and even providing receptions that are transformed into bars at sundown. Granted these are not the typical requirements you’d see in the Property Council of Australia (PCA) Matrix but leading designers now have an opportunity to flex their creative muscles to design workplace environments that people are reluctant to leave. Companies are going to these lengths and are raising their game to attract and retain the brightest talent.

As a sustainability professional, this is a truly exciting time to be engaged in design and construction. Design teams can respond creatively with fantastical features and with design measures that positively impact on occupant experience, comfort, health and productivity.

One of the greatest challenges for a dyed-in-the-wool sustainability consultant is simply staying current. With so much best practice and with new tools constantly emerging it can be difficult to keep up with developments.

Recent initiatives include:

WELL Building Standard – this is the first rating tool to focus solely on the health and wellness of occupants, considering areas such as mind, fitness, comfort, light, air and nutrition. There are specific requirements, including maximum plate sizes of 20cm to reduce serving sizes; providing at least 0.1m²/person for a garden or greenhouse; lighting solutions that regulate circadian rhythms and the provision of treadmill desks for a percentage of employees (5%).

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) v4 - the latest tool in the LEED suite embraces material transparency – the new green. Up to this point, the industry has been encouraged to use ‘less bad stuff’ but now there are additional requirements to use materials and products that have published their environmental impacts (even if the impacts are heavy) and that list all material ingredients (even if the materials are harmful).

Green Star Design and As-Built v1 tool – the latest tool in the Green Star suite is outcome driven, and more flexible and cost-effective than ever before. The tool can be used for any building type (except a standalone home) and the documentation process has also been streamlined which are big wins for the industry. There are also more points (10) available for innovation, which is actively encouraging project teams to go beyond the norm and embrace innovation as standard within their rating strategies.

Biophilia is one of my favourite examples of emerging thinking across workplace design. It is included in the WELL Building Standard, and is defined as using living things and natural forms to nurture the innate human-nature connection. Ticking the biophilia box isn’t simply about providing nice views, indoor planters or internal or external green walls, but can include nature-derived patterns on partitioning and water features to improve mood, wellbeing and subsequently productivity. Project teams may be bewildered by some of these outcome-based initiatives, but this opens the door for sustainability consultants to act to ‘translate’ requirements. It also allows design teams to think creatively about achieving appropriate outcomes to fit a company’s values, rather than adopting a purely prescriptive approach.

Above all, these new developments augur well for all of us who spend long hours inhabiting our workplace. It is about designing for people; how they behave, react and experience the indoor environment. For so long we’ve focused on the things – the lights, AC, fittings and furniture. Now we’re designing for experiences, and the market-leading tools are reflecting that change.

Which leads me neatly back to my original point. If you worked in an office that contained beautiful plants and was constructed of healthy materials and if as a result of that you felt fitter, healthier and more productive- would you want to leave? 

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