If you want to know what makes a great, sustainable office building, you need to ask an expert or 50. Melanie Thompson of Get Sust! externallink reviews the 300-page wisdom that is the new BCO ‘Guide to Specification’ – written by the industry, for the industry – and picks out five emerging themes for sustainable office buildings.

It’s five years since the previous edition of the British Council for Offices (BCO) Guide to Specification: Best practice in the specification for offices. Many factors have changed since then, but one thing hasn’t: the importance of constantly reiterating the need to consider sustainability when procuring, designing, building, refurbishing or fitting out office buildings.

As Professor Brian Edwards warns, in his 2014 Rough Guide to Sustainability (4th Edition):

“The procurement of innovative sustainable buildings can be a precarious business undertaking, despite the productivity advantages that result from higher morale, less staff illness and lower levels of staff turnover. … Where developers build speculatively there is little motivation to care for an unknown workforce … [and] the arguments in favour of green design lead to developers addressing energy and other utility costs rather than the performance of occupants or the image of tenants.”

The 2009 edition of the BCO Guide to Specification had sought to address some of those concerns, particularly by emphasizing the need to persuade clients of the benefits of ‘being green’ and underlining the core principles of sustainable construction:

“Sustainability is not a stand-alone feature of buildings that can be bolted on, almost as an afterthought. Quite the contrary: it is an all-pervading phenomenon that is bringing about a revolution in the way we go about the business of designing and building offices.”

But that very well-intentioned paragraph was drafted just as the United States government was allowing the Lehman Brothers bank to go bankrupt – the first internationally recognised indicator of what was to become an all-pervading global financial crisis externallink: the longest recession since the 1930s.

According to recent economic reports, however, the situation has improved, with growth in the UK GDP currently at around 3% a year externallink(which is better than France and Germany) and the construction and manufacturing sectors also showing an upturn, although we are not out of the woods yet.

The offices sector of the UK construction industry suffered considerably over recent years, but there are signs that the worst of the gloom is over: at least, that is the general perspective of the 2014 BCO Guide to Specification externallink.

According to the Guide’s editors Neil Pennell (Land Securities), Geoff Harris (TIAA Henderson Real Estate) and Peter Williams (Aecom):

“… Even with the softening of mandatory targets for new construction, there remains significant will within the property industry to deliver sustainable buildings.”

The fifty-strong team of practitioners involved in the development of the Guide have made some important changes to the details. In particular, there are new sections on town planning, party walls and rights to light, and changes to the detailed guidance on non-office area floor loads, floor/ceiling requirements for refurbished spaces. There are also changes to the guidelines on occupant density (based on a BCO study in 2013) and electricity use for office equipment (based on a BCO-commissioned study by Hilson Moran published in March 2014).

The overarching structure of the new Guide follows the template established in 2009, including a whole chapter devoted to sustainability. But sustainability pervades most aspects of office design or refurbishment so it is also discussed throughout the Guide.

Although the editors are keen to stress that the Guide is not a checklist or prescription for office specification it is possible to pick out five key messages that will help to inform design professionals, specifiers and clients until the next edition, and beyond.

Resilience is the new green

When it comes to resilience, it appears that the editors of the BCO Guide were thinking primarily in terms of commercial resilience, i.e. meeting future legislative requirements. They rightly point out that, shortly after the 2009 Guide was published there was a change of government as well as a downturn in the economy, both of which factors resulted in a softening or redefining of expectations and regulations. Significantly, this lack of predictability had a measurable effect on sustainability within just one year: namely, a fall in the number of clients using whole-life costing methods to guide procurement.

One certainty that remains is that by April 2018 commercial landlords will need to upgrade the energy efficiency of their properties if they have an energy performance certificate (EPC) rating lower than E, under provisions made in the Energy Act 2011 externallink. This should trigger a number of refurbishment projects, at the least.

But there is another certainty mentioned in the 2014 Guide: there’s another election around the corner, and everything may change again!

Far better, then, to accept that it’s best to design for the other kind of resilience: environmental. This is discussed deep within the sustainability chapter of the Guide, which is unfortunate because it means an important principle is buried:

  • the need to consider climate adaptation as part of core risk-management analysis.

This is crucial, not least because developers and designers who can’t provide evidence that they have incorporated ‘low regret’ options (e.g. to minimize flood damage) could face legal action.

The Guide does not focus in detail on adaptation (it’s already over 300 pages in length!), but there are plenty of other useful books available on that topic. (See, for instance, Design for Climate Change by Bill Gething and Katie Puckett, 2013.)

Re-use in the spotlight

Brand new office buildings contribute as little as 1% per year to the total stock. So it makes absolute sense for a book that is ostensibly about the new to devote space to re-using the old. Re-use is a sustainable choice, but it can also be a sound commercial one because re-use projects may be quicker to reach fruition and also cater to some of the “retro chic” design expectations (e.g. the BREEAM ‘excellent’ refurbishment of One Southampton Street, Covent Garden externallink).

As the Guide points out, the perceived disadvantages of re-use, such as difficulties with upgrading IT and controlling the indoor environment, have reduced significantly – not only because of technical advances, but also because of occupiers’ needs and expectations (see below).

Another advantage of re-use that should not be forgotten is the ability to tap into existing infrastructure, particularly for transport. Major rail projects such as HS2, the “northern powerhouse” Leeds–Manchester high speed railway externallink, and the “Varsity Line” linking Oxford and Cambridge externallinkcould place greater demand for office space at the nodes that re-used buildings could fulfil.

