Green is not a trend, it’s a business strategy

By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

Our green credentials take us back well before it became ‘fashionable’ to call yourself sustainable. We were the first contractor in the UAE with an office to receive LEED Gold rating (in 2009), and have successfully executed more sustainable interior projects with 100% success rate in the UAE than any other contractor. In 2014 we received our third Dubai Chamber of Commerce CSR label; we were named Sustainable Business of the Year at the Gulf Capital Awards; and Daman Corporate Health Awards rewarded us for ‘Employee Engagement of the Year Initiative’ for our health and wellness program.

In order to become the sustainable business that we are today, we have had to learn to adapt in order to grow as we embark on our sustainable journey. In 2011, when we set up our Eco Leaders committee – a team of employees volunteering to drive the ‘green’ movement at Summertown, we thought we had the right plan in place. And our plan seemed good, but in time we realized that it didn’t deliver everything we had hoped for. It became clear we needed to expand our vision if we wanted to achieve those tangible business benefits for taking the ‘green’ path.

As a company that walks the talk, our clients, partners and the business community in general look to us for advice and knowledge when it comes to integrating sustainability. From our own experience, the most common mistake companies make when they want to embrace sustainability is having too narrow a vision: setting just a few goals and metrics for measurement, and then following those without looking at the big picture.

In our case, we realised the only way to go about being a truly sustainable business was to integrate sustainability principles into everything we do. We needed, in the same way a person does, to make a major lifestyle change that would impact everyone and everything in our business, at all levels: our people, our partners and clients, our community and our planet.

Today, sustainability is at the core of everything we do and this not only makes our employees and clients happier, but is driving our economic engine. In the last year alone we have achieved 25% revenue growth. Taking the sustainability path and integrating it into every aspect of our business has paid off: now 54% of our total business comes from sustainable fit out projects, which is one of our measures for success. Not only we are taking the sustainable path, but we inspire and convince others to do it and we have the expertise and experience to help them.

We believe it’s important to share our experience with others: our learning curve will help and encourage them to make the right choices. We hope more companies will understand that ‘going green’ is not about being ‘fashionable’. Being green is a lifestyle choice and a business strategy, one that, if done well, impacts the company’s bottom line; people will be more engaged and work better together, costs will be managed more efficiently, the company will gain credibility in the market.

Since we embarked on our CSR journey, we have reaped the benefits. We make tangible savings every day, our employees come to work with a real sense of purpose, are healthier and happier, and the results are reflected in our productivity levels, our carbon footprint and ultimately the success of our business.
And because this is that time of the year when we make resolutions, our ‘green’ journey in 2015 will have two main objectives: to take our first steps to attain LEED EBOM (Existing Buildings and Maintenance) certification, and to inspire and help other companies in the UAE to integrate sustainability into their business strategy.

Want to increase productivity? Think about indoor air quality

By Paul Briers, Projects Director, Summertown Interiors

A healthy employee is a happy employee. Many companies now recognise employees as their most important asset. They have also realised that by focusing on employee wellness they not only improve their market reputation, but also levels of employee engagement and productivity, which positively impacts their bottom lines.

There are various workplace initiatives taking place across the UAE to promote and support a healthier lifestyle, from offering guidance on healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise to free health check-ups. As a fit-out contractor specialised in green interiors, Summertown Interiors is encouraged to see more companies rethink the way they fit-out their offices in order to promote and support a healthier lifestyle for their employees.

There is, however, an issue which is often overlooked: indoor air quality. Although a survey by the Environment Agency Abu-Dhabi shows that people are significantly more aware of the importance of air quality, with awareness rising from seven per cent in 2013 to 90 per cent in 2014, the issue of indoor air quality goes largely unnoticed. This is most likely due to a misconception that while the air is polluted outside, we are safe once inside our homes or offices. The truth is indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, some alarming news considering we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors.

