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Less is ‘Green’

10 September 2010

Any hope of reducing CO2 to 26 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 has to focus on ‘green occupancy’ argues Andrew Mawson. The greenest buildingyou have could be the one that you do not need to occupy

THE DRIVE TO REDUCE CO2 is on. The UK’s carbon reduction commitment scheme is evidence of the Government’s seriousness in getting a focus on CO2 reduction. About 50 percent of the UK’s CO2 is generated by offices, so some serious focus needs to be put on reducing energy in offices. Rightly, there is much interest in new technologies that are designed to reduce the energy consumed in buildings and that consequently generates CO2. Sophisticated Energy Management solutions enabling equipment (PC’s Phones, Printers etc) to be switched off when idle, new lighting solutions consuming less power, and natural ventilation and cooling systems, better materials etc, are all important contributors.
Building ‘green’
There is much talk of ‘green’ buildings and developers are busy trying to present their buildings as green, seeking competitive advantage and higher rents through these initiatives. All good stuff. However, we need a reality check. First, the amount of new office stock over the next few years is going to be limited. The reality is that we already have something like 95 percent of the offices that will be occupied by our organisations in 2020, so the overall impact of new ‘green’ buildings is going to be pretty limited for the UK’s CO2 reduction targets.
Second the pay-back period reported by members of AWA’s Workplace Performance Innovation Network (Workplace PIN) on energy saving technology solutions is 3-6 years, making them poor investments from a straight financial standpoint. If the finance director is looking to make investments that will generate cost savings, he’s probably looking for a payback in the same year as the investment.
Why such poor payback periods? Workplace PIN members report that energy is still relatively speaking too cheap. Some experts say that the cost of energy would have to double in order to make pay back periods attractive for investment.
So the truth is that the step change in CO2 reduction needed to meet the Government’s target of reducing CO2 to 26 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.isn’t going to come from either investments in new technologies or new green buildings. The reality is that it is going to have to come from changes in user behaviour and ‘Green Occupancy’.
‘Green’ occupancy
What is Green Occupancy? It is about eradicating waste capacity and using the full capacity of our buildings effectively. Office buildings right now are totally underutilised. From AWA’s studies over the last 10 years we know that most desks in most office buildings are only used for about 50 percent of the time that they available for use during normal opening hours of the building. And during those opening hours, the building is being fully cooled, lit and powered which means we are fully servicing a half empty building.
So what can be done to improve the situation? Actually, quite a lot. Imagine having five buildings in a particular city of similar sizes. If you were able to move the whole population into four buildings you’d reduce the CO2 generated by your organisation by 20 percent, with the resultant reduction in rent rates and running costs, so it makes some sense in both reducing costs and reducing CO2.
But how can you achieve this? Surely it means smaller desks and cramming more people into the building. Not so.
Mobile working
Over the last five years we’ve been introducing ‘mobile working’ into some very large and well known organisations. This has not involved large swathes of people working at home or people working on the road. It has involved introducing mobile working within the office workplace. It has been successfully applied in offices where ordinary people come to work each day. There’s no cramming more desks in; it is just a change in approach that means all that wasted capacity is used well.
The way it works is that people are provided with the technology they need to work anywhere in the office as well as an attractive pallet of spaces to allow them to perform their different tasks in the most conducive environment. They can still work together, co-habiting with colleagues around what we call ‘anchor points’. The result is a more vibrant, modern environment where people are able to choose where they work depending on what they do and who they need to be on a particular day. From an asset utilisation standpoint it is much more efficient because all those un-used spaces that inevitably exist when we have a traditional one person per desk regime, can suddenly be brought together and used.
Adopting this approach can mean the same building can accommodate a community of more than 30 percent more people than the number of desks provided without any deterioration in productivity. This is very significant when you consider that a desk in an office building can often cost between £9,000 and £22,000 per annum to operate.
You may think that this transition must be very costly needing investments in new technology and furniture. This is simply not true. In our recent projects, no changes to furniture have been made and ‘workarounds’ on IT and telephony solutions have been found at minimal cost.
Mobile working could be retrofitted to all those 95 percent of office buildings that we have now and which will still exist in 2020. So returning to the five buildings, we know that we could increase the number of people occupying four of the buildings by 30 percent enabling us to move the whole population (currently in five buildings) into those 4 buildings just by adopting ‘mobile working’ within the office. This would allow the disposal/release of the fifth building and 20 percent of the CO2 associated with this organisation's CO2 in this location. But not only that but we’ve saved the rent, rates, utilities, maintenance and IT costs associated with that building. Now clearly you need to have a lease expiring on one of the buildings in order for it to be disposed of, but never the less, it all makes perfect sense.
‘But what about the increased energy consumption in the four buildings where we have increased desk utilisation’, I hear you say. Well there has been very limited research undertaken to look at how the energy consumption of office buildings varies with increases in desk utilisation.
Anecdotally though, the increase in energy consumption observed in some of the Government's office buildings when utilisation is taken from 50 percent to over 70 percent is only something like 5-6 percent, so the increase in CO2 looks to be quite small.
The reason for this is that buildings have a ‘base load’. In other words there are lots of systems and installations that consume similar amounts of power regardless of the number of people that are occupying the building. Consequently, it is thought that driving up desk utilisation only generates a small increase in energy consumption and therefore CO2 output.
So this is a big part of what we are calling ‘Green Occupancy’. The greenest building is the one you don’t need. Yes of course it’s important to refurbish buildings with energy efficient technologies and materials, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the most cost efficient and practical approach to reducing CO2 emissions from office buildings must come from using them better. Yes, we need greener buildings, but we need greener occupancy too if we are going to hit the Government’s target of reducing CO2 to 26 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
● Andrew Mawson is Managing Director of Advanced Workplace Associates

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