Pedal power

The BCO Guide, however, focuses more on the people-powered end of transportation, highlighting the growth in cycling as a mode of transport, and the need for office buildings to help their occupants use this low-carbon transport choice with optimum safety and comfort.

This third “essential” may seem like a minor matter compared with big sustainability decisions such as envelope design or ventilation strategy, but a BCO-sponsored study by Savills (What workers want) found that one of the top five things that “workers want” is adequate changing facilities. A further BCO study that looked specifically at commuting by bike put showers, lockers/drying rooms and safe cycle storage on the wish list.

These are the sort of features that tend to be regarded as “nice to have” but get trimmed or omitted when costs are being reviewed. Such decisions are, however, short-sighted. There can be little doubt that having nowhere to hang soggy cycling gear or, for that matter, have a quick clean-up after a healthy lunchtime trip to the gym, can be a significant turn-off for prospective employees.

In addition, research in Holland has found strong evidence that commuting to work can be linked to a reduction in sick leave (“The association between commuter cycling and sickness absence, by Ingrid Hendriksen et al, Preventive Medicine externallink, vol. 51, no. 2, August 2010, pp 132–135).

The Guide points out that BS 6465 (Sanitary Installations) recommends one shower per 10 bicycles stored, or one per 100 staff, but goes further, citing the likely growth in cycle commuting (and other healthy activities) which means that enhanced provision, accompanied by safe storage and drying space, would be a more sustainable option.

Though the Guide does not explicitly say so, designers would be wise to consider provision of such facilities in relation to the fourth “essential”, below – particularly because changes in working practices may result in greater flexibility of staff (e.g. greater occupancy on certain days; changes in working hours) and the need to juggle work and leisure activities.

Office of the future?

In many cities, particularly London, there is significant growth in the “telecommunications, media and technology (TMT)” industry which is driving up demand for “non-standard” office designs.

There has been significant press coverage of offices, ranging from the old-school green HQ of Aardman Animations externallink in Bristol to the forthcoming London HQ for Google externallink.

Identifying the trend towards breakout and collaborative spaces as the “coffee shop workplace”, the BCO Guide suggests that this is a trend that cannot be ignored. Apart from the need to supply office space to this growing economic sector, which is expected to continue, the TMT industry is having an impact on other more traditional workplaces. This is because all business sectors are competing to attract high-quality graduates who may be tempted by these more “relaxed” working environments.

These new environments require different provisions for building services. Far fewer desks, more use of Wi-Fi and cloud computing, and the increasing need to be able to reconfigure and repurpose work areas, for instance, imply a totally different approach to building services design, which must be discussed at the earliest stages of a project.

“The future office requires total flexibility to adapt to a world of multiplying technological possibilities.”

But if the idea of having to slide down a helter-skelter to get to a meeting with the HR department turns your stomach, there is some consolation in the Guide, which also emphasizes the importance of catering for a wider range of needs and expectations within one building. Under the heading “One size does not fit all”, the Guide acknowledges that offices are about bringing people together and therefore should be “less about property and more about the value it can derive from enhanced productivity”.

Dr Nigel Oseland, a consultant to the Guide and MD of Workplace Unlimited externallink, urges designers and clients to think of the four Cs when specifying office buildings:

“Offices of the future need to be flexible and adaptable to accommodate a variety of activities and people. They not only need to provide good space for Collaboration and Creativity but also facilitate the often over-looked need for Concentration and Confidentiality. Offices need to be suitable for a diverse range of occupants: people of all ages, cultures and personality types.

“Businesses require both young and dynamic staff with new ideas and energy, but this should be balanced by more experienced staff with years of industry knowledge who can act as mentors. The most successful teams, the most productive ones, are those with a rich mix of personality types and business will want their premises to reflect their employees’ needs.”

The fifth dimension?

Not a “sustainability” essential as such, but essential none the less: BIM, BIM and more BIM. The 2014 Guide includes a whole chapter on BIM (building information modelling), which was barely mentioned (if at all) in the 2009 version.

As Sofie Pelsmaker writes elsewhere on the NBS website:

“… the inherent power of BIM is its potential contribution to the design, construction and commissioning of buildings with lower environmental impacts, whether this is in the form of energy-efficiency, the cutting of carbon or for better use of fewer materials.”

The missing link?

So much for the “essentials”. The last word has to be on what is missing from the 2014 Guide.

I haven’t done a word count or a spell check, but on my fairly detailed read through to review this Guide I was conscious of a notable absence compared with the 2009 version. Three little letters: C S R.

In the 2009 edition, corporate social responsibility (CSR) was discussed at various points, including in the introductory “think pieces”, where it was regarded, as least in part, as a way to make the boardroom take the issue seriously and bolster the business case for spending on sustainability-related features.

Considering the lack of impetus from central government (likely to be ongoing) as described above, should we be concerned that CSR – a “voluntary” driver for positive change – is barely mentioned?

Definitely not; in fact it is to be welcomed.

If everyone is talking about – and doing – sustainability without the (artificial) influence of a ticked box in an annual report, perhaps that means the imperative for sustainability has finally hit home? About time! And I’ll look forward to reviewing the 2019 version of this guide and pointing out that there’s no chapter on Sustainability, because it is truly integrated into all aspects of commissioning, designing, occupying and managing a building.