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What is SKA rating and what does ‘SKA’ stand for?

SKA rating is a name, not an abbreviation. It is short for Skansen, a fit-out company which initially funded the first pilots with Faber Maunsell at the time and the RICS was doing the research to support the project. They invested a lot just to develop the initial philosophy, which they called SKA. After more of us got involved to develop it into an assessment tool, we challenged it but actually could not find a better name, they all sounded worse. SKA is also the recognition of somebody who put their money where their mouth was.

SKA rating is an RICS-led and owned environmental assessment method. The scheme itself is a system of defining a level of sustainability, a benchmarking and a certification (bronze, silver and gold). As a system SKA provides the ability for all of us to talk in the same language, on the same level: a common denominator. I like to think about it as a tool, as an industry practice for interior fit-out. Through the criteria themselves a designer, a project manager, a facility manager, a client can actually understand what level they want to achieve and what factors need to be considered for a sustainable interior design.

The big issue with SKA rating is the fact that it is about the interior fit-out, so it is very much about after the whole building is there. Throughout its lifetime the building is likely to have 20-40 or even more different fit-out projects depending on how long it has been there and who the tenants are. There is certainly a lot of work, and a lot of environmental impact that you can incentivize and improve on every time a fit-out happens. That is what SKA rating is unique about.

Who is actually certified? The tenant? The project management company?

The project itself achieves the rating: the design, the process, and the end result achieving that benchmark. If the client is let’s say Microsoft and it is their office then they would own the certificate but it is the project that is certified. They could do another project later on that may not be compliant as behavior and performance could change from project to project.

Who were the early birds in adopting the scheme?

The users and promoters of the scheme were actually members of the industry itself: consultants and facility management companies. They started to use the scheme as a way to attach a benchmark and also as a differentiator for their own services. GVA is promoting and using it themselves, JLL are also including it in their report and strategic plan for the future, and even CBRE, Cushman&Wakefield, and a lot of designers and contractors are all looking at it for their own spaces and to offer it as a service. Then slowly the actual end-users themselves realized why it is great and how they can work with it. Clients such as GE, Lloyds Bank, Nationwide, Starwood were the initial takers, and when we launched the retail scheme, the retail sector started adopting it, Lush for example.

 How quickly do you think SKA rating can become a widespread industry standard? Will SKA rating become a standard in 5 or 10 years just like the green approach has become essential today?

Maybe I am being optimistic here, but I think it is an industry standard now, especially in the UK. When I see it included in the business targets of organizations it means that it is something that is recognized as a standard. At the same time, we never want it to be standard practice. We want it to be standard to include SKA rating in your fit-out behavior and activities, because it is about good practice. We want to constantly move that bar and drive the industry.

We had similar issues 10-15 years ago, when we were trying to introduce improvements in the way we deliver spaces such as health and safety, fire risk, security, ergonomics. All those were new frontiers to the way we would do the design of a space. A lot of the previous organizations such as Building Research Establishment (BRE) when they started BREEAM 20 years ago had a very slow start, but they have done a lot of work to get the market and the industry going. That is where a lot of the harder work happened. I think that the industry now is more familiar with the term “sustainability”, everyone knows that they should be looking at it. I think that SKA rating has come a little bit later than perhaps it should have, nevertheless we are all very quickly adopting it and putting it into practice. It is something that is already happening and we are way ahead of where I could have hoped to see the progress.

We started SKA rating at the recession. Who wanted to hear about another rating system at the beginning of a recession? I think that made the scheme stronger, really tested all its weaknesses and also showed its strengths. Now that the market has picked up we are really seeing the return through just the numbers. Especially in the last two years as we have been doubling year on year the amount of certifications. Besides the UK, the scheme is becoming more and more popular in China, France and Germany.

In fact, it is not a very expensive thing to do as an assessment method, as opposed to some of the other methods that were actually very expensive. It has been the reaction you get from many clients: “We have looked at BREEAM, we looked at LEED, but they don’t do it for us. SKA just works.” And they get it because we designed the scheme to work in such a way that all of us on projects can understand it. The scheme is trying to be very pragmatic, practical, and achievable. You don’t need a science degree or a lot of money for lots of consultants to achieve a SKA rating. You can choose how big or small or how expensive you want to push it beyond a certain level.

 It is more or less obvious what value this concept creates for tenants and users. What value does it create for the developer or the investors?

We have to admit that it is not as beneficial for the developer as it is for occupiers. The developer and the shareholders of the investment company backing a building have less direct feedback other than the fact that they are doing the right thing. I think it is retaining value in the building rather than adding value. Although, this is changing: we are seeing lots of buildings that are certified now which are being let much quicker. They are not yet increasing their rental rates, but their vacant periods are either non-existent or very small. What it does in occupation is that it keeps occupants happier, so they will stay longer. At the end of the day that means less people, little placement of objects, less operating costs for the developer, so higher returns. In fact, we have to do more studies on this, because there are more things that we have seen anecdotally, in instances rather than being a whole report that has been generated.

 Could you tell us about some “SKA success stories”?

