In some ways, the shift in understanding and tone around the renovation conversation has been extraordinary. It’s great to see architects, clients and investors seriously considering what they can save and reuse when retrofitting and expanding buildings. But often the conversation focuses only on the building structures – the steel, glass, brick and concrete which have a high carbon footprint and need to be preserved and redesigned where possible. But we don’t have to stop there – change needs to be holistic and we need to consider all finishes and materials used inside buildings.
The average piece of furniture generates about 47 kilograms of carbon footprint, which is equivalent to burning 5.3 gallons of gasoline, or about a third of a normal tank. Now think of all the chairs, desks, filing cabinets and dividers in an office of several hundred people – and the fact that in many office remodels, it all ends in a dumpster. This is especially true for the many interiors and furnishings that use composite materials, which are inherently difficult to recycle. Creative reuse offers an alternative. Interesting, bespoke and eye-catching new items built from redundant furniture.
As designers, we should see it as a responsibility and a challenge to transform what already exists to adapt to new ways of working. At LOM, we recently undertook a large-scale creative reuse project for a large financial institution. The 11 floors of its 1980s headquarters were to be completely redesigned, with the aim of increasing the amount of usable space, improving the working environment, helping the building improve its sustainability credentials and extend its life.
A specific and central aim of this project was to reuse existing content as much as possible – hundreds of desks, chairs and other furniture no longer needed as the old “desk row” model transformed into a more modern, dynamic, collaborative desktop format.
Like quitting fast fashion – it shouldn’t be about “savings”. Mass consumption is a drain on our resources, especially when products are produced that are difficult or impossible to recycle effectively. This should be an exciting opportunity for designers to get creative – delivering new functions and aesthetics for reuse.
In our project, what were desktop computers became chat booths, collaboration tables, and colorful whiteboards. Handles marked out spaces where computer wires had once meandered. The wooden bases have been transformed into flexible storage and high-level “tool rails”, remodeled, refinished and recolored to be almost unrecognizable.
We must advocate a non-disposable culture. To record items destined for landfill. It starts with how we think about refits – and it in turn starts with us as designers. If we can make something look not reused, but bespoke, then we can successfully bring that into the mainstream and reduce mass disposal without compromising the end result.
Thinking about creative reuse also goes beyond fixtures and fittings, to reimagining underutilized building space as a whole, and in doing so, limit any need to expand a building’s footprint. On this same project, the 1980s building had a lot of underutilized space with the potential to do more. The structure had a large atrium that was ripe for the addition of spectacular overhead modules housing meeting rooms. Likewise, the inefficient ground floor space was repurposed and easily made way for a new conference center. At the heart of the building, an award-winning flexible workspace has now replaced rows of desks, improving staff well-being and productivity.
Creative reuse is not yet a question to which we have all the answers. However, we should all jump at the chance to learn and improve by doing. The more cases we make for our clients and the more incredible new spaces we produce with minimal waste, the more capable we will become of identifying previously unexplored opportunities to get the most out of our materials and buildings.
Change is not synonymous with waste. Redundancy doesn’t have to mean elimination. We must harness our creative power as an industry to reinvent what we have. To “be more Lego” if you wish. Our customers, the users of our spaces and our planet will thank us for it.