Developers' dilemma over balancing comfort with environmental demands

Copyright: David Lawson/Financial Times 1996

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The fund manager got up to close a window behind his desk. An unseasonably warm spring afternoon had removed jackets, loosened ties and raised tempers. But traffic noise and dust sweeping into the office made conversation almost impossible. 'You can see now why we demand air-conditioning,' he said.  This dilemma has returned to haunt the construction industry as it recovers from recession. Buildings are beginning to rise again, and with the bricks and mortar comes the problem of how to balance the demands of creature comforts, running costs and new environmental standards.

 When tower cranes last walked across city centres there was little debate. People like our sweaty fund manager who paid for development  demanded maximum comfort for potential tenants. That meant air-conditioning, a notoriously energy-intensive solution. But when building ground to a halt, research continued into alternatives.  'One advantage of the recession is that it gave us more time to study  what we were designing,' says Tim Evans an associate with architect Sheppard Robson. Those investigations are  now being fed into new designs.

  Several landmark schemes have emerged even during this quiet period. The Ionica building, developed for the telecommunications company by St John's College, Cambridge, on its nearby business park, has become a totem. This uses existing technology in innovative ways to improve what is now called 'staff comfort' rather than simply energy costs.  A good deal of research is also geared to monitoring whether, and how well, these energy-saving ideas work. 'It takes hard evidence to fight for changes in the way we construct buildings,' according to one of the designers, with the apt name of Tim Battle.

   He has watched the focus  move from pure research into practical application over the last few years with some satisfaction, after his firm, Rybka  Battle, played a big part in pushing forward the arguments for more energy-efficient, user-friendly buildings. Several current developments could be crucial to further advances.  The Building Research Establishment has created its own  test-bed for the industry by constructing  a complete office block at its Watford headquarters. The three-storey building is giving  researchers chance to work on a live project right on their doorstep, according to BRE project manager Mike Clift.

  It includes innovations such as natural ventilation via computer-controlled opening windows and solar-powered stacks. But a particular advance is the wave-shaped floor slab. This increases the concrete surface area, and thus the thermal mass. Fresh air brought in to pass through the channels, avoiding problems with blockage by partitioning. In summer, the night-cooled slab reduces warm air temperatures while in winter, the flow can be warmed by underfloor heated water pipes.   This, along with other test systems such as low-energy lighting and  external louvres to reflect sunlight aim to cut energy consumption by 30 per cent  when  the building is occupied later this year.

 Those occupants will be as vital as the strain gauges  and thermometers. They will provide interactive feedback on areas such as quality of light and comfort levels which researchers cannot determine from instruments. 'One of the most crucial areas of research today is defining comfort,' says Tim Battle. 'If we can move to a looser fit, then a host of changes can be made.'

 The Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) is co-ordinating various  projects aimed at this goal, while the British Council for Offices has issued guidelines based on research into occupier demands.  The industry will be keeping a close watch on findings by the  University of Westminster Research in Building Group, which has won a œ320,000 EC grant to monitor the BRE building. The team is also contributing to the project through its own studies, such as the optimal type of louvre glazing.

  Meanwhile, another piece of living research is going on in the heart of the City. The Helicon, a glazed office block rising over Finsbury Pavement, is important because it is a speculative development. Owner-occupiers willing to pay for new technology have set the pace for change but developers such as  fund managers  need to be convinced if the research is to gain wider application.  If the Helicon, backed by  London & Manchester Assurance, proves a commercial  success, it will influence future schemes.  The £30m building programme is the culmination of several strands of research brought together by architects Sheppard Robson and environmental engineers Ove Arup.  Most obvious are the louvred blinds, designed to control solar gain.

 'This is what is  termed an active facade,' says Tim Evans, of Sheppard Robson. the architects. 'It responds to the environment rather than just ameliorating it as a passive facade would.'  In other words, the metal slats open and close in response to temperature and sunlight, sealing or opening a void between the office windows and an outer glazed skin. The combination of shading and and ventilation of this void  is intended to cut solar gain by about a third.   The technology was not based just on theoretical efficiency targets. 'We do a great deal of  research into what  occupiers want from  to their workspace,' says Mr Evans. 'They like  to feel part of the outside world, so we aimed for transparency.'

 But occupiers are also increasingly demanding lower running costs. Research by property consultants Jones Lang Wootton shows that energy makes up more than a fifth of service charges for air-conditioned blocks. Together with heating and maintenance, this can reach more than œ2 a sq ft, according to JLW's OSCAR annual report.  Other innovations include a low-energy system called chilled beams. This is fairly old technology but rarely used in the UK. Arup did extensive research via its international offices into examples across Europe, modifying the system to suit the Helicon. It is  now being considered for a wide range of other buildings.

  Another landmark scheme by Arup is the œ57m Lloyds Registry of Shipping on Fenchurch Street, managed by Richard Ellis and designed by Sir Richard Rodgers. This also involved a raft of  research including detailed studies of climate, air quality and occupier needs. This resulted in a sealed-window system of  air-conditioning, but it is significant that the designs allow for changes such as traffic restriction. Researchers have produced an optimistic view that  our sweaty fund  manager will one day be able to open his  window without being deafened by noise.