An Open-Plan Office Can Cut Your Emissions

An open-plan layout, like this one at the Cadbury Schweppes office, creates a positive work environment while reducing carbon emissions.

By Dick Resch

Visualize greenhouse gas emissions. A roadway congested with cars and trucks might be the first image that comes to mind.

That’s close, but not quite right. The buildings on the side of the road are actually the bigger polluters.

The building sector of the U.S. economy uses more energy and emits more greenhouse gases than any other. Buildings account for 39 percent of energy use and 38 percent of carbon emissions nationwide.

The 40 billion square feet of drywall the United States produces every year generate 51 million tons of greenhouse gases. Or consider concrete: Pound for pound, we human beings consume more concrete each year than any substance but water. Concrete comes from cement, and producing a single ton of it results in a corresponding ton of carbon emissions.

With the economy finally having absorbed excess capacity left over from the financial crisis and recession, demand for reconstruction and smaller-scale renovation will be growing in the five years ahead, according to the research firm IBISWorld. Construction cranes are popping up all over.

Many managers are incorporating low-flow toilets and energy-efficient lighting to reduce the carbon footprint of their buildings. That’s helpful, but it’s not enough.

It’s critical for businesses and builders to go green from the moment they decide to move forward with a new office or remodel an old one. New technologies and new approaches to the human element can do wonders for the environment even as they improve productivity.

Architectural walls, for example, look like traditional construction with two-by-fours and drywall but move easily to reconfigure a space. They can be manufactured out of eco-friendly, recycled or renewable materials from wheat, soy and sunflower board to linoleum, cork and rubber-wood.

Such walls are also well suited to open-plan environments, which are greener than their more traditional alternatives.

Rather than calling a construction team, office managers can move the walls as needed to set up meeting rooms or private offices.

As businesses make more efficient use of their office space — by introducing larger, shared desks for employees, for example — they reduce waste and emissions. Better airflow from an open plan can also reduce heating and air-conditioning needs.

Whenever a company doesn’t have to spend money on something, that’s a gain for the bottom line as well as the environment. When the tech firm Cisco switched to an open-plan, shared workspace environment, the company realized savings of 60 percent on cabling, 40 percent on switches and switch ports, and 42 percent in construction costs.

Or consider the example set by the financial-services company Macquarie. With a variety of innovative measures, the firm has managed to cuts its energy consumption in half.

Rather than relying on traditional HVAC, Macquarie pipes in ocean water to air-condition its offices. An interior staircase connects suites of offices throughout the building, reducing elevator use by 50 percent. The company’s offices are oriented around “meeting pods” and flexible “work neighborhoods,” which allow for the movement of people rather than walls.

The human element also benefits from the greening of the workplace. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, the random encounters produced by open-plan work areas make employees more productive.

In a traditional office, eavesdropping can get you in trouble. In an open-plan office, someone overhearing a conversation about a problem just might have a good idea for a solution. Facebook is planning a mile-long shared workspace to promote such interaction.

Changing out the light bulbs is not enough to go green. The workplace of the future will have a minimal carbon footprint thanks to better technology and better human ecology.

Dick Resch is CEO of KI Furniture (www.ki.com).