Two generations of workplace sustainability

Neil Usher
15 min readJan 25, 2023
Photo by Egor Vikhrev on Unsplash

This article began as a monologue about resolving long-standing sustainability issues facing the Workplace industry. But really, who needs another monologue? And so it became an exchange of views between Ana Rita Martins, of the generation inheriting the planet and myself, of the generation that arguably has done more than any other to despoil it. At the passing of the baton, we agreed it’s essential to explore and reveal a mutual understanding. This is our attempt at a starting point, in tackling eight areas of importance in workplace sustainability.

In generational order (as in, who was here first) the views in my original post are responded to by Ana Rita in each case. I think you’ll agree, they’re a much needed improvement, for which I’m hugely grateful. My generation still has so much to learn.

First, the setting out of stalls.

NEIL: I’m handing over. We talk about sustainability a lot in Workplace. It’s a subject that’s always near the top of the list. But it’s never quite top, despite being the most important consideration in the industry by a planetary mile. It always gets biffed in the game of workplace Top Trumps by the latest vogue fascination. Most recently, by way of example, it’s neurodiversity. It’s an incredibly important consideration in workplace design, most certainly, but more important than sustainability? Nope. Easier to resolve than sustainability? Absolutely.

Fundamentally, workplace straddles sustainability trouser-less on a barbed wire saddle. Knocking down, stripping out, building and fitting out creates emissions and waste, embodies carbon, and uses considerable energy and resource in the process. That’s before it’s even ready for the long process of habitation. As creating and operating buildings is responsible for 39% of all global emissions, there’s a bloody great restless molten orb looming over the entire industry before we’ve even considered the eight problems below.

Prevarication has for too long been the instinctive response, there’s always been an available rabbit hole in which to disappear, arguing and digressing. We need a structured plan of action. One we can agree on. Which might actually be the hardest part.

ANA RITA: I couldn’t agree more that sustainability — or what I often refer to as ‘regenerative design’ — is one of the most important and complex issues that we need to solve this century. We are talking about preserving natural resources, contributing to a fair and equal society, and saving humankind from mass extinction.

The earth was a magnificent, balanced system where seas and land communicated consistently and harmoniously prior to human action. As humans compromised this severely, it’s our responsibility to be part of the solution by contributing to the decarbonisation of the construction sector, which will help achieve Net Zero by 2050 and mitigate global warming realistically to 1.5°.

ESG is a multifaceted term that covers elements such as carbon impact, water scarcity, circularity, biodiversity, social fairness, wellbeing, accessibility and so much more. For a truly regenerative workplace, all these aspects must be incorporated into the project, accounted for financially, and measured by the right experts against outstanding guidance.

On a positive note, this boom around environmental issues has contributed to a significant change: most companies have now pledged ambitious goals and proposed budgets to address ESG issues. This has sparked collaborations and research by organisations that only in the last year have generated the buy-in needed to scale up their leading-edge work. In London for example, organisations such as, UKGBC, LETI, RIBA or BBP are leading the charge by developing important updated guidance and building standards.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel

Category A

NEIL: Is there anything more insane in real estate than fitting out a space knowing full well it won’t be acceptable to whoever leases it, causing the materials installed to be disposed of and replaced with other materials? Other, perhaps, than demolishing a viable building to construct a new one in its place.

It was a long held industry view (and when I say industry I mean those that create and own commercial real estate) that (and I’m quoting someone senior who once actually said this at an occupier conference) Cat A is essential because “tenants don’t have the imagination to envisage what a space would look like from shell and core”.

Yet Category A isn’t necessary now and never has been necessary. In the digital age it absolutely isn’t necessary. Banning it would be desirable but hugely difficult. Perhaps a financial penalty. But if prospective tenants simply refused to consider any space fitted to Category A, it would provide the deterrence necessary. Perhaps with more space becoming available that may be possible. But it’s unlikely. Which is a huge shame.

ANA RITA: 90% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 are already built, so considering a circular approach needs to start with the first principle of ‘do nothing’ or ‘as efficient as possible’. But as businesses are developing, they often need a workplace that responds to their workforce growth. So what does ‘nothing’ mean for the fit-out world?

