Sustainable offices  draw occupiers

Copyright: David Lawson –Financial Times  2001

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When Cisco was hunting for a new office centre in Germany last year, it hit a green wall. The group ended up building its own complex at Hallbergmoos, near Munich airport, to achieve target savings over conventional buildings of 40 per cent lower energy consumption, 50 per cent less CO2 output and extensive use of sustainable materials.

   It is  ironic that a US giant should fall back on its own devices to salve what it calls a ‘green conscience’, particularly when Germany leads the world in sustainable development. For more than 20 years American companies expanding into Europe  have had a powerful influence shaping office designs by demanding air-conditioning  in cities which had previously got by without such luxuries. Campaigns to expand isolated examples of sustainable development into mainstream markets have been doomed by the power of US occupiers, says Tim Battle, an environmental architect and engineer. ‘They want what they have at home,’ he says. ‘And they work by the KISS principal: Keep It Simple Stupid. Don’t bother me with all that complicated stuff about natural ventilation.’

  Local occupiers have followed along almost blindly, particularly in the UK. When Laing Property offered a range of green initiatives on four office buildings in Swindon, one of the UK’s expanding office centres, only one occupier, a firm of solicitors, opted for natural ventilation.

  This has been the norm right across Europe. Sustainable innovation is generally limited to a few landmarks like the Commerzbank HQ in Frankfurt, government buildings and a few  schools and public utilities. The vast majority prefer what has become the conventional fan/coil system of heating and cooling. Some architects and developers are trying to wean them off by mixing green and fan/coil systems . Commerzbank chose this, as has Swiss Re for its distinctive new City of London home. Whether this innovation will spread into general favour is debateable but Laing is having some success with potential tenants for the proposals on a 200,000 sq ft  development in the UK’s Thames Valley.

  The problem they are finding is that running costs for a typical office building are little more than 3.5 per cent of total occupation expenses, so  occupiers have little motivation to go green. Investors are even more hidebound as they prefer tried and tested construction methods and will downgrade investment values for anything ‘unconventional’.

    The European Commission has tried hard to shift the balance through education and investing in green systems for its own offices. So have professional bodies like the  British Council for Offices, which updated its  Practice Guide this year to emphasise health and comfort for staff, who make up more than 80 per cent of  occupation costs. The UK Centre for Sustainable Construction is preparing a study which will quantify the business benefits of green offices in the hope that this will break through occupier apathy.

   But the stick may be about to take over from these dangling carrots. US companies are being forced to take energy-saving more seriously after  shock waves reverberated from generation failures in California last year. The pressure group BOMA, which represents owners and managers of 8.5bn sq ft of offices,  is telling members to cut   consumption as energy becomes a scarce resource.

  The Bush administration’s refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions  12.5 per cent by 2005 is also having a surprisingly positive effect.  ‘The chattering classes were so outraged that they have begun shouting,’ says Tim Battle, who is also a leading environmental engineer. European expertise is in great demand and his firm, Battle McCarthy, has opened a US office after winning  a competition to build a 1m sq ft energy-efficient courthouse in Los Angeles.

  This enlightenment could have a significant influence in Europe as US companies become more like Cisco. But  Europeans have their own sticks to worry about as the EC works up environmental restrictions to meet its own commitment to Kyoto.  The French may shun air-conditioning and the Germans demand an open window for every worker but this will not be enough. ‘They still have to accept that sustainability is more than energy-saving,’ says Tim Battle.  

   Another irony is that the UK, which had been the most enthusiastic adopter of US practices,  is leading the charge. Changes in  building regulations will be phased in from the end of this year geared to meeting a 20 per cent cut in emissions. Philip Parnell of property consultant Drivers Jonas believes the real innovation lies not in technical designs but changes in investors’ attitudes. This already happening in the UK after an obscure statutory instrument changing pension fund law crept out last year. Fund managers must now publish a statement of  green investment principles. This could do more than just unlock the prejudice against schemes like natural ventilation, he says. It could lead to positive demand for office investments that go beyond energy saving and embrace wider green issues such as public transport and sustainable materials.

   Developing green offices from scratch  could have an enormous impact, according to the Centre for Sustainable Construction. Investors have often been disillusioned with ‘bolt-on’ kits which are expensive and have limited impact on running costs. Integrating eco-friendly techniques from the outset can lead to cheaper construction costs and reduce energy consumption by up to 30 per cent.

   Landlords with existing buildings could also be drawn into fold by another financial incentive. New markets are being created to trade CO2 savings this year. ‘There is no reason why a landlord cannot sell the energy savings made on his buildings,’ says Guy Battle.

  So sustainable offices could finally be seen as an asset rather than a liability which would be the biggest innovation in the history of green  development.

Source: Findings by Amory Lovins quoted in Quantifying the Business Benefits of Sustainable Buildings – Centre for Sustainable Development, Building Research Establishment.






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4 pipe fan coil

Source: Laing Properties