FM Articles

Sustainable Design: Investing in the Future


The term “Sustainable Design” is a twofold concept, one that focuses on both human and environmental health. It focuses on designing products that help create healthy spaces to work, live and play. Sustainable design also prioritiz­es the utilization of products and materials that are both built to last and leave a minimal carbon footprint throughout their ser­vice life and beyond, whether they are recyclable, composta­ble, or even destined for a landfill. It is important to invest in products that are going to be around for a long time and that are not going to do any harm while being used. Schools and hospitals can benefit from sustainable design in several ways: gaining tax credits from higher LEED® certification levels (in for-profit facilities), ensuring the highest standards for employ­ee or occupant health and wellbeing, con­serving resources and saving on replacement costs by investing in products with longer life cycles.

While sustainable products can require a higher initial invest­ment, the return on that investment can be much more significant than choosing less ex­pensive alternatives in the initial design and construction process. The mindset of find­ing a quick solution with the intention to dispose of it in a few years is precisely what has made sustainabili­ty such a large concern in the facility manage­ment community. In order to ensure a better future for the com­munity and the environment, sustainable design needs to be a priority that is considered worth the investment.

Sustainable design is a rapidly growing construction meth­odology in the U.S. and many parts of Europe and Asia. It integrates well with the concept of “Design/Build”; however, the two are not contingent on each other. Almost all U.S. states now offer tax credits for high-performance energy-efficient buildings, U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC®) LEED®, or Energy Star certified buildings. Some states are also making legislative changes that allow for more sustainable buildings. For example, Florida recently removed the minimum require­ment for room size in new buildings, allowing for smaller and more efficient housing.

Additionally, the National Green Building Standard, which is based on indoor air quality, operat­ing costs, lifestyle and more, has been widely adopted. Leaders in government and construction as well as owners recognize that sustainability is a worthwhile, long-term investment and have incorporated and taken advantage of these standards and incentives in almost every type of construction.

One particular area in the education and healthcare sectors where sustainably designed products offer clear advantages and improvements over traditional choices is lockers and parti­tion systems. With new materials and manufacturing practices available for these product categories, facilities managers need to be aware of the many options when it comes to selecting sus­tainably designed lockers and partitions for building interiors.

Health Benefits
A key design aspect of sustainable design for educational and healthcare facilities is creating a healthy and safe environment for building occupants. However, the initial cost savings of lower-grade lockers or partition systems may distract the purchas­er from potentially harmful or unhygienic conditions that could result from the prod­uct’s extended use.

One example of a sustainable material used in lockers and partitions is solid phe­nolic, a non-porous and non-microbial material that will not absorb fluids or sup­port the growth of bacteria. Solid phe­nolic is a high density, solid core product that represents the very top end of the high-pressure laminate, or HPL, product catego­ry.

Due to its density, solid phenolic is the most abuse-resistant commercial laminate made, with warranties that can extend up to 20 years depending on the manufacturer. Its non-porous finish allows solid phe­nolic to be easily cleaned using biodegradable and non-toxic products, preventing the introduction of harsh chemicals into the air. Solid phenolic also has zero off-gassing, the net result being better indoor air quality. Add to that a finished surface that will not be damaged or discolored from liquid absorp­tion, with availability in hundreds of colors and designs, and solid phenolic can be the longest lasting, most durable solid surface option not only for lockers but for cabinets, counter and lab tops, workstations and even furniture. Because of its unmatched durability and almost limitless design options, solid phenolic is often the ideal material of choice for high-traffic and abuse prone environments such as educational and health­care facilities.

Financial Benefits 
Sustainably-designed products can also result in financial benefits. Facilities managers can save on taxes by obtaining USGBC LEED credits for integrating sustainably-designed materials. Also, sustainable products incorporating solid phe­nolic are extremely durable and require little maintenance, re­sulting in reduced janitorial and repair expenses over the life of the product. Sustainable designs focus heavily on extending the service life of a product, meaning fewer replacements and considerably lower costs of long-term ownership. Sustainably designed lockers and partition systems can significantly con­tribute to these savings.

LEED Credits
LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a certification program created by the USGBC to establish standards for responsibly and sustainably-designed buildings and to incentivize investment in sustainability. The program awards buildings different degrees of certification based on the level of sustainability with which the building is constructed. Those levels are then used by facilities managers and owners to obtain available rebates and incentives. Many states and municipalities now offer substantial incentives for LEED Cer­tified construction. One of the most notable such projects is the mammoth, $8 billion-plus City Center development completed in Las Vegas in 2009/2010, which was acknowledged as one of the world’s largest environmentally sustainable urban commu­nities and earned tens of millions of dollars in state and locally sponsored LEED credits and rebates.


In the past five to six years, the number of LEED projects has significantly increased. Also, a new version of the pro­gram called LEED v4 was recently introduced with the goal of providing accountability for the carbon footprint for the en­tire lifecycle of manufactured products, including the potential ultimate impact on landfills. The term given to this lifecycle analysis is “cradle-to-cradle”, or start to ultimate end. By in­troducing new methods for measuring and disclosing the en­vironmental and health impacts of building materials, referred to as EPD’s (Environmental Product Disclosures) and HPD’s (Health Product Disclosures), LEED v4 is essentially taking Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) requirements to the next level.

A key focus of LEED certification standards is the materi­als used in buildings and how those materials will impact the community and environment throughout their service life and beyond. With these standards becoming more ubiquitous, it is important for lockers and partition systems to be manufactured sustainably to meet the strict standards of future developments with an increased focus on environmental consciousness in ad­dition to extended service life. This allows the facilities man­ager and owner to incorporate those products and realize the financial benefits from doing so.

Longevity/Return on Investment
In addition to LEED certification, sustainably designed locker and partition systems have the inherent benefit of a longer prod­uct lifecycle, resulting in increased ROI. The longer a product lasts, the higher the purchase price-to-lifecycle ratio becomes and the more use a facility gets out of the product. This is par­ticularly important in educational and healthcare facilities with many other budget concerns that often need to be prioritized above these furnishings. By investing in sustainably designed lockers and partitions, facilities managers can minimize main­tenance, repair and replacement costs associated with lockers and partitions.

Environmental Benefits
In a society increasingly focused on reducing its carbon foot­print, conserving resources is an important priority for facili­ties managers to consider. Small parts of the manufacturing, shipping, installation and maintenance process associated with locker and partition systems can add up to the use of a large amount of resources.

However, when sustainability is pri­oritized during these processes, waste can be substantially re­duced. When products are imported rather than manufactured in the U.S., the overall carbon footprint of those products dra­matically increases due to the costs of transporting them. Such products are also very often produced in countries that mini­mally prioritize the environmental impact of the manufacturing process, if at all. These are just a few considerations when the objective is to minimize the carbon footprint associated with products even as mundane and commonplace as lockers, parti­tions and many of the fixtures and furnishings that go into so much of a finished facility.

Purchasing for Sustainability
When purchasing locker and partition systems for sustainabil­ity, select products with the following characteristics:

  • A long life-cycle
  • The lowest possible maintenance cost
  • Manufactured locally or in the U.S.
  • Manufactured with the intention to eliminate, reduce or reuse waste

By purchasing locker and partition systems that are designed for sustainability, facilities managers can reduce the carbon footprint of their own property while simultaneously making a positive contribution to the environment and community. Small changes such as this can lead to big impacts when re­peated on a large scale.

Jennifer Clark is the Director of Operations at Spec-Rite Designs, LLC. Visit to learn more.