‘Humanscale’ is written large on a bare brick wall and expressed in every element of the beautifully simple and simply beautiful new office, showroom and distribution centre of Formfunc Studio, in Lanseria Corporate Business Park. It is pared-down perfection, from the high, naked ceilings to the clear glass walls that open over the view, and the minimal yet optimal furniture in this ergonomically designed workspace.
Focus is firmly on people, their comfort, health and responsibility to the planet. And that’s the philosophy behind both the New York-based Humanscale range of ergonomic chairs, workstations and office accessories (of which Formfunc is sole distributor for Southern Africa), and the philosophy of Formfunc’s director, Kim Kowalski, and her late husband and partner – design entrepreneur and green warrior, Peter.
‘We abide by the philosophy that good design achieves more with less,’ reads the Humanscale mission statement. ‘Function, simplicity, longevity and sustainability are at the core of all our designs. When thinking through the design and the manufacturing of each product, we carefully consider the materials and resources used, with the aim of creating an overall net positive impact.’
And this is what Kowalski set out to achieve in Formfunc Studio’s Gauteng home. ‘The intention of fulfilling the requirements for a 6-star Green Star rating was always there – 5-star was adequate but not the dream. We knew that we’d reach that, so it would have been second place,’ she says. ‘We needed to expand our holding facility for completed products for a quicker turnaround time, and the build had to be green. We feel it’s the morally right thing to do and wanted to be the first to set the standard in our industry.’ There were challenges along the way but none were insurmountable, and that’s what Kowalski hopes others in the industry will take from this groundbreaking refit: that it’s achievable, and they too can do it, with determination and an open attitude.
‘It was a massive collaboration exercise, but everyone was willing to share ideas,’ she says. ‘All involved brought their part to the table. We took what we already had and adapted it to meet the Green Star-rating requirements.’
Aesthetics were not part of the criteria, so colour and space-planning didn’t factor, appealing as the open space is with its pops of primary brights in Ballo stools and stencilled signage. ‘The aim was simply to create a workspace that was not only functional but optimised health, wellness, productivity and efficiency, to reflect our core values as a business – and to keep it green.’
Kowalski chose not to see those challenges that arose as obstacles but rather as incentives. ‘Challenge is a good thing,’ she says. ‘It makes you approach things differently. It makes you change the questions, try different approaches and broaden your options. It teaches things.
‘One valuable lesson we learnt is that you don’t always have to go with the big fish; the big consultancies. You can use smaller businesses and contractors who can do an excellent job and assist with achieving your stars. Don’t let exorbitant costs scare you out of reaching for a 6-star dream. Don’t be bullied by market leaders because you can’t afford them. There are more affordable options and contractors available who can do a good job.’
Kowalski turned to Fabio Venturi, who heads up sustainable design consultancy Terramanzi Group, a multi-award-winning Cape Town-based firm. Living their brand promise ‘if you can dream it, we can achieve it’, Venturi (who has more than 18 years of experience across the African continent) took up the challenge with zest. Applying their multiple in-house skillsets, the team at Terramanzi worked diligently with their client to achieve this African first.
‘For example, to score well in the materials category of the ratings, the project’s materials were unfinished to a large degree,’ says Venturi. ‘Hence the unplastered walls, and the exposed ceiling and floor in the showroom and the distribution warehouse, and the floor-to-ceiling glazing.
‘Together with appropriate facade treatment and inset glazing, this discreetly invites a large quantity of daylight into the showroom on the first floor, which is separately zoned to the office, which is then also able to capitalise on the daylight. The separation of these two spaces allows ample daylight into each zone. The storage and distribution warehouse also incorporates natural lighting by means of high-level windows.’
Kowalski adds that they adopted a ‘less is more’ approach, ‘minimising the use of redundant resources. And to get Green Star credit for the quality of internal air, we used our heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system to improve our outside air rates into the building above South African National Standards 10 400 requirements. Aethyr IT installed CO2 sensors to monitor and control levels within the facility via a smart-energy technology app called Smappee. Aethyr IT were also engaged for the water and electrical metering, to offer live-time consumption updates on multiple mobile devices and reduce overall water and electricity use’.
Careful consideration was given to the paint and sealant products used, to make sure they had extremely minimal or no VOCs. A recycling station and a composting unit for organic waste were installed. To encourage further reduction in carbon emissions, employees have been provided with bicycle and motorbike parking on the premises.
One of the elements influencing a Green Star Interiors certification is acoustic quality, and the GBCSA notes that ‘appropriate indoor noise levels, appropriate sound reverberation and minimal noise interference are the considerations in this element’. In line with this, an acoustic sector pod from Cape Town-based firm C.O Designs was installed in Formfunc’s downstairs office for meetings and a FabFrame acoustic panel fitted in the showroom on the second floor. ‘The pod range was designed in consultation with acoustic engineers to create an acoustical comfort level conducive to distraction-free conversation and concentrated thought,’ says C.O Designs director Graham Radford. ‘We aimed to contain and manage direct trajectory sound within the booth and exclude interfering sound from the outside as much as possible.’
They do this with a balance of sound-absorption and sound-blocking materials. ‘The absorption materials reduce the reverberation of sound bouncing around in a reflective confined space and soak up excess sound energy, reducing decibel levels and creating a calm, private ambience in the booth,’ he says. ‘Sound-blocking materials reduce the transmission of sound through the dividing panels by at least 10 decibels, promoting speech privacy from within and blocking out interfering noise from without. The outward-facing absorption materials also contribute to soaking up the ambient sound energy and reducing the overall noise level in the general office space. Post-installation tests in the general office area showed a 0.85 second reverberation time, down from 1.4 seconds before the sector pod was installed.’
The FabFrame acoustic panel absorbs surrounding sound, says Radford. ‘The choice and specification of materials are calculated to deal with speech frequencies, which are known to be the biggest distraction and problem. Tests by the acoustic engineers showed a 52% reduction in the reverberation time in the showroom space once the panel was fitted.’ Both the panel and the pod were created using sustainable materials wherever practical, with minimal waste, and where this was unavoidable, waste was reused and recycled.
Kowalski’s personal favourite features of the Formfunc refit – the things that make it a joy for her to arrive at work each day – are the sense of calm, the open space and the views. ‘We chose Lanseria because it had the space we need, it’s near the airport –the team travels quite a bit –and, because it’s not a built-up area, there’s not much traffic. And it’s truly wonderful to be surrounded by nature.’
The response from the public to the premises and the Green Star coup has been overwhelming. ‘But for us, it’s not all about the win,’ she says. ‘It’s about challenging the industry and other businesses to reach for 6-star interiors. It can be done. Getting those stars shows our commitment to doing the right thing: practising environmental sustainability. And if you’re planning to achieve something, you may as well reach for the stars and go all the way to achieve it.’
It’s also been a personal labour of love; a tribute to and living legacy for her husband, who co-founded the company with her 10 years ago.
‘Peter was extremely passionate about doing things right. It was who he was and it was a mantra he applied to his everyday life, no matter the task,’ she says. ‘He found all nature beautiful and came to the realisation that the best industrial design solutions are based on nature, which is completely self-sustaining. He’d have been proud of what we’ve been able to achieve.’
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