What exactly makes the indoor air so bad? Among the pollutants in an office are chemical emissions coming from conventional building materials, furnishings, cleaning products, paints or even office products such as printers, mould and poor ventilation. The latter is particularly relevant to the UAE, where access to fresh outdoor air is not possible most of the year, making us dependent on air conditioning systems.

Having the right ventilation system design at the time of construction and, an operation and maintenance policy that is adhered to, will help to monitor supply of fresh air. At Summertown’s LEED Gold certified showroom, sensors have been installed in closed meeting areas to ensure fresh air is pumped in when carbon dioxide levels are high. In this way, we have been able to provide 30% more fresh air in our offices than ASHRAE standards.

To improve air quality, the countless toxins found in our indoor environment—such as formaldehyde, VOCs (volatile organic compounds), trichloroethylene, carbon monoxide and benzene, to name just a few—must be reduced as much as possible. Besides having a proper ventilation system, this can be done by using green certified fit-out products and materials with low or no VOC levels, proper housekeeping, and by making sure the office occupancy quote does not exceed standards in workspace design.

Adding office plants has long been a solution for improving indoor air quality and recently we have seen an increase interest in adding green walls, which are panels of plants grown vertically using hydroponics on structures that can be either free-standing or attached to walls. Not only does this improve air quality, it also provides a visual break, which studies suggest stimulates mental alertness for its occupants.

The role of bespoke in interior design

By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

I recently attended a panel discussion at Design Days Dubai on the role and value of bespoke in interior design. The panel included members from Capsule Art, Pallavi Dean Interiors and the UK Crafts Council, and the main focus of the discussion related to commissioning bespoke art for interior design projects.
Bespoke is a subject that is close to my heart, not only because Summertown Interiors recently commissioned bespoke art for our office from Mawaheb, a local art studio for adults with special needs, but also because of the highly personalised service that we offer our clients, particularly for green fit-out projects. A number of points raised during the talk resonated with Summertown’s business, and I left with the impression that from a designer’s point of view there are many similarities between convincing a client to commission a piece of art and convincing them to opt for a green fit-out.

It was agreed that there is a common misconception that commissioning bespoke art is a risk, whereas buying something that is ready-made and tangible is a safe option. The opposite is in fact true. A bespoke piece of art or furniture is personalised – it has been created to be just right for the client and to fit their brief as closely as possible.

The same can be said for a green fit-out. When looking at ways to reduce waste and carbon emissions while creating a healthier workspace, the designer and contractor take must take into account the individual behaviour of the occupants, paying close attention to the workspace and maximizing it to the full.  Green fit-outs, particularly retro fit projects, also encompass a number of creative resourceful solutions that are bespoke through the reuse of existing materials. For example, in one of our projects The Change Initiative, we removed the marble flooring and reused it in the kitchen, and reused wooden flooring to make the wooden wall paneling.

Another point raised during the talk was that clients felt commissioning art was expensive. This is also a main factor that is considered when it comes to a green fit-out. A green fit-out costs only marginally more than one that is not – approx. 1-2% for a project that is certified at the lower level, and up to a 20% increase for the higher rating; ‘going green’, however, delivers major benefits in the long run due to operational cost savings for the building occupants.

Again we see a similarity with original art work in that green design really comes into its own as time passes. Landlords will see their building appreciate in value as the benefits of the project start to be felt. We estimate that ROI for a green project is between 1 and 8 years, depending on the size and scale of a project.
The talk ended on a positive note – the design industry in Dubai is one of the most exciting in the world. UAE projects want to push the boundaries and be the biggest and the best. For everyone in the industry this is great news. Once clients understand the role of bespoke, green, and customisation, and value their many benefits, we will start to see some major developments in the industry and, knowing the UAE, it will happen sooner than we think.

A Healthy Resolution

January has always typically been a month of health and wellness. Millions start the New Year on a new diet and with high hopes to follow a healthier lifestyle. Unfortunately these good intentions are often short-lived. Old habits are hard to break. However, help is at hand, and it comes in the surprising form of your employers.

