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The liberating potential of asking “why?”

Sustainability By Mitchell Johnstone, Graduate Sustainability Consultant – 25 July 2022

Laptop on an old fashioned desk


Mitchell standing outside with trees in background wearing a brown blazer

Mitchell Johnstone

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There are many things we take for granted in Australia – that a formal office will have matching desks, for example, or that bathrooms will have tiles on the floor. But I find myself asking, why?

From a sustainability viewpoint, purchasing matching new desks for an office seems resource-intensive. I also wonder if it is the best solution for people’s wellbeing and sense of comfort. I wonder why we can’t look in a catalogue of pre-loved desks and pick one out that suits our tastes and makes us feel at home.

That would save money, save resources and could have mental health benefits.

So why isn’t that becoming standard practice?

My background combines engineering, retail and a period working as a carpenter in Sweden. Perhaps that is why I always look for a practical and tangible solution that is careful with resources and benefits human health.

If I compare Swedish and Australian housing for example, my experience of Swedish homes is that they are designed for human wellbeing in ways most Australian homes are not.

Swedish interiors tend to use a significant amount of timber, including wooden flooring in living areas, which brings reflected light into rooms. Wooden floors are also easy to maintain and generally low in environmental toxins such as volatile organic compounds or chemical flame retardants that can be present in commercial carpets and their underlays.

The natural feel of wood is also beneficial for mental health due to the biophilic quality of timber.

“The natural feel of wood is also beneficial for mental health due to the biophilic quality of timber.”

Thermal comfort is also a notable difference. I never once felt cold within a Swedish dwelling, despite subarctic temperatures and the long, dark, frozen winters. Australian homes are notoriously cold in winter and hot in summer.

Swedish homes have double-glazing and excellent insulation as standard. In Australia, double-glazing is still generally not standard and insulation is not always optimised. Natural ventilation can also be problematic in Australian dwellings, especially apartments.

The major difference is Swedish homes are designed with quality of finish, functionality, and ease of living as uppermost considerations. By contrast in Australia the focus is on aesthetics that are aligned to prestige, market value and re-sale. Stone benchtops trump double glazed window assemblies, and ensuites are more popular than insulated slab edges.

I think we need to ask, “why?” Particularly since the experience of COVID-19 has seen many of us spend prolonged periods of time indoors. There’s nothing like being within the same walls for weeks to make one recognise how a space impacts wellbeing and how important it is our personal space is comfortable.

Lighting is particularly fascinating in this regard. Swedish homes have plug-in light fixtures, so lighting choices can be flexible allowing for people to rearrange how they use particular spaces. There is an emphasis on warm lighting that creates cosy spaces. In Australia, there is an over-use of bright, harsh, white light both in homes and in commercial offices.

Why does anyone think rows of bright fluorescent troffers are a good solution?

Lighting has so much impact on human wellbeing - creating the sense of comfort and ease through lighting is important.

“Lighting has so much impact on human wellbeing - creating the sense of comfort and ease through lighting is important.”

Materials choices are also important. They are usually considered from an aesthetic and cost perspective. But they can also define and constrain how spaces are used. In Australian bathrooms for example, glass shower enclosures and tiled floors are standard. The enclosure restricts movement around the space, and anyone who has cleaned a bathroom regularly knows tiles can be a chore.

The practical Swedes do not use glass around shower areas, and generally specify a vinyl flooring that curves up the walls – so it provides waterproofing for both the floor and the lower part of the walls. It’s also very easy to clean.

Overall, the Swedes have a simple focus on user-friendly spaces.

But there is positive momentum in Australia where we are starting to see a shift in thinking. There is growing recognition of materials as a way of bringing the outdoors inside, and their impact in terms of both carbon emissions and human health is being recognised. It is almost a full circle back to the era before plastics when natural materials were the dominant choices we had.

Which brings me back full circle to office desks.

Do we really love MDF, plastics and steel? Do they bring us joy and a sense of calm? Do they feel good to touch and delight the eye? Or do many of us relate to the warm of a timber desk, perhaps one with the odd mark on it that sparks imaginings about who might have sat at that desk before us?

Also, given the diversity of human shapes and seating preferences, and the wide array of work styles in any organisation, perhaps swapping the uniform [and often quite unattractive] new desk solution for the joyful process of procuring the right pre-loved item could become the next office procurement trend. After all, the desk can always go back into the circular economy from whence it came if the employee moves on or the office refreshes its fit-out and the staff member prefers a different type of desk now.

Why can’t comfort, wellbeing, simplicity, and wise use of resources in both our homes and our workplaces be the next new normal in Australia? We really do need to question the old normal and ask if it was leading us where we need to go. To quote the famous Simon Sinek, start with ‘why’?