Thinking Green, Building Green and Using Green

Advocates of “New Ways of Working” claim this to automatically be a sustainable way of working. Opponents point out that it leads to increase of traffic by both car and airplane and that increased power consumption of all accumulated computer centres is responsible for a major part of CO2-emissions.

How can organisations develop green working patterns in a world where everybody is connected to everybody? How do you do it right? To gain insight in the connection of all individual green initiatives concerning the work environment, a new frame of context for both thinking and working is sketched.

By Michel Mooij M.Arch.

If connecting people ultimately leads to contact, connecting will ultimately lead to people meeting each other. Global connectivity creates reasons for people to want to meet each other. A part of those meetings may occur online, through tele-presence, but a part will also lead to actual meetings for which travel is a necessity. On the one hand we discern a decrease in necessity to frequently actually meet one another, on the other hand making new acquaintances worldwide is stimulated which in part leads to a new need for actual meetings.

Is using more space good or bad? The reduction of square footage in use leads to a reduction in CO2 emission caused by energy consumption for heating and less waste is produced at the end of a lifecycle. But does this also go for occupancy of a high-quality green building, where CO2 is taken from the air and which is totally self-supporting in using solar and wind energy? Or does increased volume of a building make the inside climate healthier and more stable?

Tripple life cycle

Buildings, in their current state and form, are responsible for over 35% of CO2-emissions and are the main source of waste. However, buildings obviously don’t do this by themselves. The contribution to global warming is the result of the actual use of these buildings. How do we use them? By what concept and thought are we led during such use? This article addresses the contribution that can be made to sustainability by the way in which we work. We discern three life cycles: thinking, creating and using.


Figure 1 Triple life cycle of thinking green, building green and using green

Thinking green is about concepts and understanding. What are people aware of? What can they imagine? Are people able to look at the world differently? And when do new ideas sufficiently integrate to be transformed into a reality by decision-makers? Creation is about being able to convert ideas into reality. Sometimes creation is nothing more than adjusting existing ideas. Creation costs money, materials and leads to ‘hard’ consequences. Thinking doesn’t. “The patience of paper” would be a proper expression there. The creation is not only driven by the preceding ideas, but also by the actual use. That use results in concrete demands regarding changes to the building and its furnishings. Creation consists of drawing up a design and realising that in preparation of the actual use. Using it is about functionality of what has been made a reality. Usage is what every creation ultimately leads to. This causes the demands concerning such use often to be immediately connected to the creation process. It is however better on many occasions to first translate experience from use into new concepts. Based on those new concepts, new buildings may be made. The experience may also be translated into adapting the way of use so that the building and its furnishings do not immediately have to be adapted as soon as something changes. Every subcomponent has its own life cycle. Concepts used to outlive buildings earlier. This way, over the past 80 years multiple buildings have been erected in line with the concept ‘office building’. Today, concepts change more rapidly than buildings, causing the buildings to become obsolete sooner. The period of actually using a building has become shorter than the building life cycle itself. Thus, the use is not self-evidently leading in developing a building anymore.

The first step towards sustainability can be taken in finding a better sync between both these life cycles, preventing the unnecessary destruction and demolition of many existing buildings.

Thinking Green

Society becomes more and more aware of the fact that we can not continue down the current road. From the moment the earth was first photographed from space, the image of the earth has changed. What first seemed to be an endlessly large world was now reduced to a vulnerable green sphere in the middle of an endless universe. We spoke of ‘spaceship earth’ for the first time. In 1972, report of the Rome Club came. Through calculation models and with help of a computer it was shown for the first time that earth’s resources were limited. In 1998, John Elkington first published a piece on the ‘Triple Bottom Line’. Apart from the usual ‘Bottom Line’ (Profit) he advocated an equal position for human well being (People) and the effects to earth’s eco systems (Planet). For years, the environmental movement was linked to left-wing politics and to campaigning and corporations responded defensively to legislation that had to protect the environment. However, in 2006 Al Gore’s film ‘The inconvenient Truth’ appeared and changed this. Large corporations started to join forces with the NGO’s (Non Governmental Organizations) that had risen from the environmental groups. Not because they became left-wing oriented, but because continuity is a matter concerning everyone.

