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Designing and Building Sustainable Commercial Spaces

Concourse uses Unravel Carbon to get accurate and detailed emissions data on their designs, enabling them to build commercial spaces with lower carbon footprints for their clients.

Designing and Building Sustainable Commercial Spaces

Roughly half of the world’s extracted raw materials go directly into the built environment. The industry creates an estimated third of the world’s overall waste while building operations account for a whopping 27% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year (plus an additional 13% if we’re counting embodied emissions). 

That’s because we’ve never really considered the end life of our buildings, or how the materials they’re made of can contribute to embodied emissions. Yet, as the threats of climate change loom, innovative firms around the world are discovering that this unsustainable status quo has to end. 

Concourse is one of these firms. They design, build, and install duty-free stores, fixtures, and furniture for their clients in airports around the world—the stores that we all know and love! But what about the carbon emissions impact of these stores and the waste they generate? 

To learn more about Concourse’s journey towards sustainability, and what they’re doing to reduce their emissions, we sat down for a conversation with Duncan Craig, Global Project Director at Concourse and co-founder of their subsidiary company, reXtore. Read on to learn how their partnership with Unravel Carbon is helping them reach their sustainability goals. 

What led to the development of sustainability services for your clients?

The realization came when building an airport pop-up for a well-known brand. The client wanted luxury materials, such as marble and brass, even though the pop-up would have a lifespan of just three weeks. There was no plan to reuse the pop-up afterward, and all these materials ultimately went straight to the landfill. We were doing these sorts of pop-ups in and out of airports all the time, and ​​we found that we were getting increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of waste that was generated and the natural resources that were being used.

We realized this could not go on and created a subsidiary company called reXtore to focus on creating sustainable interiors and exhibitions that have a minimal impact on the environment. We wanted to re-imagine how the built environment could be constructed using a combination of alternative materials, dedicated modular products/systems, and upcycled furniture. We were quite early to adopt sustainable practices and it’s been an onward journey of learning since then.

Circular economies always start with design. We now design for the end of life, working out our carbon footprint on a project-by-project basis and learning how to be more sustainable with our design and build. 

One of our biggest challenges in Southeast Asia has been sourcing sustainable materials, especially wood, plywood, and chipboard which the majority of a typical fit-out is made from. We found that all the factories we vetted had little idea where the wood came from, and in most cases, the cheap wood products come directly from virgin rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia. It inspired us to try and find better sources of sustainable and traceable materials. This includes using boards made from agricultural waste streams.  

As part of our reXtore efforts, we trained our teams in Singapore and in the Philippines in circular design to source circular materials and reduce waste. We offer these services, as well as project management and general emissions consultancy, to our customers. We are helping at every stage of the process, including the delivery of these fixtures and exhibits. Our goal is to help them reduce their carbon footprint and the amount of waste they create. 

Part of reXstore’s mission is also about educating the industry on sustainability. We’re spending a lot of time in our supply chain talking with factories and contractors about new materials, processes, and methods to achieve circularity. Our consultants are trained to understand a project’s end-of-life; how to dismantle a build, and reuse the materials. 

We have also become an importer and distributor of circular and sustainable materials. We’re installing circular systems with the materials that we use so that we can reuse the agriboard from different popups. The board may return to our warehouse after being used, where it can be repaired and upgraded for the next pop-up. Part of this has turned into a maker studio intended to encourage the upcycling of our reusable materials for new exhibits.

Why did you decide to partner with the Unravel Carbon team?

Prior to enlisting the help of Unravel Carbon, we were using various calculators to figure out our own carbon emissions. Ultimately, we were questioning ourselves, and the accuracy of the numbers we were coming up with. 

We needed a reputable, independent company that understood carbon footprints and carbon emissions way better than we did. That’s why we contacted Unravel Carbon. 

Construction can be a complicated field, particularly when looking at the impact of embodied carbon in materials and in the “end-life” of a project. The construction industry itself is a huge contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. If we can do our part to reduce our waste streams and carbon impact, that’d be fantastic. That motivated us to work with Unravel Carbon even more. 

Can you share about the Discover Singapore project at Changi Airport, Terminal 2?

