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20 Nov 2023

Architecture Today - Sustainable Workspaces

Sustainable Ventures Stand: G50
Architecture Today - Sustainable Workspaces
Copyright Jim Stephenson 2023

Designed by Material Works Architecture, Sustainable Workspaces at County Hall occupies part of the grade-II listed, former GLC headquarters on London’s South Bank, and comprises private offices, event spaces, innovation labs, cafés and break-out areas. The existing space had been untouched since the GLC left in the 1980s, providing a unique context of distressed historic finishes as the backdrop for the new works.

Sustainable Workspaces is a branch of Sustainable Ventures – a full service ecosystem for sustainable start-ups that provides investment, community, innovation and workspace. Having outgrown its previous home, the company acquired 3,600 square-metres of the fifth floor of County Hall. Adopting a low-impact design philosophy focused on minimising embodied energy, the project is a test bed for innovative materials and techniques that show an alternative path for workspace retrofit. Material Works’ carbon calculation indicates a total saving of 1,150 tonnes of carbon compared to a typical office fit-out.*

Five guiding principles underpin the design: light touch retrofit, adaptable/reusable interventions, reclaimed furniture and fittings, low-carbon materials, and natural materials and processes. Existing fabric and fittings that could be reused were identified early on, and plans made to retain as much of them as possible. Repairs were limited to defective areas only, with the final finish a celebration of the ‘as found’ character, rather than seeking uniform appearance. Existing doors, windows, flooring and plaster were also retained and new decoration limited to areas of high footfall and expected wear.

New structures and interventions within the space are limited to those essential to the new programme and the comfort of the building occupants. To increase longevity and reduce end-of-use waste, partition walls and joinery have been designed from robust materials and configured into modular, demountable systems. This enables elements to be easily adapted, relocated, or fully disassembled into re-useable base materials.

Modular partitions and furniture were produced by U-build as part of a long-term project with Sustainable Workspaces to develop a fully demountable system. The plywood designs have minimal mechanical fittings and can easily be reconfigured to different layouts, moved to new locations, or disassembled into reusable timber.

A large portion of the wall modules used at County Hall were successfully demounted and moved from Sustainable Workspace’s previous home on a lower floor, with adaptations and reconfigurations ongoing to meet the changing requirements of occupiers. Reclaimed fittings and furniture were sourced from site demolition or external reclamation yards, and included reclaimed toilets and cisterns, light fittings, doors and furniture.

New materials were chosen to avoid the high-carbon yields associated with traditional building products. Focus was given to materials that utilise agricultural or industrial by-products, exploit existing waste streams, or derived from carbon-sequestering forestry. Examples include joinery finishes created from waste coffee and vegetables, carpentry using  composite boards formed from agricultural waste, cork flooring, mycelium acoustic baffles, and a countertop formed from reclaimed building rubble. Further focus was given to degradable bonding agents and processes to ensure specified materials were easily recyclable at end of use.

Wherever possible, natural materials have been chosen that are biodegradable and free from toxins and VOCs that can cause health issues. The use of natural lime plasters and lime-based paints improves air quality, as well as significantly reducing the project’s carbon footprint due to their low energy production methods. Accompanying this is the inclusion of extensive integrated planting that further benefits air quality and psychological wellbeing.

* Full like cycle carbon calculations were performed using Life Cycle Assessment software. The project is compared with a typical benchmark office fit-out using raised access floors, suspended ceilings, commercial partitioning  systems, new plaster and paint finishes throughout.

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