With the planned roll-out of a mandatory health insurance scheme for all companies in Dubai at the start of this year, and following recent reports placing Dubai in the top 10 countries in the world for diabetes and other lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, we are seeing a prominent trend emerging in the region to incorporate health and wellness into the workplace.  With the objective of promoting healthier living habits and general wellbeing among the workforce, companies are rethinking how they fit-out their offices and reviewing HR practises and incentives.

We are seeing an increase in the use of natural light in a number of projects. This not only saves money on energy bills, but is also one component of occupant health affecting productivity and both physical and mental health. The important role that natural light plays in boosting morale and wellbeing among the workforce has resulted in the incorporation of large picture windows and open terraces that enhance natural light in the office and communal areas. This can reduce a number of physical effects such as eye fatigue and headaches.

We are also seeing a number of projects with Green Walls–panels of plants, grown vertically using hydroponics on structures that can be either free-standing or attached to walls. With countless toxins found in our indoor environment, such as formaldehyde, VOCs, trichloroethylene, carbon monoxide and benzene, to name just a few, adding office plants has long been a solution for improving indoor air quality. Green walls do just that, but on a much bigger scale. Not only does this improve air quality, it also provides a visual break, which studies suggest stimulates mental alertness.

It is not just the mind and soul that is benefitting from this trend, but also the body. Companies are now actively promoting a healthier lifestyle in the workplace – from installation of employee gyms to providing advice for employees on nutrition and diet and provision of healthier food options for staff.  At Summertown we run a monthly initiative including free to attend seminars, healthy snacks, and team events such as the recent Dubai Standard Chartered Marathon where more than 40 employees and their family members took part in the 10km and 3km to raise money for charity.

With so much help at hand to support an active lifestyle, it looks like 2014 is the year that your healthy resolution is here to stay.

The Evolution of Office Design

I am sure by now you would have heard the somewhat alarming statistic that over 30 per cent of our life will be spent at work. We all know that colleagues can become like family and equally the office can become a second home.  Employers are increasingly aware of the importance of providing employees with a workplace that they look forward to coming to everyday – this not only applies to the people they work with but the environment that they are in. It has been proven that the built environment can not only inspire but also relieve and heal as with the case of Maggie Cancer Care Centres, for example, in the United Kingdom. Office design also plays an important role in ensuring that you get the best from your employees, and its evolution over the years has developed to reflect this.

We have witnessed a marked shift in the way offices are designed; the market has moved away from fixed bespoke joinery items in favour of more flexible off-the-shelf furniture. In order to meet the demands of a mobile workforce, companies are choosing open plan, activity-based layouts to facilitate a more collaborative approach to work and personal accountability.

Workplaces today increasingly reflect this requirement for transparency where solid wooden doors and partitions have been replaced with glazing set in aluminium or steel frames. Also, long shared desks with mobile pedestals are increasingly replacing single workstations.  Efficient use of office furniture increases maximizes available floor space and provides opportunities to introduce breakout areas where staff can gather and collaborate, an important requirement among the millennial generation.

Along with an open plan office deign, we are also seeing an increasing awareness of environmental concerns such as recycling stations and energy saving lighting. This is for several reasons including cost savings, enhancing the company’s image, and of course saving the earth!

Gone are the days of dark, monotone offices – office design is now considered an essential part of an organisation’s image and brand. It is the ‘face’ of a company and is often a critical factor in recruiting and retaining talent. Given that the future of this trend is focused on making employees lives that much more enjoyable at work, this is good news for 30 per cent of all our lives!

Don’t just be environmentally friendly – keep that practice going!

By Shakeela Moosa, General Manager – Operations, Summertown Interiors

We recently shared a post on our new integrated CSR strategy and the benefits we are already seeing as part of implementing this approach. What has really got us motivated lately are results of some basic measures we implemented to reduce our water consumption at our Jebel Ali headquarters.

