Write-up of the live eco-design talk held on 19 Oct 2022 at #DesignPopUp Dublin
On our return to Dublin, #DesignPopUp gathered an expert panel at the Smock Alley Theatre in the latest instalment of our Sustainability Talks. We invited a cross-section of voices to talk about the circular economy within design, from tackling waste and going net-positive to ways of futureproofing buildings.
Hani Hatami Sustainability Ambassador,
Co-Founder & Product Specialist,
ANN Future Workplaces
Ailish Walker Associate, Henry J Lyons Architects
Collette Burns Architectural Project Leader, Technological University Dublin
An environmental urgency
For the suppliers on our panel, their focus was not limited to their impact on the planet but on providing a climate-positive solution.
Hani Hatami, whose work at Humanscale involves educating clients on the importance of sustainability, opened the discussion with startling facts that distilled our environmental challenges. She pointed out the three most significant issues: global warming, "40% which is carbon created"; material transparency, "there's not enough clarification on what materials are used in products"; and ocean plastic, which comes with the sobering prediction that "by 2050 there will be more plastic in our waters than fish".
Hatami observed that there was not enough commitment from the industry: "Companies want to be sustainable but then realise it's going to cost them time and money. So everyone's happy to talk about what they've done but not what they're doing now."
Humanscale's net-positive overview
Making a positive impact
The team at Humanscale, which opened a new UK showroom in Manchester this year, asked themselves:
"What if we can have a positive impact? How can we be different?"
Setting the bar high, they made a goal to be net-positive – meaning that any time a piece of Humanscale furniture is made, the planet is measurably better off (the company offers 26 products that are certified climate, energy and water positive).
Humanscale transform used fishing nets into office chairs
"There's a big issue of transparency within manufacturing, and I advise you to ask questions. Most suppliers don't want you to know what's inside their products."
- Hani Hatami, Humanscale
Hatami was keen to set down a challenge to designers and specifiers that could help the industry pull in the same, greener direction. "There's a big issue of transparency within manufacturing, and I advise you to ask questions," she advised. "Most suppliers don't want you to know what's inside their products."
She pre-empted likely answers:
That most of us aren't toxicologists and cannot process the information.
That we should respect and trust suppliers.
That to source the answers takes time.
Don't be discouraged by this, Hatami said. For companies like Humanscale, provenance is of great importance; every product, down to the last detail, has a 'passport' of sorts. In fact, the materials they use are chosen purposefully to tackle climate change, such as the use of old fishing nets – the biggest polluters in our seas – which are recycled and used in their core chair collection.
"We work with fishermen in Latin America who drop their used fishing nets at our facilities," she explained. "These are turned into plastic pellets which form part of our Ocean Chair range."
Creating a narrative around a product can provide a unique selling point and elevate the end-user experience. "It's a great story to tell your staff and a small step towards tackling a bigger problem."
Humanscale offers 26 products that are certified climate, energy and water positive
Waste is wonderful
The next speaker, Anthony Gray from ANN Future Workplaces, picked up on Hatami's point about repurposing used materials. He elaborated on how diverting unwanted items from landfill can – with the correct thinking – transform waste into something valuable and lasting.
Leading sustainable manufacturers are happy to proclaim their furniture is rubbish, literally.
Gray ran through some of ANN's high-profile projects, explaining how the goal was to help brands become part of the circular economy where nothing is thrown away.
Rebel Chair by Planq, made with recycled denim
Gray acts as Planq's UK and Ireland Partner, a trailblazing eco-design studio from the Netherlands. Their collaborations have expanded beyond furniture, such as their work with Dutch airline KLM where they took textile overstock and cast-off jeans to create the company's flight attendant uniforms.
Gray highlighted Planq's impressive ranges, including the Unusual Chair collection, explaining how each chair consists of 12 pairs of recycled jeans – equating to approx. 3.5kg of textile waste and saving up to 16.275 litres of water.
The making of Planq's Unusual Chair
Gray reiterated Hatami's point: repurposing materials makes sense for the planet but also for the design process, with the ability to bring everyone involved on board and "giving employees a sense of ownership too". He added: "We noticed 95% of people did more sustainable practices at home and were more likely to champion sustainable projects at work."
He also noted that it altered how people interacted with that space. "Take something as simple as a chair, change the material and see the difference it makes to how people experience that product and space."
Built to last
Other essential elements of sustainability in the design process are durability and functionality.
"The longer a product stays in the economy, the more sustainable it is," Gray observed. "That's why chairs by Vitra or Eames are inherently sustainable because they have been in circulation for decades. As a result, their products aren't discarded as people see the value in them."
Dublin Landing Buildings, Henry J Lyons Architects
This approach to longevity formed the bedrock of Henry J Lyons Architects' design of the Central Bank of Ireland, which reimagined a defunct concrete structure in Dublin Docklands (completed in July 2022).
Associate Ailish Walker explained how the project gained an "Outstanding" BREEAM BER A2. This notable award considers the building's energy efficiency, how sustainably it was built and how well it responds to user needs.
Central Bank of Ireland, Henry J Lyons Architects
"Timeless design is represented through functionality, simplicity, low maintenance and well-considered design for longevity rather than fashion or trends," Walker said. She elaborated on the building's details, such as "timber finishes, organic elements and layers of natural colour palettes."
"I've realised that we can do more damage in one day specifying a project than an average person in a whole year,"
- Ailish Walker, Henry J Lyons Architects
Walker issued a rallying cry to other designers and architects and insisted they have a "growing responsibility" to take action. "I've realised that we can do more damage in one day specifying a project than an average person in a whole year," she stated. At Henry J Lyons Architects, they look at whole life carbon assessment and require EPD Ireland (a 3rd party verification on the environmental impacts of their products) from suppliers.
The firm is continually adapting its approach. "We have identified the worst environmental offenders of the build process, such as plasterboards [due to concerns around gypsum]. We try and suggest open or semi-open ceilings." Walker admits the task ahead is enormous, and "we're just scraping the surface".
Technological University Dublin, pre-rebuild
Multi-functional & flexible spaces
Clever, eco-design allows buildings to be used and experienced for longer. Collette Burns, a former director at Henry J Lyons, now Architectural Project Leader at Technological University Dublin, was proud to have put the user experience at the forefront of the education facility's rebuild.
To reintegrate the 74-hectre site into the city environment around it, the project had the long-term in mind from the start. "We can keep using these products and buildings for years and years," Burns said. She pointed out their multi-functional use by showing images of how well-occupied the spaces are now.
"Covid has forced us to be more flexible, teaching us to work in many places. Our most heavily occupied areas are multi-functional spaces," Burns added. "We included flip top tables, adjustable lighting and technology that allows us to change the space from one type of use to another." Burns emphasised how vital environmental issues are to the university's future, revealing it had hired a VP for sustainability.
Technological University Dublin, completed project
Sustainability: at what cost?
The big question remained: what about cost? Can we be sustainable and financially sustainable as businesses?
Hatami admitted Humanscale were sometimes taken off specifications because their products are 10-20% more expensive. Gray agreed that being greener is a more significant expense, but a "change of mindset" for us all was required to be more sustainable and circular-minded.
The conclusion was that greener innovation and sustainability comes at a greater cost, but at what cost to the people and planet? Gray left these thoughts with the crowd:
"When plastic first launched, it was more expensive, but because it's widely used, it's become so much cheaper. This drives our just cause: when we talk about sustainability, we need to talk about responsibility – how we design but how we realistically cost these spaces."
This event took place on Wednesday 19th October, at 5.30 pm. You can catch up with the video recording on your YouTube channel:
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