Thinking3 principles for uniting people and property in the low carbon workplace

Design thinker Nick James shares his three trending principles for decarbonising our dematerialising workplace.
Content Team4 years ago7 min

“Work is a thing you do, not a place you go” said somebody wise at some point. Whoever they were, I think that they were on to something.

Technological changes are impacting not only how we work, but where and when also. In the UK’s service-focused economy, we still need places to work of course, but these now include coffee shops, trains, co-working spaces and home, alongside more conventional offices.

“Work is a thing you do, not a place you go”


As we slowly adapt our built environment to enable a highly flexible and connected world of work, we need to be mindful of its potential to positively or negatively address our climate crisis. With 40% of UK emissions coming from buildings and a National 2050 net zero target, meeting our workplace evolving expectations in a low carbon way is critical for responsible businesses to thrive.

There’s a whole load of energy efficiency basics that can be implemented – from LED lighting through to zero energy office designs. Generating or buying only renewable energy is also a great start. However, to help guide those businesses looking to take their workplace a step further, I want to share three trending principles distilled from my work.

1. Change the metrics

Indeed, you cannot manage what you cannot measure, but for energy use in buildings we often stop at kWh/m2. As desk utilisation, occupancy rates and operating hours increase with agile working we see energy use rising. Compound this with quantum and unpredictability of energy use from the proliferation of portable devices and BYOD practices, and normalising energy use by floor area looks pretty dumb. Using energy intensity by productivity metrics can provide more useful data, better insights and fairer reflections of impact in a changing world. It gets even more interesting when you work from home (see below).

2. Take responsibility

For employers supporting flexible working, only measuring your office-based energy and carbon impacts is no longer good enough. Your employees who are working from home, on the train or in Starbucks are using energy which needs accounting for. What are the impacts of an hour working in an efficient office versus from a kitchen table in a draughty old house? Accounting for this wider carbon footprint may be challenging for your business, but it will be illuminating. It can allow you the opportunity to engage better with your mobile workers and freelancers, helping them to cut carbon.

3. Think in layers

Stewart Brand nailed this in the 1990s, but our increasingly evolving and rapidly changing demands on our buildings make thinking in layers even more relevant today. With 80% of our 2050 buildings already built, we need to focus our efforts on curating these for longevity to avoid the major carbon impacts of premature refurbishment or worse, demolition. Working our buildings harder and for longer is the low carbon option. This means utilising those forgotten spaces, shifting from mixed to merged use, and better matching the material lifecycles of our building’s various layers (stuff, space plan, services, skin, structure) to the needs of people and planet.

Changes in how we work are inevitable. The rate of change is accelerating and we risk leaving our existing buildings behind whilst our carbon emissions rise. We need to urgently adopt more agile and enlightened approaches to managing the places where we work. “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” said somebody else wise at some other point.

To find more content from Nick James, click here

Nick James is a design thinker and sustainable housing specialist. He is a founding director of futureground, a consultancy and project management business helping organisations to save money and create environmental and social value from a better built environment.

Nick James

Content Team

Work in Mind is a content platform designed to give a voice to thinkers, businesses, journalists and regulatory bodies in the field of healthy buildings.

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