First, contribute to constructing fewer buildings as possible. It’s important to advise clients to choose retrofits, or if that’s not possible, new sustainable buildings. The term “retrofirst”, an Architects Journal campaign to prioritise retrofit over demolition and rebuild, is highlighting that moving into an existing building will save the new envelope construction emissions.

Second, to solve the enormous waste of unwanted Cat A works. Possible solutions are to get involved in conversations with clients and developers at an earlier stage of the process, to produce unfinished Cat A and wait to create crafted Cat B works.


NEIL: In reality, almost every tenant could occupy the workspace of almost any other tenant of a Central Business District. The brand, colours, feel may not be what’s in the brief, but the core components will perform as needed. The ‘elements’ as I termed them in my first book.

Yet while we’ve become far more comfortable societally with usage over ownership, and the coworking and flexi-space markets are established, when it comes to working with an existing fit-out — even partially — it’s a non-starter. Yet there’s little reason why.

We need to be so much more diligent in our assessment of what already exists before we dismiss it out of habit. Working with and enhancing what already exists is down to tenants and their designers alike.

Another option is portability. Some years ago I worked with a designer on sketching out ‘fit-out in a box’ where everything needed was demountable and dismantlable — including the kitchen — so it could be folded away and taken with the occupier. We’re starting to see this in domestic market with products suited to renters and sharers who move regularly. It can work for occupiers too.

ANA RITA: Neil and I agree here, and came at our answers without conferring. We need to apply a design that can be move-out instead of strip-out, just like those pop-up children’s books. This is based on innovative ideas like the “Google Jacks”, which are modular meeting rooms that can be dismantled easily and moved to different locations.

Imagine if what you design is crafted for the building, but can also be wheeled out, unbolted, and transferred to the company’s different rented spaces?


NEIL: Working towards a construction accreditation that no-one really understands, posting it on the wall, thinking the job is done and walking away. As tenants, many of us have done it.

For landlords and occupiers alike, certification (BREEAM, LEED etc) often outsources the lucrative thinking, practice and accumulation of points to others, rather than pressing for a focus on environmental priorities. When the highest award can only be achieved by demolishing an existing building, the implications of which are not factored into the award of the certificate, there’s an absurdity at the heart of the problem.

We also need to be careful we don’t associate points on a scale with evidence; they’re not the same.

But construction itself, a one-off activity, is less important over time than sustainability-in-use. The certificate may signify a contribution. But to think that’s the end of it, job done, can be a monumental error. There needs to be greater ownership of environmental decisions and priorities at all levels, with proportionally far more reward and recognition for performance-in-use than for construction. Certification, useful a contribution as it is, is just the beginning, not the end in itself.

ANA RITA: Building certifications are often criticised by people within the industry as ‘tick box’ systems and, if not used well by the right team (this is a crucial detail!), serve only as a badge that does not make any meaningful positive impact to the environment. The other critical challenge is that no building certification fulfils all ESG pillars and net zero criteria.

Nonetheless, certifications play an essential role in workplace projects and are valuable tools that can push boundaries and focus everyone in the team on the same environmental and social targets. They create space for specific resources, a separate budget, and dedicated workshops. With an evidence-based third-party verification, ESG measures can be easily tracked during the design and construction of the project.

The ideal process takes the best parts of the different certifications to cover many ESG pillars, like a ‘combined-certification’, while implementing transparent and robust data collection.


NEIL: The agency-created ‘flight to quality’ is a dismal market-manipulating attempt to convince anyone ‘buying’ that only the newest and best will do. We’re painted a picture of wrecking balls thundering through blocks of unwanted and unloved workspace, as though it had it coming all along because its irredeemably crap. Naturally, some are irredeemable — but the market continues to dictate that it’s all about increasing the mass of rentable space, which in most instances necessitates the new.

We even see new stock being built now that already appears irredeemably crap, having us wonder how on earth anyone thought it was a good idea, even before the planners somehow agreed. New is certainly not always better.

