Humans today consume more concrete than any substance aside from water. That presents a huge problem for the environment. Concrete comes from cement, and each ton of cement generates a matching ton of carbon emissions.
Many builders and designers are recycling water or installing energy efficient light bulbs in hopes of reducing their buildings’ carbon footprint. But those approaches can only go so far.
Instead, employers and builders must think about going green the moment they decide to construct a new office — or renovate an old one. New technologies and building techniques can empower them to do so.
The building sector is the biggest energy consumer and greenhouse-gas emitter in the United States. Buildings account for 39 percent of energy use, 68 percent of electricity use, 12 percent of water use and 38 percent of carbon emissions nationwide.
When businesses need to change or expand their workspaces, that carbon footprint grows. Now that the economy is recovering, formerly vacant offices are filling fast. Demand for reconstruction, alteration and renovation will grow over the next five years, predicts industry-research firm IBISWorld.
That’s good for business — but it has serious consequences for the environment. Building-related construction and demolition results in an incredible 160 million tons of waste every year. Forty-four percent of that waste comes from renovations. Less than one-third is recovered or recycled.
Concrete isn’t the only building material boosting carbon emissions. Drywall does the same. The United States produces as much as 40 billion square feet of drywall each year, generating 51 million tons of greenhouse gases and consuming a huge amount of energy.
Fortunately, some companies are prioritizing the environment in their workspace redesigns.
Financial-services company Macquarie, for example, has adopted green approaches like piping in water from the ocean to cool the air. As a result, it has reduced energy consumption by 50 percent.
Elevator usage at the firm is down by half thanks to a decidedly low-tech solution — an interior staircase that links work zones throughout the building.
Meanwhile, by orienting the office around centrally located, shared “meeting pods” and adaptable “work neighborhoods,” Macquarie has eliminated the costly and wasteful process of renovating workspaces and moving employees around.
Architectural walls, which look like traditional fixed walls but can easily be moved to reconfigure a space, represent another way to “green” the office.
Unlike concrete or drywall, movable walls are typically sourced responsibly. They may be made of recycled or renewable materials like wheat, soy and sunflower board, linoleum, cork and rubber-wood.
Architectural walls also complement open-office environments, which are greener than their more traditional alternatives. Managers can shift the walls to create private offices or meeting rooms on demand. Later, they can quickly reconfigure the walls to create room for more workers without requiring an expensive, time-consuming and waste-generating renovation.
As companies use space more efficiently — by adopting larger, shared desks and workspaces, for instance — they reduce waste and cut emissions. Improved airflow can also help moderate the temperature, lessening the need for heating and air-conditioning.
Open offices also boost another kind of green: money. When Cisco switched to a shared workspace environment, the tech firm realized savings of 60 percent on cabling, 40 percent on switches and switch ports, and 42 percent in construction costs.
The chance encounters that these workspaces promote also make workers more productive, according to research recently published by the Harvard Business Review. Facebook is looking to house many of its workers in a mile-long shared workroom for just that reason.
To make a sizeable dent in their carbon footprints, American offices have to do more than mandate double-sided printing or install low-flow toilets. They must make green design and green building their mantra.
Dick Resch is CEO of KI Furniture.