Edelman Public Relations office in Washington, D.C.
© 2012 RTKL.com/Paul Warchol Edelman Public Relations office in Washington, D.C.

Sustainably designed commercial interiors use less energy and water, incorporate earth- and health-friendly materials, and promote occupant comfort. But if these same interiors are being torn down and renovated every decade or sooner, how green are they?

The answer depends on how one defines what’s sustainable. LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) evaluates interior projects based on a host of criteria relating to site location, water consumption, energy performance, material selection, and indoor environmental quality, all to produce a lighter environmental footprint and a healthier workplace. The program also awards a point for projects where the client commits to staying in the space for 10 years or longer. Lately, occupant health and well-being have also been garnering more attention in the field of sustainable design, which has drawn interest to biophilia—humans’ innate affinity to nature and other living systems—as a way to create nurturing environments. The Living Building Challenge, for instance, includes both operable windows and biophilic design features as imperatives under its health petal, one of seven performance areas, or petals, targeted by the program. The program also has a beauty petal, which requires aesthetic elements intended “solely for human delight.”

But as rigorous as these criteria may appear to be, they instruct little on the reasons that prompt companies to continually seek new locations and renovate. Generally speaking, the frequency at which a commercial interior is renovated is tied to the tenant’s lease and the market that the space serves. A complete overhaul typically occurs right before the tenant’s move-in and again 10 years later, which is the typical length of a commercial lease. To stay on trend, retail businesses may refresh sooner—after three to five years—as might businesses in the tech industry where growth is volatile and changes in ownership occur often and quickly.

M+R Strategic Services
© 2012 RTKL.com/Paul Warchol M+R Strategic Services

The economic downturn, however, has dampened the appeal—as well as the ease—of picking up and starting over for some businesses. Commercial tenants waiting out the downturn or uncertain of their outlook are renewing for shorter terms and seeking reductions in rent and space. Those with several years left on their leases and room to spare because of downsizing are subletting. Many companies are trying to make the best of the space they already have and spend as little as possible on remodeling. “A lot more of what we’re doing now is assessing existing conditions and the way companies work, and reviewing that against how they should be working,” says Robert P. Moylan, design principal of SmithGroupJJR.

Though economics may be driving this change in behavior, the environment stands to benefit. Minimizing the frequency of relocation and renovations makes good sustainable practice. Residential and commercial renovations account for 44 percent of the construction and demolition debris waste stream—which translates to roughly 70 million tons of trash each year—according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And this doesn’t factor in expenditures of energy, water, and other resources. Stable tenants are also “better for the community, the landlord, and developer,” says Holley Henderson, LEED Fellow, principal of H2 Ecodesign, and author of Becoming a Green Building Professional. “It’s that idea of less is more in the environmental world.”

Integrating flexibility into a project’s design helps support an organization as it inevitably evolves during the term of its lease, thus reducing the need for future renovations, says Ken Wilson, FAIA, LEED Fellow, a design principal at Perkins+Will. Doing so, however, may require some soul-searching and education. “We have to work with our clients to not only understand their current requirements, but also educate them to change how they view work and the work environment,” says Dennis Gaffney, vice president of RTKL’s Workplace Practice Group, which focuses on new construction and renovation projects for corporate, law, government, and nonprofit organizations. Margaret Montgomery, AIA, a principal at NBBJ, recommends that designers ask clients about recent challenges they’ve experienced and future plans for growth as a way to encourage them “to think more deeply about what they do and their business strategy.”

Understanding the company’s use of technology is also critical to anticipating future requirements of a space, Gaffney says. He points out the effect that mobile devices have had on commercial interiors: Not only have they downsized workspaces and reduced energy loads—a tablet needs less power to run than a desktop—but they’ve also allowed people to move around the office. Layouts featuring myriad office configurations and spaces for individual work and group settings enable flexibility in working styles and are more amenable to personnel changes. Gensler’s 2013 Workplace Study, which was released in July, found that employees with access to a balance of individual and communal workspaces felt more satisfied with their jobs and their workplace.

Large corporations may already be wise to these trends, Gaffney says, but some organizations, such as law firms and associations, may not realize how workspaces can become flexible. Modular office solutions and flexible furniture, rather than hard walls and built-ins, are a start. Demountable partitions can be reconfigured easily into different types of workspaces, Wilson says, and wireless thermostats and lighting systems eliminate the need for rewiring. Carpet tiles, instead of broadloom, and raised floor systems also lend well to reconfiguration. When possible, says NBBJ principal Duncan Griffin, AIA, designers should keep infrastructure out of flexible spaces. For large projects, such as those that exceed 100,000 square feet, Moylan recommends setting up power and data on a modular grid to ensure their availability even if the floor plan is later reconfigured.

Edelman Public Relations office in Washington, D.C.
© 2012 RTKL.com/Paul Warchol Edelman Public Relations office in Washington, D.C.

A life cycle approach to product selection will also help minimize waste in renovations. Mechanically fastened products, for example, may break down into recyclable or reusable components more easily than those assembled with adhesives, Henderson notes. Also a member of LEED steering and market advisory committees, Henderson notes that LEED Interior Design + Construction (LEED ID+C) v4 embraces such thinking. The latest update to the rating system will launch this November at Greenbuild, and projects will have the option to register for LEED-CI 2009 until June 1, 2015. In LEED v4’s Material and Resources category, designers will be asked to consider products beyond their embodied energy, to address their entire life cycle, from manufacture, transport, and installation, to maintenance and end-of-life potential. “Who owns that product and where does it go?” Henderson says.

Takeback programs offer an answer that may outline a path to the future. Carpet tiles manufacturers, perhaps most notably, have become adept in the salvage and recycling of their products, Griffin says. Maybe it’s just a matter of time that other industries follow suit. “Ultimately, if we can get to that point,” Montgomery says, “I think it’s OK to redo your interiors every 10 years.”