In conversation with: Richard Joyce of Quantum 4

The first in a new series, this interview with Richard Joyce, Design and Technical Director of Quantum 4, explores the ways that sustainable design influences his practice.

Richard Joyce: Consumers are starting to demand sustainability

Tell us about Quantum 4 and your role and how you get involved in sustainable design

My name is Richard Joyce, I’m the design and technical director at Quantum 4. Quantum 4 is an independent technical design agency that offers creative technical solutions specifically for brands and retailers. Our solutions are independent from factories and specific methods of manufacture. Our aim is to understand the intentions and requirements of our client, and we create solutions that may be taken to tender. This provides the best value and the optimum solution to suits their needs - rather than being a contrived solution designed to support a specific material, or machine within a factory. We try to take the subjectivity away from the design so that the brand or retailer retains the value of our undertaking.

Quantum 4 have been on the sustainable journey for the entire time that we’ve been around - it’s been a key focus of ours over the decades. It’s our 20th anniversary this year, and one of the things that we’re really celebrating is that we’ve been on a sustainable journey throughout!  

Increasingly, clients are beginning to see that sustainability is more than a perceived extra project cost – it’s something that can be beneficial and add real value. Consumers are starting to demand sustainability, and now the high street is finding they need to partner with specialists who understand the full picture of what sustainability means and how they can leverage the specialist knowledge at Quantum 4.

Richard Joyce: Design is only part of the picture

How would you define sustainable design, and how would you say that it influences your practice?

Ultimately, sustainable design is the plan for the end of life of a product. It’s not just about selecting the right materials, but also how you approach deign from the beginning. We focus on many factors and repeatedly try to improve standardisation for parts and fixings, increase modularity where possible, try to encourage increased longevity for fixtures and ensure that materials used are suitable for the planned length of implementation.  

We will always focus on how our designs can be maintained and repaired, and for disassembly, which is one of the biggest impacts you can make as a designer. Sometimes, briefs are different, and rather than designing for disassembly, we will design to reuse at the end of life, so the furniture can be repurposed for either a similar or alternative function. We specify our drawings to a very high level, beyond that of standard construction and finish and publish operational and maintenance guides as well as full installation instructions.

However, design is only part of the picture. By encouraging low (or reduced) energy manufacture, opting for recycled content over virgin material, reducing waste and ensuring that your own waste products are responsibly managed, you can improve your position and further beneficially impact your sustainable credentials and efforts.

We know that Quantum 4 have been pioneers in promoting sustainable design over many years – how have things evolved during that time?

There’s a lot of misconceptions about what sustainable design is – for many years people focused on carbon, but carbon is only one small part of the story. People would look at the carbon that was embodied within materials, and they would look at finding alternative materials as a way of avoiding it. Whereas, we know now that the approach to reducing carbon goes much further than that.  

People used to look at materials that either had a very low carbon content or even a negative carbon content. Timber is a great example: you can use it to offset carbon against the build of a physical construction, but the reality is that after you’ve used that timber, it has nowhere really else to go apart from either into the ground as landfill, or it can be burnt for energy. Aside from some of the innovative companies trying to find alternative to this end of life cycle, more often than not, those are the choices. Therefore offsetting carbon is not always the most responsible thing to do - it can make a construction project look more sustainable by offsetting carbon utilised during building, but not much more. You’re accomplishing much more when you’re reducing your carbon usage, when you find a way to stop landfill, and when you reduce toxicity entering into our environment and our ecosystem. You can only do that through planning that into the process. If you want to do it, you need to design accordingly.

Our sustainability measurement tool, Quantum Zero, assesses designs for an overall sustainability grade - as well as various key factors to ensure that decision makers and brand owners can plan sustainably. We partner with BRE Group to utilise the BREEAM Ecopoints - which directly equate to the amount of energy an average European would use across the year.  

This means that we are always comparing materials on the same scale. It puts things into a context that people can understand. It means that we can look at the buildup of these Ecopoints across a full installation and understand what the environmental impacts really are, of the materials that we use. So it’s not just about defining that you have to be circular in your plan for materials, because you don’t. We’ll never deal with problems like marine waste if we only focus on one thing. We must strive to see through the greenwash that surrounds certain materials in the form of marketing documentation. Quantum Zero helps us do just that.

We also grade for recyclability, accredited timber, disassembly within the design, the intended number of years the fixture is planned for use, embodied carbon and recycled content in your original material. We offer this service at both fixture and store planning levels and the reports give genuine insight into the sustainable credentials of your project.

Richard Joyce: If we design for disassembly we're allowing the management of that material at the end of its life

One of the barriers to encouraging sustainable design has been the lack of a standardised approach across the industry, in terms of accreditation, etc.  What’s your view on this?

This is where some of the greenwashing comes into play – people are comparing apples with pears, and we want people to compare apples with apples.

What we find is that by having a standardised unit, which is our Ecopoint from BREEAM, we’re then able to compare a polymer and a metal. We can start looking at what their overall impacts on society and environment are. As a result, we’re starting to standardise a way of measuring. We will look at key elements - so we’re looking at the recyclability of the material, we’re looking at how much recycled content goes into those materials, and so on.