Lagardere is a huge duty-free store operator globally. In Changi Airport alone, they operate more than 30 stores of different types. We had been talking to them for a few years about sustainability, and they were very keen on the idea of reducing their carbon footprint. They enlisted our help to assess a new flagship store they were designing in Changi Airport and help them to minimize the carbon footprint of the store while embracing circular design principles.

Unravel Carbon has a large database with the embodied carbon impact of each material. If we were comparing, for example, a ceramic tile versus a linoleum floor, Unravel Carbon was able to give us the impact of each material which is very useful. During the design process, we know how much material will be used in the build. Unravel Carbon can plug in that number of materials and calculate embodied carbon for us. 

We went through the design as if it was built in the traditional, linear way, and worked with Unravel Carbon to calculate what the carbon footprint would have been. This set the benchmark we would then try to improve from by creating a more circular store design. 

How did you reduce the store’s carbon impact by working with Unravel Carbon?

We went through a lifecycle assessment process and we knew for a project like this, the big focus would be on the design: the lighting, the materials, the air conditioning, and all of those kinds of things. We worked out how we could reduce the carbon emissions from the benchmark linear model by specifying certain design elements to be better for the environment. 

For example, in the design, we included a low-energy lighting solution to reduce the demand for electricity. We also specified and sourced sustainable paints, reusable metals, and wood from managed forests into the design. We tried switching out traditional ceramic tile for tiles made from plant-based materials like linoleum. All of these small changes contributed to a big decrease in overall emissions related to the store.

Another element of the design process that we focused on is the stage before the store is even open. Typically, before a shop is built and during construction, there is a fence called a “hoarding” around the location. The hoarding is covered with plastic decals and stickers letting people know a new store will open soon. Usually, these are made out of plasterboard and aluminum posts. The entire structure gets thrown into the landfill when it is no longer needed, after only six or seven weeks of use. We found a solution by making these hoarding fences rentable, which has greatly reduced the waste associated with that part of the construction process.

In the end, the timeline for building this store was very short. We were engaged for such a short time that we weren’t able to implement all of the measures that we proposed. But still, we learned a lot from this initial project. We definitely realized that clients need to get us involved much earlier in the design process for these sustainable solutions to be implemented in time. 

Despite the challenges of this project, our initiatives resulted in a 34% reduction in carbon footprint from the “benchmark” store. This equated to just shy of 22 tons of CO2e, which is very significant! And, this was their first pilot store with sustainability at its core. Like any great undertaking, you have to start somewhere, and there are always lessons to be learned and implemented next time. 

Interestingly, the cost of designing the store with a lower carbon footprint was actually the same as it had been in the past. This demonstrated that designing an eco-friendly store doesn’t have to cost ten times more. In some areas, it can even be cheaper! Things like renting out the hoarding fence during the construction process helped greatly reduce costs, for example.

How will this project inform future collaborations as Concourse & reXtore use Unravel Carbon to offer sustainable solutions to their clients?

Unravel Carbon’s data was much more detailed and accurate than what we could have found with the calculators that we’ve been using. There’s a surety in the numbers which is important for us and our clients.

We’ve got a lot of new projects lined up. Moving forward, we want every project at Concourse & reXtore to have a carbon footprint attached to it. Stamped to it almost! Achieving this will require working very closely with Unravel Carbon.

From this first experience with Lagardere, we have so much knowledge and insights about different materials and practices that can help reduce our carbon footprint. We want to keep building on this knowledge, so that with each and every new project we are continuing to dramatically lower our environmental impact. 

What are your long-term sustainability ambitions? What new opportunities do you foresee coming from your latest sustainability services?

Singapore is a relatively small country, with very limited landfill space. The construction industry contributes to such a high percentage of the waste that goes into it. I think there will be a big push in Singapore to become much more “green” in terms of the way that we do construction.

There’s also a big push by the government for the construction industry to decarbonize, which will only get stronger as people start to care more about climate change and their impact on the environment. 

Ultimately, I'd like to see the internal fit-out business and the construction industry decarbonize to such an extent that circular design and construction are just de facto. I haven’t seen huge progress yet, but it’s starting to happen. And maybe 2023 is the year for a big sea change.

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