Let’s go back to how this started. Earlier this year, we implemented a ‘green’ audit which involved assessing our consumption levels in six chief areas – water, electricity, fuel, general waste, sewage and paper. The audit is an ongoing process, and our initial results were quite a surprise.. Despite operating in a LEED Gold-certified office, we discovered that our water consumption levels were higher than expected – each employee consumed an average of 178 litres of water per day!

We had a few brainstorming sessions with our team on what measures could help us reduce our water consumption. The team first identified seven ‘water zones’ across the office premises – areas that were using up a large amount of the total water consumed in the company. They installed a sub-meter on our main water line to monitor consumption by each zone and found that a large amount of water was being supplied to the garden area. A further evaluation showed that re-landscaping this area could decrease consumption by a massive 4,700 litres per day and, if this happened, would mean annual savings of at least AED 15,000 in operational costs.

The landscaping project began in May and will finish after the summer but the financial benefits of this are already going beyond what we estimated. Our overall water consumption from May to July reduced by 58% compared to the same time last year and we’ve already managed to save AED 8,000 in these three months!

The measures we’ve implemented are by no means expensive or complicated to apply, but have completely proved to be worth our team’s time and energy. It is not only encouraging to see a massive drop in our expenses, but to be conserving a very important natural resource, albeit in small ways!

Constructing a green office is a great way to be environmentally-friendly, but is certainly not enough. Monitoring and continuous improvement are critical if you want to remain committed to your green cause. An article I recently came across by Neutral Fuels CEO Karl Fielder also provides a great example of sustaining your ‘green’ efforts.

Are we ready to welcome the green building regulations?

By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

The Green Building regulations, first established by the Dubai Municipality in 2008, will finally be made mandatory for the private sector in early 2014. While this is a welcome introduction in the UAE’s sustainability charter, are we, as an industry, ready yet? Have we educated ourselves enough? Are we prepared for certain changes and uncertain expectations?

Preparation is key if you want to adapt to change quickly and effectively, whether within an organisation or within the industry. Here are a few things we all can and should work on:

1)  Familiarise yourself with the rules: why wait for the regulations to actually come into effect? Let’s use the time to familiarise ourselves and our teams with the rules and project how these will impact our current processes. Use web materials shared by the Dubai Municipality, hear from experts, discuss potential changes with your industry peers and, if you are a developer, find yourself a trusted consultant who can give you the best advice. Organisers of The Big 5 convened a webinar last week in which representatives of the Dubai Municipality presented crucial information about the upcoming regulations and answered questions from attendees.

2)   Define roles and responsibilities: this is something you should do long before regulations actually come into effect to avoid making sudden changes to business processes later. It may involve ironing out both internal and external processes, whether it is deciding who will look after new documentation procedures, who will manage product certifications or how much of the regulation responsibility will be shared by your partners. At Summertown, we’ve learnt that the best way to run a project is to get our employees involved right from the beginning. Form an internal taskforce who will be responsible to both allocate and manage the achievement of environmental goals – this will ensure their ownership and commitment to the task from the very beginning.

3)   Understand that change requires a shift in mind set too – the industry has been asking for mandatory regulation of sustainable building practices for a long time now. However, as this comes into effect, we should not start believing that this is the be all and end all. Regulation is only one step in the right direction for making our community and environment more sustainable for future generations. All of us and, particularly, the design and construction industry, have a civic duty to reduce our environmental footprint. While regulation will ensure better green compliance, sustainability should be a voluntary code we should all practice without further delay.

Being a socially responsible SME is not as complicated as it seems

By Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

We often come across corporations treating CSR as a separate function, assigning a specific budget to being socially responsible and even hiring dedicated personnel to manage it. While there’s nothing wrong with this, it makes me wonder why organisations are not tapping into all of their resources to support their CSR practices.

