Circular economy in practice: fitting out sustainable and stylish work places

3 November 2015

As NZ’s population continues to grow, so does the demand for usable office space and with it an increase in office construction and refurbishment. Find out how forward-thinking organisations are creating stylish offices fit for the 21st century.

Half of all waste created in New Zealand comes from the construction and demolition industry and year on year tonnes of that waste is dumped into landfills across the country. Perhaps what’s most shocking is that 90 per cent of that waste can be recycled – and in the case of office furniture that number’s closer to 99 per cent.  

One by one, organisations are reclaiming responsibility for the waste created during office refurbishments. NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards finalists Creative Spaces refurbished a 27 storey building using sustainable design and architecture.   The Sustainable Business Network (SBN) has developed the Guide to the Circular Economy Model Office, a world first handbook for the sustainable office of the future, and retailer George Walkers will buy your old furniture off you and refurbish it on sale – unless you knew otherwise you’d never know it was second hand.

Refitting the SBN office

The Sustainable Business Network office followed circular economy principles of upcycling and recycling, to maximise resource efficiencies, when we refitted our office in 2012, and the result is an open space furnished with character: old window frames are now picture frames, blackboards fill unused wall space, old doors have been transformed into whiteboards and our computer monitors rest on pale orange bricks with as much history as the Old Sofrana building itself.

John Ringer of Paradigm Associates was one of the principle designers (joined by industrial designer Bhavesh Bhuthadia and AUT University design students) in the layout and furnishings of the SBN office.

“It was a difficult and dire warehouse space when we started. It was important that the people that work there liked it and it needed to be practical. We wanted to get as close to a professional office fit as we could in terms of health and safety and staff comfort, but it also had to reflect SBN character: intelligent, left of field and values based,” says John.

He says the design needed to reflect the organisation’s growth. “SBN is on a constant path of improvement with its staffing and its look and feel, and we wanted to have an office that represented that professionally.”

EcoMatters’ new upcycled office

To see these circular economy principles reach from corporate spaces, to our own, to community trusts is nothing short of inspiring. EcoMatters Environment Trust is one of the latest organisations to put recycling and upcycling at the core of its refurbishment and it has shown there doesn’t have to be any compromise.

EcoMatters is a not-for-profit community organisation based in New Lynn in West Auckland with interests in sustainable waste management, stream restoration, community gardening and home advice as well as broader community environmental education through its workshop programme.

Damon Birchfield, EcoMatters CEO, says “we wanted to create an office space that represented our values as well as demonstrate to other businesses that it is possible to create a functional, beautiful and contemporary office space utilising stuff that would otherwise be thrown away.”

Workspaces that reflect employee values mean more satisfied employees – at SBN we’re proud to walk the talk, whether it’s in our office or in our day to day lives – a principle we share with EcoMatters and one Damon wanted to reflect. “The entire EcoMatters space has been redesigned and refreshed. We used a lot of variety of recycled projects for our furnishings. For lightshades we uses a combination of old metal tool containers and glass bottles. Our large main work table is built from an old conveyor belt from Random House with matai timber.”

Circular economy offices are as much about growth and the future as they are about sustainability and that’s something that’s been embedded in both the SBN and EcoMatters fit outs.

Managing waste

“Perhaps one of the biggest challenges has been managing the waste side of things, finding new homes for all the stuff we had accumulated over the 12 years of business,” says Damon.

Waste management is a critical part of upcycling an office. After all, it’s fine to use someone else’s waste but what’s the point in trading computer stands for bricks if those stands are only going to end up in landfill?

Damon says that they were able recycle (or turn a profit) on everything they didn’t need and that went beyond old furniture into the clutter accumulated over the past decade.

“During the refit virtually nothing has been sent to landfill. Furthermore, we’ve been on an ongoing mission of de-cluttering for the past six months. It’s part of getting the organisation to a place where we have clarity of space and place and practically demonstrating to others that you don’t need a whole lot of stuff to be able to live and work well.”

John agrees and says that refurbishing an office with circular economy principles takes a different perspective.

“Don’t get too precious. Not everything has to be absolutely brand new, pristine, polished. Look at the space in terms of your company values and look at what you stand for – look at it based on your principles and not decor.

“Don’t be afraid to do something unique – we don’t all have to look like everybody else in our office spaces.”

So, if your office is up for a refurbishment in the New Year or you’re moving to a new space, ask yourself: does your new office really need to be jam packed with new stuff or will creative design bring you into the 21st century?

Circular Economy Model Office and product stewardship

The circular economy model office looks to design out waste from the whole process by requiring compliant suppliers to have a product stewardship scheme in place, ensuring that the supplier is responsible for the product at the end of its life and not the customer. This means the supplier is incentivised to design for a circular economy in terms of such things as material choices and the ease of disassembly, refurbishment, reuse, etc as they are forced to tackle the end of life issue as opposed to passing the responsibility onto the customer.

A good example of this is Inzide Commercial, which supplies Interface carpet tiles.  Inzide has a government accredited product stewardship scheme in place, taking back floor tiles at the end of their life to recycle into new ones.

If you’d like to find out more about the circular economy and how you can use it to refurbish your office, contact James Griffin, james@sustainable.org.nz.