In response to which there needs to be far greater focus on, and reward for, the renovation of existing buildings. At present, all buildings are assessed and rated equally, against available benchmarks. This naturally penalises most existing buildings from the outset.

Developers need to be incentivised not to knock stuff down, but to renovate, convert, extend and work with existing stock. Tenants need to both see the financial benefit and kudos passed on, and understand that the story of re-use itself has value when linked to its own sustainability goals. Which means we have to value and tell the story far more than we do at present.

ANA RITA: The workplace renewal is a major crisis for the sustainability of the construction sector. As RESET research shows that office interiors are demolished and rebuilt every five years or even less. That means that carbon emissions from interiors are often much higher than expected.

Alongside, fleeting aesthetic trends make it tricky to minimise these cycles.

To tackle this, we should prioritise conversations around the reduction of the carbon impact of the project (including the embodied carbon and furniture impact).

Adding to this solution as mentioned before is reinforcing circular design skills; creating timeless designs that also ‘celebrate the reuse’ while simultaneously responding to the client’s needs.


NEIL: Not the plastic stuff in this instance, as regrettable as that is, but the empty stuff. Office space that’s being heated, cooled, lit, yet sits idle. Pre-Covid it hovered at around 40–60% even at peak times (the same midweek as now), accepted as normal and masked by ebb and flow.

Now sitting at around 25–40%, with barely a flitting body on a Monday or Friday to fool the distracted mind, it is, in simple terms, unsustainable. It’s also socially and commercially unsustainable, too; expensive, contributing little to nothing, and a crap experience for everyone.

Meanwhile the BCO, not just bucking a trend but sidestepping an entire societal shift, has recommended an increase in space per person in what is surely the last ever waft of the pantomime wand that is tenant density planning. It was once useful in a far more static age, but no longer.

Even three 9-hour days at 75% occupancy — a good return by today’s standards — means beneficial office usage over the entire week of 12% of a building’s 168 available hours, 17% if we set aside weekends.

With increasingly unpredictable occupancy patterns we’re now way beyond the reach of human computation. Traditional passive workplace technology such as desk booking only exacerbates the problem. Only smart dynamic occupancy technology has the ability to manage, forecast and right-size demand for workspace over time. Autonomous capacity management. Remember the term.

ANA RITA: RESET states that approximately 91% of CO2 emissions in the fit-out of office interiors comes from the sourcing and disposal of building materials and products.

This really highlights that we need to focus on minimising embodied carbon and using circularity in order to lower carbon emissions, while creating designs that are modular and pre-fabricated to avoid unnecessary waste of material.

But waste can also be an opportunity. For example, I recently worked on a project where we reused 45% of existing furniture and made sure that reclamation surveys on site were done early. This allowed us to understand how much we could reuse and gave us the time to present a detailed list of elements with strong potential for reuse. This should happen before the concept stage, so that it can have a positive visual impact on the space and contribute to the storytelling of the design. The main purpose of a reclamation audit is to provide a good estimate of reuse possibilities in a given context.

As the FCRBE states, today in NW-Europe only 1% of building elements are reused following their first application. Although a large number of elements are technically reusable, they end up being recycled by crushing or melting, or disposed of. The FCRBE project aims to increase the amount of reclaimed building elements in circulation within its territory by more than 50% by 2032. As this is applied mainly in the architecture envelopes, a similar approach could be used for the interior design.


NEIL: We’re in quicksand, here. Choice is a fundamental feature of hybrid working: when, where and how we choose. Hybrid has in many instances created greater peaks and deeper troughs of workspace occupancy over a typical week than pre-Covid where Monday to Thursday, at least, it was fairly consistent. And so the choices we make have to balance our own personal desire for autonomy with those of the host organisation and those best for the planet. We can chose, as individuals, the organisation can choose, as a collective — the planet ends up having to go along with the outcomes, hoping it might be considered.

The implication, however uncomfortable this feels, is that we need to voluntarily restrict our own choices in the interests of the planet. Sometimes we need to think beyond our own immediate needs. Education in the impact of our choices will help us re-order our priorities and expectations and guide this unusual outcome.