The current economy of ‘producing new’ and ‘throwing away’ seems to come to an end. New products need resources and energy (which causes CO2– emissions), the waste ends up in the environment and resources are lost. But there is a solution. In 2002, chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough published the book ‘Cradle to cradle’, in which they point to another direction. Instead of today’s environmental thinking, consisting of improving efficiency and thus limiting the damage, they suggest to revolutionarily change the production model. Producing more, consuming more, only in a different way. New product’s design should surpass the product and marketing alone. Everything has to be designed from one single thought, from harvest of resources, the manner in which they are distributed and produced to use of the product and redelivering the used product to the technical and biological cycles. It is no longer about a product but about an entire system.

Building Green

Buildings greatly affect their environmental surroundings and the eco systems of which they are a part. That is why it is important these buildings are produced as an integral part of such systems. When buildings and groups of buildings are designed as part of those eco systems they are not only less harmful to the environment but may also positively contribute to it. This is why today, much attention is given to building green. Numerous organisations are involved. An important step is to develop definitions and measuring methods to ensure that construction companies will turn their operation more and more green. In the Netherlands, The Dutch Green Building Council (DGBC) was founded in 2008. The DGBC is an independent organisation, developing sustainability certificates for Dutch buildings and areas. A foundation that gives out certificates based on preset criteria to organisations that have had their building and/or site assessed. The DGBC audits are based on the English BREEAM , which is translated for this purpose to the Dutch situations.

The impact of a user’s behaviour on the environment is only shown in part through a BREEAM based audit. Attention is given to a building’s location and its consequences to the user’s mobility patterns, but that location is only of partly influence to traffic to and from that building. The places those people travel from towards that building and vice versa are at least as influential to choosing the appropriate way of transportation. If a location is well reachable by Public Transport, such will most of the time be qualified as green but this does not guarantee or even imply that the organisation residing in that building has a convenient Public Transport policy. A properly green building, therefore, is not an object but an entire system of which the user is a part as well.

Using Green

Using green is about everything for which the building itself is not to blame. The distance travelled by air in an organisation on a yearly basis is one example. Others are the amount of paper used in the administrative processes and the distance travelled for commuter traffic caused by disallowing tele-working and/or working from home. In 1995, Negroponte wrote in his book “Being Digital” that transporting bits should be preferred over transporting atoms. It saves energy and money, increases systems’ flexibility and meets the need for quick response. The result of which can be seen today; wherever information is handled there arises a whole new way of working. This is known today in the Netherlands as “Het Nieuwe Werken” (the new way of working).

The New Way of Work

The New Way of Work was known as office innovation until approximately 2005. The initial innovations were born from the awareness that working space increasingly became unused as result of reduction of working hours and the rise of working part time during the eighties. Switching from working space became a means to reduce facility costs, which were related to the working space or the square footage of the work floor. Thanks to information and communication technology it became increasingly possible to work (together) from any place and at any time. The use of social software and the web 2.0 possibilities lead to a shift in perception of reality. Sharing information, trusting information begotten from others who were trusted since they were part of your network, receiving information either based on the provided preferences or automatically related to search behaviour and/or the location of a cell phone. These are all ingredients that decide how to deal with physical surroundings, e.g. the choice to work on a certain time and a certain place. When to send someone an e-mail, when to chat and when to get in a car to visit someone? When to transport bits and when to transport atoms?


In most organisations it is still regularly accepted that employees are being housed. They don’t do that themselves, the facility manager does. For that purpose, the current way of working is analysed, an inventory is made of the necessary working relationships and an ‘image’ of the work patterns within the organisation is established as a blueprint for the office layout. This is based on the expertise of the facility manager regarding the work processes, as well as on a certain stability in those work processes.


Figure 2. Functional housing under the motto of: ‘Form Follows Function’

But are these processes still enough bases for designing a sustainable work environment? Information processing processes are digitalised everywhere and thus become increasingly less dependant of space and time. If information that should be processed, is always and everywhere made available through a network, the place in which you work becomes irrelevant. The colleagues you may have to work with can be reached over that same network and it is possible to work together in a virtual way.
In the new way of working, the activity dynamics are secured by the behaviour of the employees. It is at the discretion of the individual employee to choose the appropriate place and time for the activities at hand and the need for contact with other employees.


