Following the announcement of their pledge to deliver net-zero interiors and fit-outs for commercial tenants, Perkins+Will’s Adam Strudwick explains why architects have to also be advocates, embracing a ‘new materiality’ and the firm’s plans to create a more circular form of practice.

Why has Perkins+Will made this commitment now?

ADAM STRUDWICK: A year ago, we committed to a similar pledge with regards to our architectural practice, so we wanted to double down on that with an interiors branch. In addition, what we saw at the start of 2020 was that more corporations were starting to make their own pledges tying their businesses’ net-zero targets in terms of carbon. In Microsoft's case, they went a step further, aiming to become net negative by clawing back the carbon they’d already spent. That was our first kick up the arse to do something internally that would reflect what our clients were saying and thinking.

In the past businesses have had a disconnect in terms of the relationship between their ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance) commitments and their real estate drivers and goals. There were great intentions on either side, both from a corporate level and a real estate level, but they didn't necessarily marry up. It’s partly an issue of communication; that’s where the brand phrase ‘net zero’ helps, as it’s something you can deliver from both a corporate and real estate perspective. It’s much harder to connect accreditation like BREEAM and LEED with wider corporate sustainability goals that companies are communicating above the line. In fact, we feel that many clients have become fatigued by the accreditation process; there’s a general consensus that it feels like they’re buying points to get a certificate, and doing so via mechanisms that may or may not have an amazing amount of relevance to their wider organizational strategy. At the same time, there's a lack of clarity as to how those points are positively influencing the environment. When a company says ‘by 2030 we want to be carbon neutral’, you know that you can look at their real estate portfolio and work out the role it can play in helping achieve that – it marries up corporate drivers with real estate reality.

If a company wants to be carbon neutral in 10-years’ time, they’re going to have recognize that their real estate portfolio is a massive part of their carbon footprint

To what extent do you have to be an advocate for this approach when speaking to clients?

If a client comes to us and says ‘we're looking at a building project and we want it to be net zero’ we'll say ‘great’, but we also need to find out what exactly they mean by that. If they mean that they are erecting a normal building but have also planted a forest, that's not really a net-zero carbon building. So you do have to be an advocate. There comes a point where you have to tell clients that this part of the strategy is really important, and it may actually be a bigger priority than some other things they’re considering. The good thing is that the sort of corporate statements companies have now started marking are quite easy for us to align with in terms of what we want to achieve. The carbon-neutral pledges you see today are effectively non-negotiable, and that’s been the big change in organizations’ environmental aspirations over the last decade. If a company wants to be carbon neutral in 10-years’ time, they’re going to have to recognize that their real estate portfolio is a massive part of their carbon footprint.

What are the hardest problems to solve when designing a truly circular project?

When you're doing interiors projects, you're zooming in to products, and then zooming out to the overall scheme. There's already lots of good products on the market. For example, carpet tiles that are made from recycled yarn, bonded in a way that they can be recycled again in the future. Many furniture systems are already able to be recycled or repurposed. Those looser product categories are an easier win.

The harder task is when it comes to elements that are built in, such as staircases or partitions or ceilings. A useful example would be plasterboard walls and stud partitioning, something many office projects around the world use to build cellularization within a space. Plasterboard is recyclable as a product, as is the aluminium that studs are commonly made from. But when it comes to deconstruction, someone with a sledge hammer arrives and smashes them down, rendering those materials largely useless. So you also need to look at the construction techniques in play and how you can create products that can be removed and reused in such a way that they retain their value. It also tracks differently depending on the territory, so you need to understand the wider context of each market. In the UK, or certainly in London, I think the average diversion from landfill for interiors is about 90%; that means only about 10% of stuff generated in a project will go to landfill. In the US I think it's about 50%.

But then you also have to look forward and address the sense of using these sorts of building systems when we know that all clients are demanding greater flexibility. With plasterboard, that’s always going to mean demolition and wasted resources, even when performed conscientiously. So we need to start from the point of view of creating a system that is flexible both within the context of the lifecycle of the project as well as post-use.

In your manifesto you speak of ‘a new materiality’ associated with net-zero interiors – can you explain what you mean by that?

We can't continue to create interiors that look like they have over the last few years because we don't have the materials and products that can replicate that look whilst achieving the required sustainability metrics. There’s a larger question here regarding what constitutes an attractive piece of design. Is it something that merely looks beautiful? Or is it something that comes from a principle, which is beautiful? To that end a product or a space may look visually jarring initially, but if it's being generated in a way which is sympathetic and positive, then that may override the aesthetic shock.

In terms of interiors, we need to be able to imagine a different paradigm

Take Nike and the products that have come out of its circular design programme as a reference point: when they were first launched, few would have described them as beautiful within the context of the norms of that industry. But the sensibility behind them is really powerful, and now that aesthetic has become acceptable. I think that’s because it’s much more honest in terms of its materiality. Right now we’re in a stage where manufacturers want to be quite overt about demonstrating where these circular materials have come from, and that’s similar to that start of many movements I think, where at an early stage there’s a need to be overly demonstrative. Similarly, in terms of interiors, we need to be able to imagine a different paradigm. That will sometimes be hard for our clients to understand and many are going to have to change their thinking with regards to the appearance of their spaces, at least for the next ten years until we have a wider range of materials that meet our ecological standards.

There’s an inherent difficulty in the fact that our job ends as the project starts to come to life

Designers have a lot of agency when it comes to the construction of a project, but how can you make sure its deconstruction meets the same standards?

This is really about our scope as interior designers and architects. There’s an inherent difficulty in the fact that our job ends as the project starts to come to life. For the client, that’s where the hard work starts. This isn’t fully resolved yet, but we’re interested in disrupting the established model of architecture as something which operates in a linear mode. Circularity may demand that we adopt a model in which our practice doesn’t stop at such an early stage in a project’s lifecycle; perhaps we need to be there adding what value we can at the middle and at the end, too.

Hero image: Courtesy of Mick de Paola, unsplash.