ANA RITA: The choice to wait or act quickly in these actions can make a business stand out from the competition. It can also help prepare a company for a more resilient future that will attract talented future generations of workers.

In the design and build model, there is a design control, a budget control, and a management control. Now, we must introduce a sustainability control in all working methodologies.

The climate change clock is ticking, so action will soon no longer be a choice. To get ahead of the curve, we can start to test how to introduce these measures in the interior fit-out sector; collect data to reduce the carbon impact of our design; include furniture calculations; produce disassembly drawings; add QR codes in the FF&E with end-of-life information; and provide the material specification with transparency reports such as Declare Label.


NEIL: Sustainability is a tricky subject. For every statistic in support of a case, there’s another against. The fact that there are frogs happily boiling in the pan still claiming the water’s lovely illustrates this very point.

Yet we somehow seek to make it more complex at every turn, rather than relating it to accessible ideas and practices relevant to the choices we make. Like relating the bun we’re eating to how many kilometres we would have to run to burn off the calories.

Sustainability needs to become personal and relatable. While our decisions may be little more than a hyper-nested rounding error, if we all make informed decisions they make a difference. We need to bring it down to earth to save it.

ANA RITA: Think of sustainability as a massive ball of wool, full of threads. As we pull the different ends to understand what is happening, we realise how little we know about each extending part; but we can be sure that every thread is connected.

Recalling an excellent description by Woodalls’ Design Director Tara Hack, sustainability is an emotive word that carries myriad of feelings for people — perhaps guilt, hope, desperation, or even financial or reputational risk. It’s a loaded word that gets people’s attention, but also can be met with resistance or fear.

To deconstruct the complexity of sustainability, we should use storytelling, facts and easy-to-understand data from the beginning of the project. It shouldn’t be explained as a premium package of work, but as a necessity that if not tackled properly could be a risk to the project itself.


NEIL: Greenwashing is Not a chromotherapy-based decision, which would be bad enough, but the practice of spinning one thing while doing another. Making claims that can’t be proven or don’t stand up to scrutiny. Extracting and inflating a single beneficial contributor from a sea of woe. All of which is further exacerbated by the point above — the more complex the portrayal of the situation, the more difficult to identify the greenwash. Solving one helps solve the other. But it still requires vigilance.

Better still, honesty in the first place to avoid the need for vigilance at all. It’s too serious a challenge not to be honest. Isn’t it?

ANA RITA: With the rapid growth of the ESG conversation, there are many faulty claims out there. So we need transparency and acceptance that companies need to start a long journey of education to become greener and more responsible. It’s not an overnight solution, but a multifaceted, evidence-based process.

Frameworks, legislation and requirements are becoming stricter and more scrutinised, but there is no time for waiting. Companies that take a passive approach could risk falling behind their competitors.

Also with the advance of technology, actions will also be much easier to track. For example, the Satellite Vu can track buildings’ heat waste from space, measuring the thermal emissions of any structure on the planet day and night. It works as an external thermometer that can easily track if your building is being efficient or not.

In conclusion

NEIL: These may not be all the sustainability issues we’re facing in Workplace, but they are offered as a useful place to begin piecing together a structure to help our thinking, and a plan of action.

Right now, it’s all too often too big a consideration to get our heads around. Which is why we trade freely in high level concepts, while we go and get our heads around something else instead. This is the issue. It starts and ends with this. Only we’d rather it didn’t end.

As usual, it’s up to us all to make sure it doesn’t.

And the last word: ANA RITA’s.

Collaboration is the key to moving forward. This issue is not a passing wave, but a tsunami that will change our society and industry forever.

If you work with specialists at each phase of the project and involve them early in the conversation, you will soon find yourself pushing in the right direction to support biodiversity, social value and minimise the carbon impact of your actions.

I’m grateful for the support and camaraderie that I see from the sustainability community as we try to shift towards a regenerative workplace design. It’s critical that we put ESG at the top of any agenda, decrease rapidly the sector emissions and maximise users’ comfort to deliver sustainable buildings.

So, what are you waiting for?



Neil Usher

work & workplace protagonist | #ElementalWorkplace and #ElementalChange originator | rumoured to create human environments | known to blog