Figure 3. Sustainable housing under the motto of: ‘Long Life, Loose Fit’

In regard to housing, this means the end of functionalism. It is not the purpose of an object that decides the design during realisation, but it is the way in which that object functions as part of a greater system (long life). This means that the establishment of an office building is based on the potential that a building has to offer its surroundings. The interior ensures full advantage of potential (user) quality of both the place and the structure of the building. On the silent side of the building quiet places are created, meeting areas are created near the floor entries and on the daylight-side of the building are places created that benefit optimally from the incoming sunlight. Thus the ‘natural’ qualities are optimised and offered as choice to the user. The dynamics shift from the adaptation of buildings and equipment towards the behaviour of people and organisation(s) (loose fit). The maximum performance of a building is sought that way and the available space, materials and energy are used in the most effective way. This leads to the smallest possible footprint in the case of any given building.


Adhocism refers to making use of the possibilities offered by a certain surrounding and is characteristic of the new way of working. Working thus becomes an active and creative process of discerning and making use of opportunities and possibilities in the physical surroundings. Where functionalism assumes the created environment can/should be based on careful research of the function to be fulfilled, adhocism assumes work patterns to be the result of the confrontation of human creativity with any given environment. Man sees possibilities in his surroundings and makes use of them. By assuming the possibilities of any environment it is obvious that such environment will be handled more respectfully.


22% of the total amount of CO2 emissions of every office space is caused by the mobility of its users. A good enough reason to critically observe the choices people make in regard to their mobility. People move around for three reasons: to get to work, to communicate and share knowledge with each other and to visit certain locations, e.g. an architect visiting a construction site or a researcher visiting the object of certain research. The choice for the type of transport most appropriate depends on motivation and distance. That choice is not only based on CO2-emissions. Reachability of the destination also plays a part, which makes for the all-time popularity of cars. Duration of travel is also important. That sometimes makes a car less attractive. The time lost in traffic jams may accumulate and apart from being able to make some phone calls, a car is not suited to work in. Trains allow such work, except on overpopulated trips during rush hour.

These things are especially considered when confronted with unavoidable travel movements. It may however also be considered not to travel. If everybody should for instance decide to work from home only one day a week, that would reduce traffic by 20%.

In case of travel for the purpose of communication it may be sensible to ask whether or not the physical meeting is actually necessary. Is it possible for that communication to take place in another way, e.g. by phone? A phone call may be a good alternative, especially when such calls are planned ahead so that the agenda allows for quiet time. If the feeling of presence is prioritised, it may be possible to meet through teleconferencing or more advanced technical solutions in tele-presence.

When visiting sites the balance is different. Is it necessary to visit certain locations as frequently as is done, or may taking proper pictures prevent all too frequent travel? Is it possible to move or relocate the object of a study or other activities elsewhere, if only once, so that there will be no more necessity of frequently visiting that same spot?

Preventing unnecessary travel does not only reduce CO2-emissions, it also saves time and money.
There are different levels of mobility, each of which will have a different balance. The mobility within a building and on a campus may, for instance, benefit the flexibility of an organisation and its premises, if realised on a bicycle. In many cases it proves to be appropriate to stimulate mobility on that level. It increases the number of meetings by which correlations are placed within the organisation. Not to mention that it is healthy to exercise regularly. It encourages change of attitude.

Moving between locations within the city may also prove to be a welcome change in the daily business, but is often looked upon as a waste of time. This type of mobility needs to be investigated properly and sometimes it must be consciously limited. Travelling (larger) distances should basically be limited unless such travel is an absolute necessity. If it is necessary to travel a greater distance, it suits to minimise the travel time lost and to compensate CO2-emissions.


By weighing green measures within the context of the entire process of thinking green, creating green and using green, it becomes clear that it is unnecessary to wait until (new) construction has started but already proper measures can be taken to work in a more sustainable way as an organisation.
The facility manager could follow-up on these recommendations:

  1. Commit to complete digitisation of all information-processing processes and build in incentives to promote paperless work, as a basis for new ways of working
  2. Draft up an inspiring mobility policy and set up a proper transportation plan in which measurable goals are set in order to reduce waste of time and minimise CO2-emissions.
  3. Turn around the housing approach from functional (“Form Follows Function”) to sustainable (“Long Life – Loose Fit”), under the motto of: “from designing the office to creating the use”.

Een gedachte over “Thinking Green, Building Green and Using Green

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