Sustainable answers to office design

Where Workplace Works is working in partnership with JPA Workspaces to enable our clients to recognise the value and benefits of sustainable furniture and office design. Here, we interview Fiona Edwards, the Sustainability Director at JPA Workspaces…

JPA provides a wide range of furniture related consultancies, services and products at all stages of the furniture continuum; from pre-project works -including waste audits, change management, workplace analytics- through to project management, space design and planning, BREAAM and Ska consultancies, furniture specification, sampling and compliance testing. It’s new products are sustainable, ethically sourced, and good for the planet.

JPA take back any items not required on a new for old basis, actively seeking out and delivering them to local community organisations for re-use where the furniture is badly needed. If JPA can’t rehome, then redundant items go for materials recovery – nothing goes to waste, its operational focus being low carbon and resource efficient.

How is sustainability incorporated into JPA’s services?

Sustainability is embedded into every part of JPA’s operation, services and products.  Having worked for many years to reduce our operational carbon, we are now delighted to be certified as a Carbon Neutral company, and to be able to offer our clients Carbon Neutral furniture installations.

All our services are aimed at maximising existing resources and reducing waste at every stage of refurbishment or fit-out and we have successfully eliminated clients’ redundant furniture landfill through our award-winning furniture re-use, community rehoming and materials recovery service – Project DODO.

We select our products from sustainable and ethical supply chains which reflect responsible procurement and the promotion of Fairtrade principles e.g. through manufacturers FSC® certification for timber-based products with demonstration of sound social foundations and robust anti-slavery measures.

JPA supplied products are chosen purposefully to reinforce Ska, BREEAM and WELL building criteria and 100% are recyclable by JPA when no longer needed – JPA also offer a take back service to ensure zero furniture waste.

We tend to operate locally within the Oxford, Cambridge, London triangle which keeps our carbon emissions low and our service levels high with resources in close proximity to our client base.  We employ locally, support our local economy and use local contractors, all benchmarks for a sustainable business.

Has office design changed a great deal in recent years, and if so, how?

Yes definitely, design has changed and it’s been led by the technology.  Once, we were all chained to desks with PCs and phones, but now we can work from anywhere and so we have adapted workspaces to be more flexible and to cater for a broader spectrum of users and workstyle preferences.

Everyone will be familiar with hot desking, meeting pods, collaboration areas in the workplace.  The choice of how and when to work is key when developing people centric environments where staff can flourish.   Increasing numbers of companies now offer flexible working policies as standard so that staff can juggle work/life commitments and find their own balance for optimal performance.

Right now the majority of us are working from home, creating new environments which work for us and embracing technologies that two or three weeks ago we might not have considered such as zoom, facetime, teamviewer, skype, linked in and so many more!  The future of our offices may never be the same!

Are you seeing more and more client demand for office furniture that isn’t plastic, that is sustainably sourced?

Unusually, plastic isn’t THE big issue in our industry – instead it’s the issue of high volumes of redundant business furniture waste that go to landfill each week – some 90,000 items.

The problem with this is that much of this furniture is actually re-usable, and secondly, that it goes to landfill, exacerbating all the associated nasties that go with landfill disposal.  We’ve made it our mission to address and eliminate this within our refurbishment service and we have managed to achieve it with our clients.  To date, JPA have eliminated over 534 tonnes of client furniture waste through materials recovery, with a further 5100 furniture items rehomed for free in our local community.

Do you think it is possible to successfully eliminate plastic entirely from office design?

That’s a good question, yes and no!  There are an increasing number of products on the market manufactured entirely from recycled plastic bottles and that’s a good thing.  We’re just about to launch a seating fabric made entirely from plastic bottles retrieved from the ocean, so it’s something to shout about in a good way.

I think there’s great potential to keep making furniture from plastic already in use and then to keep recycling it to make new items and the office furniture industry is well on the way with this. 

There are some truly innovative and inspiring plastic products on the market which are 100% recycled and which have the capacity for future lives when no longer needed in their current form and we are actively specifying these into new projects.

Do you think that by addressing the issue of plastic and waste that office furniture is also changing in other ways, such as aesthetics, comfort, design etc?

Good manufacturers have been addressing waste via design for many years, ensuring that models are made for decommissioning at end of life, that replacement parts are available to extend product life and that continuity of parts is available for many years to come. 

Design has evolved, but good design and good raw materials will still stand the test of time and be a good investment – we would always encourage clients to take an interest in where and how products have been made, with a positive consideration for products with a more social, ethical and environmental provenance.