The ones I would classify as successes are the ones that actually happened so far and published their certifications. I have mentioned a few company already, they are all success stories, but the case studies show a great variety. Maybe I could highlight GVA. Their head office was 2,000 square feet and really pushed the boundaries, they actually increased their budget and performance to get a gold certification. They believed that as an industry service provider who is a leading professional practice they should be achieving gold. Lush is again a great example, they had chosen to certify all of their stores during their expansion in Brazil.

 Just to make the concept a little bit more factual, can you mention a few features, some specific examples that a client can see when stepping into a Lush store which has been SKA rated?

The presence of daylight coming into the store is very important and at the same time a very simple feature. It helps your circadian revenues, staff are more alert, and if they are more alert they will give better service. Also there are the break-out spaces: having a space for the members of staff to relax will make them better when they serve customers. Taps that are water efficient or reclaimed wood are also good examples. Instead of going for MDF or laminate, you have solid wood that is made from an old furniture piece or scaffolding board. LED lighting is a very important feature: better quality, better sharpness.

These are obvious features but sometimes clients may not notice these at all, because the whole point is not to make an environmentally friendly design noticeable. That’s the success of it, when it’s a normal store and nothing is different. There used to be a preconception that if something was sustainable, it looked that way, it performed worse and cost more. Additionally, you had to give 10 weeks of lead time to order it and even then only from Australia. However, now that is not valid any more, manufacturers have made a huge effort to make it easy for us.

Cost is obviously a very important aspect. What are the additional costs of a SKA certified design?

It is hard to define as every single building and interior is different. It is very different from project to project because a lot of issues are about the process. But let me give you an example about the costs and benefits. Lush reported a 30% markup on their one-off costs for the gold certification but their efforts had the expected result. Once they multiplied the quantities as they did normally on the other products they had with the silver rating, the cost difference became zero.

I think that is only the perception of clients that sustainability means cost. It doesn’t. It is not a sustainable result if it means that you can’t afford it and you can’t sustain that performance. If it is too expensive, it’s not sustainable.

What are the global trends in interior design and fit-outs? You are working as an interior designer in your own company, at Grigoriou Interiors, many of your clients are the biggest global companies? What do they want in their offices and stores?

 In general they want a space that is going to work. They don’t care about the design, they want a space that they can build their business in. They want something that is going to be on time, on budget, they want it to look inspirational, but the new key thing that is being recognized is that it is about well-being, about the people themselves. When it comes to workspace it is about identifying the different ways of working and the generational issues, and extracting the knowledge from staff. It is about healthy, more mobile spaces, and creating spaces where you have better stickiness with the personality of the employee, that then generates a culture because that’s where you really foster good people and keep them. If you have the people, groups, and the bonds, people will stay. They will do good, they will champion you outside work, they will sell you without selling, and that is the key thing to culture. You can’t put a price tag on that.

To achieve a good design means that as a designer I have to understand who my user is and harmonize the design and the occupant. I may provide a space that looks great as now everybody sends me the emails of the new Google offices wherever they are in the world. They are obviously always up there because they look funky, but that is not a good design for an accountancy firm and their typical users.

We have to understand three different issues in the user. The physical need – what kind of chair do I actually feel happy sitting in. If I am a more mature generation of employee I will like a higher chair, because lower chairs are harder to get up from. If I’m a younger generation, I want a different type. Immediately as a designer I can make the choices on the seating that will support the right user. Then you have the emotional need: different colors, different heights of ceiling make me feel more vulnerable or safe. Those are very intrinsic behavior patterns that we have as human beings. Different shapes and colors help different types of thinking process. Curved shapes actually make you more relaxed and allow open thinking. If you’ve got sharp shapes, then your brain works deeper because through its natural reaction to sharpness it senses danger, so it is more alert. If you want people to really concentrate on tasks then allow a bigger number of angular shapes. These are the different ways you can support business and the people and that is a good design. If you’re not doing that, design is lacking.

How long have you been working on the SKA rating scheme and what is your personal motivation?

 My main relationship with the scheme and the time I give to the project in general is voluntary.

Throughout my career it has been very important for me as a designer to do the right thing. I started doing a lot of research on my own and learn more about how I could just be better, do my job in a better way and question what good design was. Is good design just something that looks good on the front cover of a magazine? That is not good design. What is it? Why am I doing what I’m doing? What is my purpose? So, a lot of soul searching.

I realized pretty soon that the sustainable approach was what I believe in. Then the opportunity came up to go to the seminar where Skansen, AECOM, and RICS were promoting this new system. I was sitting in the audience and I immediately put my hand up that I was interested. The next day I got a call saying they were putting this group together and I should come along. Before I knew it I was the chair on pretty much the first meeting. That was in 2008, and it has been a lot of work since then and a lot of overtime, but I can’t see myself not doing it. I would feel negligent when I can see that I can make a difference, to take action. In the end it is really about well being and that is what drives me. It is a privilege, I feel so special to be able to influence other people’s lives for the better, and at the same time have fun and enjoy what I am doing.