This leads me to an even bigger question. What are these so called CSR efforts? Is the company strategically invested in supporting its people, planet and profits or is its CSR activity only limited to philanthropic or charitable contributions?

While every company needs to start somewhere, the latter approach tends to give SMEs and start-up owners the impression they cannot be involved in CSR unless they have large sums of money to spend on it. This has certainly been the misconception among many of my industry peers who often dismiss CSR as a “nice-to-have”.

At Summertown Interiors (also an SME!) we can healthily and proudly argue the contrary.  Not only have we been able to implement CSR sustainably and socially responsibly, we’ve ensured that each one of our employees drives this wagon.

So how did we do this? First and foremost, we believe that social responsibility goes way beyond being environmentally friendly or charitable. The word ‘responsibility’ is extremely important here. A company is a good corporate citizen when it continuously works towards improving responsibility on all levels and towards all stakeholders be they customers, partners, employees or the community. It’s not about creating more work, but merely changing the way you do things.

Sustainability has always been at the forefront of our business operations. Last year we started working towards a long-term sustainability goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2020, but we wanted our community contribution to go beyond environmental savings. So we evolved our SMART Sustainable plan – an annual company-wide programme that maps sustainable goals for each employee against performance – into a wider strategy to incorporate areas other than the environment. Office-greening goals are still a part of this plan but aside from these, every employee is now responsible for achieving broader business and societal objectives and their overall performance heavily takes this into account.

Within the plan we focus on making company processes more sustainable, more comprehensive and healthier for our employees. For example, we’ve reviewed our supplier prequalification process, our onsite health and safety measures and the provision of healthy eating options for staff.

Our approach to new business has also been reviewed in line with our CSR approach. Providing project estimations is a time-intensive process, as our approach is to be completely transparent with our clients and to provide very detailed estimation budgets.  We want our clients to be completely clear on project costs, and what they include and don’t include.  Our preference is to work with clients who also take a transparent approach to business, have now taken the company-wide decision to work with clients that share core values similar to ours. While some may consider this measure somewhat arrogant or even foolhardy, it is one that is already benefitting our business. It has resulted in better utilisation of employee hours, a reduction in staff working overtime, more satisfied employees (as they are working on projects that really utilise their strengths) and increased productivity.

And while we operate in a LEED-certified office, it doesn’t mean we should stop improving on our environmental scorecard. We recently undertook an environmental audit which revealed some startling results. One of these was extremely high water consumption levels despite our low-flow taps and leakage detection systems already in place. We are now working on re-landscaping a particular outdoor area which we estimate will reduce water consumption by 50% for each employee and reduce operational costs by at least AED 15,000 per year.

We’re excited to see this come through and to also find out the results of the complete audit! Watch this space for more updates on this but in the meantime, why not think about the different facets of your business that you didn’t previously associate with CSR and how, by attaching some measurable actions to these, you can bring about a positive change in your business.


The Importance of Delegation by Jimmy Lynch

Delegation is one of the key performance management skills requiring a planned approach which will ultimately achieve the desired result whilst at the same time providing a platform to motivate and develop your work colleagues.

Become effective at delegation, and you’ll make your team members more enthusiastic, productive and your time will be spent on the things that you should be doing.  Follow these 5 steps to effective delegation:

Download The Importance of Delegation

If your team look good, then they will feel good!

Summertown’s mission is to consistently deliver high end interior projects on time and within budget, whilst helping companies to achieve their environmental goals, directly resulting in operational savings and a better workspace for employees.

Everyone knows the old saying ‘If you look good, then you feel good’ and at Summertown we are big believers in this statement.

The power of a positive image works wonders on creating a highly professional image for your company and it doesn’t just apply to senior management. For us, our whole organization has exposure to our customers. So we want every member of our staff to look good, feel good and to be proud to work for Summertown.

As a result, we have now introduced a new work wear range for all of our factory workers. The uniform is practical, looks great, and really helps our guys to embrace the professionalism that we as a company wish to portray.