The old adage buy once, buy well, is so true – we tend to look after things better if we have paid more for them, keep them longer and take more care of them – and so will our staff.  Good design will tend to stand the test of time no matter what it’s made of, enhancing sustainability and longevity.

Are you seeing any trends in terms of demand for particular items of sustainable furniture? Particular materials/ reclaimed items/ etc?

Efficient use of material resources helps to reduce costs and minimise environmental impacts associated with raw material extraction and manufacture.

Timber has seen a resurgence over the last few years for several reasons with properly managed forests providing some of the most sustainable, renewable construction and product materials available.

Timber is a natural insulator which can reduce heating and cooling costs and result in more comfortable living and work environments.

An all-round champion, timber can enhance fit-out design with positive benefits for the health and wellbeing of building occupants – reducing humidity and improving air quality.

Timber is hypoallergenic because it traps less dust than soft materials like carpet, making it more suitable for those with allergies and asthma. It also has better acoustic performance than hard surface materials, absorbing more sound, preventing loud echoes and creating a more pleasant, less aurally stressful environment.

Psychologically, the natural visual appearance of timber is calming and can result in reduced blood pressure, lowered stress levels and improved emotional states for occupants through biophilic principles – biophilia (the principle that exposure to nature increases human wellbeing). The Planet Ark Study in 2017 found that the more natural looking wooden surfaces workers could see from their workstation, the higher their workplace satisfaction and wellbeing. 

Choosing your materials carefully really can have an impact on performance.

When it comes to environmental concerns – are people’s furniture demands changing- or are businesses still slow in understanding the need to make sustainable choices?

We see a lot of ‘best price now’ as the overwhelming criteria for furniture purchasing – when that’s only part of the picture.

Furniture has the potential to create great working spaces, it’s the catalyst between the building and the people that use it, and purchased well, works both for the users, their organisations, the environment and the community.  It’s a key long-term investment.

Sustainability is not just all things green; it’s about maximising your investment in spaces, people, and furniture by buying the best you can to ensure comfort, engagement, longevity and productivity – factors which enable organisations to thrive.  Less absence, increased staff retention and satisfaction, lower agency fees are all reflections of a sustainable business.

Imagine if as a consequence of your business refurbishment you could also have a positive effect on your local community and local environment whilst reducing operational costs and running a more effective, happy workspace – it’s a no brainer, yet best price now often results in low life span, less flexible, less comfortable and less workable spaces, which save on the bottom line now ticking a budget box, but may have a negative effect on your business.  How do your staff feel about your investment in them – they may have IT and equipment worth thousands of pounds, but poor seating and ergonomics is still the biggest cause of absence from work in the UK, with a huge cost to employers – it’s just not viewed in the furniture budget.

And that’s before we get to doing what’s right for the planet – pick a good supplier who can give you a complete service – pre, during and post operational support and who will be there for the long-term with you. Not all suppliers are equal.

What’s the biggest challenge in convincing businesses to become more sustainable in terms of furniture and office fitouts?

The biggest challenge by far lies in showing businesses the value of a long-term approach to furnishing their spaces.  The temptation is to still buy best price now which may well show savings in one budget column, but when considered over the total cost of life of the product, may turn out to be a poor investment.

That’s because the furniture itself is only one part of the equation. Other factors include how and where it is made – the volumes of recycled content, recyclability, and supply chain of materials, particularly timber from well managed forests.  Reliable furniture partners will also provide you with support and knowledge, making sure that your furniture comes with replacement parts and is manufactured responsibly for end of life and decommissioning.

Furniture purchases can impact directly on the performance of teams and thereby business performance, so it’s good to consult or bring a company to help with this process to make sure your staff are on board, engaged and most of all have the resources they need to do what’s being asked of them.  This isn’t seen in any budget heading but invaluable in driving your business forward.

Furniture purchases should meet your organisational needs and have the potential to meet changing business objectives at this time of rapid change, so some flexibility is a good idea to enable a degree of future-proofing in adapting to the needs of the organisation moving forwards and maximising initial investment.

And the next, most obvious point would be to find a good furniture supplier that will be with you for the long haul, not just for the major refurbishments, but to be on hand when you need help with day to day furniture issues which cost time, money and effort – and all taking your attention away from what you do best.

Never underestimate the value of the supplier who delivers, installs and set the furniture up so users can use it properly and be effective in their work.  Look for suppliers who want to develop long-term relationships and who offer added value over and above price.

As Benjamin Franklin once said,  “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten”.

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