Global warming threatens real estate

Copyright: David Lawson 1996

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It's the heat, Carruthers, the damn heat. Drives a chap mad. Look at this place. Cost us an arm and two legs  back in the 1990s -  and 15 years later no-one wants to work here. Thought we were getting an office for the 21st century. Fifty floors of tinted glass, air-conditioning and marble loos.  But we can't run the air-conditioning for more than a couple of hours a day because of that damned stupid European ruling about energy efficiency. And they don't want us harming their precious ozone layer with our CFCs. I didn't even know we had CFCs. What are they anyway? Some kind of securitised bond?

 It would have been OK if that damned Labour government hadn't come in and  altered the climate. London was comfortable when I was a lad. Now it's more like my place in the South of France. Even looks like it. Seen that  Kumiyachi Bank headquarters going up on the old Lloyd's Building site? They've got shutters over the damn windows. Tables and chairs outside. Garden restaurant on the roof.   Errr..don't know if they've got any jobs going there, do you? What's that Carruthers? Carruthers!?  Tanya. Ring the medical centre. Carruthers has collapsed with  heat stroke again. And bring me some iced water.

 The futuristic tableau  seems absurd. Yet climatologists commissioned by the government have confirmed that global warming will  make recent blazing weather normal within a few decades. In fact, London will bask in a climate somewhere between Paris and the south of France. So what impact will that have on property?


 None, according to conventional thinking. A deeply conservative industry reacts with the same indifference as threats that new working patterns will empty office blocks.  There are voices speculating amid the silence, however.   'The timescales are longer than most businesses plan for. But many buildings are created to last 50 years or more, so these changes are far from irrelevant,' says Yvonne Court of Healey & Baker Research.

 One hot summer may not bring change, but a series could make staff more demanding about working conditions and patterns, she says. Air-conditioning is the obvious factor. Earlier starts to the work day and later finishes broken by Continental-style siestas is another. That would have a significant impact on the way office buildings are run. But changes may not be that simple. Air-conditioning, for instance, is the bete noir of both tenants and  government.  'Occupiers  want the comfort but not the extra running cost,' says Tim Evans of architect Sheppard Robson, which is researching into alternative methods of temperature control. Governments are determined  to limit CO2 emissions and CFC pollution, both  by-products of artificial heating and cooling.

  Yet something must be done. Even today, a few sultry weeks reveal the price of overheating, according to Trevor Foster, managing director of Johnson Controls. US research shows that maintaining a comfortable temperature can raise productivity by 3%. 'Some London blocks probably lost 10 to 15% productivity on hot days this summer,' he says.

 One alternative for keeping cool in a warmer era is already coming to fruition through 'personal environment modules' now being tested in the UK. Staff are able to  control  conditions around their desk rather than working to a building average. This has not only proved more efficient but  increased productivity by 16% in a US study by Johnson.  That links into the idea of raised floor plenums for fresh air distribution. This technique  has struggled to take off in the UK, but Stephen Greenberg of space analysts DEGW sees it as a solution to the critical problem of moving air around buildings in a warmer climate.

  But he also forsees more visible differences in UK city centres sweltering in 21st century summers. 'Shading will be very important,' he says. The  Continental look could arrive in the form of window shutters.

  It seems unlikely that office blocks will end up looking like French villas, however. Louvres will be more like the high-tech methods currently being used on the Helicon building near London's Moorgate Station. This treats the skin of a building as an 'active facade', says designer Tim Evans, responding to heat by opening and closing to shade the building and alter natural air flows.  This is currently a metre thick, but Sheppard Robson is working on 'respirant facades' of only 250mm.

 Glass will still play a vital role behind these 'climate walls'. Today it can be a problem, magnifying and trapping heat. Technology is already available, however, to sandwich photo-reactive material between sheets of glass. 'This generates a current which could be used to run fans which aid ventilation,' says Greenberg.

 Meanwhile, things will have to change inside buildings.'There will be more concentration on heat generation by machinery,' says Graham Love of Jones Lang Wootton. 'Computers are already being tamed. next we will see equipment such as laser printers geared to produce less heat.'  In fact technology will evolve to cope with extra demands, although this will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, says Love.


Shopping centres could become the refuge of the over-heated in a sweltering 21st century. The luxury of air-conditioning became  apparent this summer, as crowds came for comfort as much as  commodities.  'I live in Hertfordshire but my wife went off to Brent Cross in London yesterday just to enjoy the comfort,' says Graham Love of Jones Lang Wootton.  A look at developments in traditionally hot climates may also reveal a pattern for the future.   Eric van Leuven, points out that in Portugal, where he is based for Healey & Baker, no shopping centre has be developed without climate controls.  'If you look at even more aggressive climates like Brazil, the high street does not exist,' he says. All shopping is done in covered comfort.

   But  London-based colleague Chris Phillips points out that there is a downside. Apart from tougher regulations on energy consumption,  tenants themselves rail against the increasing costs of running such centres. He forecasts a decline in the trend to  roof over older centres in an attempt to bring them up to date.  As with offices, however, there will be a fine balance between cooling and costs. Individual shops may have to consider their own climate controls even on the high street. This is something developers will have to make allowance for today, as retrospective fitting of plant can be impossible - or impossibly expensive.  Love also points out that retailers will have to compensate for extra  costs by looking at measures such as energy-efficient lighting.

  Patterns of shopping could change as much as the fabric, says Yvonne Court of H&B research. This will not just mean fewer umbrella shops and more ice-cream parlours but perhaps an adjustment of hours to meet new work patterns.  Office workers will move towards a more Continental day, starting early and finishing late with a 'siesta period' between. That means changing shopping hours to match customer demand.


 The immediate image conjured up by Mediterranean weather is the pavement cafe. If London is as warm as Paris, why should it not enjoy the same privileges. 'This is likely to happen anyway, as this kind of leisure becomes part of shopping developments,' says Chris Phillips of Healey & Baker. Planning rules are also easing to encourage more outdoor activity.   This could mean a change in the mix of retail developments. Investors will have to move away from  a  reluctance  to include small cafes, preferring the covenants - and higher rents - offered by big chains and takeaway outlets.

 So will we see Oxford Street turn into a sea of tables and awnings? 'I see no reason why not, although this depends on  other developments like traffic controls,' says Phillips.    What happens outside buildings could, in fact, have more impact on the shape of a city like London than  the battle to cope with heat within,  according to Tim Evans of architect Sheppard Robson. Long lunches and more  leisure time will promote developments like the entertainment piazza built into London's Broadgate office complex, where as much business is already done in bars and pavement cafes as in the air-conditioned offices.

  Boulevards and shading could become an integral part of city-centre  development. Evans is applying these ideas to schemes like the renovation  around the Hackney Empire, where video walls are planned as an integral part of developing former civic buildings into an arts centre. These cater as much for an outside audience as those within. Similar ideas are being worked up for British Land at Regents Place near Euston.


 Mock-Mediterranean could replace the trend towards pseudo-Georgian and Tudor on 21st century housing estates as designers adopt Continental techniques to deal with warmer weather.  'Expect shutters to turn from stick-on decoration to vital fittings,' says Stephen Greenberg of space architects DEGW. Mosquito blinds and screen doors could also become standard as the dreaded pest migrates to southern England.

  Bigger eaves and space for air-conditioning and photo-electric panels could become an integral part of ordinary homes, says Keith Ross of the Building Research Establishment.  'The problem could emerge of where to put the plant for traditional stone homes, which were not built to cope with this climate and hold onto heat.