The interesting thing is that we want to take it a step further. You could have a brilliantly designed item, designed for sustainability, but if you were to utilise it alongside a less sustainable item, you’re going to end up with a lower performing store: sustainability wise. It’s not just about doing something responsibly for one piece of furniture - you need to extend this thinking to your store planning, and also re-measure at that point.

People often focus their measure of sustainability on the construction of buildings. But, with Quantum Zero, what we’re doing is we’re giving people the ability to add an extra layer of understanding on top of that - which is for the fixtures and interior fit out. You can still compare the embodied carbon, but you can delve much deeper, too.

As I mentioned earlier, I often talk about ‘designing for disassembly’. If we design for disassembly, then we’re allowing for the management of a material at the end of its life. For example, if you have a timber bonded to a metal, it’s too difficult to actually break those two apart at the end of life, so there’s a good chance that they’re going to end up as landfill. Whereas, if you think about that from the beginning, you’re maximising your chances of being able to deal with each material individually. That’s great for brands and retailers too, because that material has a value! By being able to take everything apart, you’ve retained the maximum commercial benefit at the end of life, but also you’re doing the best thing from a sustainable point of view.  

Richard Joyce: I am a big fan of innovation and elegance in solutions

Are there any particular sustainable projects or conversations happening in the design world that have caught your eye?

I am a big fan of innovation and elegance in solutions, and of building efficiencies into processes. There are three key areas that really feed my interest at the moment. AI generative design, Additive manufacturing, and mono-materials.  

AI generative design massively disrupts the standard approach to engineering and builds in multiple layers of efficiencies into your project timeline. Using a combination of AI and machine learning, an engineer can validate designs during the development process, reduce repetitive tasks and save huge amounts of time that allow a quicker route to market but also increase time available to innovate.

Mono-materials will be utilised to allow different material characteristics to be employed from the same baseline material. Imagine building an item of furniture where the structure, the foam and the fabric were all part of the same circular recycling stream? There would be no need to disassemble at the end of life; circular design can be achieved in a very elegant way, with end-of-life planning and management at the very heart of the entire process.  

When these two approaches are then combined with additive manufacturing, the stakes are raised yet again: zero waste manufacture, from efficient and optimised design, with full circularity and end of life management where you can fully realise the intrinsic value of your materials, or potentially use them again for your next product.

What book, podcast or other resource would you recommend to designers or clients who are interested in sustainable design?

Arizona State University have an excellent presentation by Prasad Boradkar on the topic of “What is Sustainable Design?: Understanding Design”  I recommend spending 24 minutes of your life watching this.  

If you prefer to read, then “No. More. Plastic.” By Martin Dorey is an excellent guide to turning 2 minutes of your time into a high-value ecological action.

Richard Joyce: By planning sustainable solutions early, they become part of the design DNA

What 3 pieces of advice can you give designers who want to ensure they design sustainably?

Plan for sustainability: Before I jump into a design, I like to look at the key challenges and plan accordingly.  Only when I have the correct solution worked out on paper, will I start to model it up and add the fine detail – I find that when you arrive at a problem during the design process, it can often lead to compromising on either the form, function, or sustainability. By planning specific sustainable goals early in the process they become part of the design DNA and as important as other elements of the design. I make sure I factor in design for disassembly always, and for specific projects that allow, standardisation and modularity. It doesn’t cost more to do and can lead to a very efficient manufacturing phase, which in turn brings the project to market sooner at a cheaper cost.

Understand your materials and their true story: No matter how we dress it up, many plastics will degrade during the recycling process and eventually, within a few cycles, will end up as landfill. Look at the true circularity of materials and try to use them accordingly. Look at where products must travel to be recycled – sometimes it’s a long, carbon-loaded journey to get the material back to its recycling centre. Equally, look at material availability. In the critical path of a live project, decisions must be made on the fly. If you specify a material that cannot be found in the market or procured in time, then that material will be substituted for something that can be found and you will have lost control of the design and its sustainable credentials.  

Communicate: Often details get lost in translation or forgotten as projects go through the various departments. Communicate your intentions to your peers and other stakeholders and get them to buy into the sustainable journey. Sustainability is something to be celebrated and is increasingly expected by consumers. Encourage the adoption of sustainable principles and processes into your company’s culture and measure yourselves on it!  For too long, sustainability has been a sacrificial ideal and perceptions need to change to ensure that we all understand that small changes can make massive differences to ourselves and future generations.

Richard Joyce: The sooner that you start planning for sustainability, the sooner you can benefit from it

Looking towards the future, do you think clients are increasingly receptive to sustainability now?  

Yes very much so. We’re being engaged more and more by clients that want to go on a responsible journey. Aside from their own desire to do the right thing, more and more consumers are demanding it, and they’ll potentially see the impact on their sales if their brand isn’t seen to be a responsible brand. Outside the realm of sustainability, we want to see ethical companies. We want to buy from ethical brands - the way they treat humans and the way they treat the environment or animals. It’s about welfare, it’s about wellbeing.  

Ultimately, it comes down to planning. The sooner that you start planning for sustainability, the sooner you’re going to benefit from it. You can change your design approach to make something more sustainable, and through practice and application that becomes the new standard. Really, sustainability is about raising standards. It’s not just in the choice of materials, it’s in how you use those materials. It’s in the design of the form and the function, so that those materials play to their strengths and are combined in a way that allows you to deal with them responsibly at their end of life. If sustainability is an afterthought, it will have the value of an afterthought.

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