Overpowered buildings waste resources

Copyright: David Lawson - first published Financial Times September 1994

Le Corbusier called the house a machine for living but the metaphor becomes a literal truth when applied to commercial buildings. They  contain  a network of systems as complex and interdependent as any production line.  Most are well hidden, particularly in sleek modern buildings.  But you only have to glimpse the "inside out" profile of the  Lloyd's Building in the City of London to see some of what normally lies under the skin. Even this jumble of pipes and ducts only tells part of the story.

  A better guide comes around every year in the landlord's service bill. Electricity, security, heating, cleaning, water and lifts suddenly become highly visible. A company which took great pains to knock £1 a sq ft off its rent on a building finds that the heating and air-conditioning maintenance alone has more than outweighed that saving.  In fact the average service charge for air-conditioned buildings is running at more than £6 a sq ft, according to the annual analysis just produced by property consultants Jones Lang Wootton. Normally ventilated ones cost about £2 a sq ft less.

 That may represent only a fraction of overall costs,  particularly in high rent and salary areas like South-east England. But it still represents an area for savings to occupiers who have struggled through recession and still face tough competition. One worrying fact is that charges have risen between 6.8 and 7.4 per cent in the last year, according to JLW. Increases look even more shocking over 10 years: since 1993 charges have soared almost 80 per cent for air-conditioned buildings and nearly 100 per cent for others.

  But much of this can be attributed to more arduous demands from occupiers. Ignorance is fading as businesses employ more experts and grow to understand the impact of services on output. Manufacturers have always known that productivity varies with comfort. Today's office factories are no different. One of the biggest advance in building services over the last 20 years has been in the air that occupiers breathe. "Standards have doubled", says John Miller, technical services manager for JLW. New city-centre blocks are sealed from the pollution and noise outside. Each now has a carefully balanced interior environment where the temperature and air-quality is in the hands of the machine.

  A constant battle goes on between suppliers of different kinds of systems. Chilled ceilings, for instance, are currently touted as a cheaper alternative to the variable air volume (VAV) methods which became almost standard in the boom.  "There are always fashions," says Kenneth Dale, president of REHVA, the European Heating & Air Conditioning Associations. He points out that these were being used more than 40 years ago and are common on the Continent.

  But the biggest battle is over whether to use any kind of air-conditioning - which we will deal with in more detail elsewhere in this special report. Energy-guzzling systems look doomed as governments seek to control CO2 emmissions, and most technical advances are now taking place in making artificial ventilation more efficient and healthy. The other major change in service systems over the last 20 years has been in the technology. Office buildings in particular have been dragged into the electronic age - sometimes kicking and screaming. Almost every building today is laced with miles of cabling carrying power and information to desktop computers, printers, faxes, photocopiers and modems.

  This has fundamentally changed construction methods. New ones have deep floor voids for the cabling - and hollow ceilings for the heavy-duty ducting necessary to draw off heat from these electronics. Older buildings are probed to find existing gaps for the services - or written off as obsolete.  "There was also a physical change as information storage moved from the filing cabinet to the computer disk," says Graham Love, head of project consultancy at JLW. In simplistic terms that meant a move from concentrating on how much weight each square foot of floor will support to how much power it can provide.

  And this has developed into another battle. Older buildings were clearly under-powered; new ones are over-powered. "Ten years ago they could handle around 5watts per sq metre but this soared to as much as 40W in the boom," says JLW development management partner Paul Boden.  But today's normal user requires only 15 to 20W, and these blocks  look embarrassingly overblown at a time when energy-saving is a priority. The British Council for Offices has brought out guidelines far below this peak.

  The industry clearly went too far - an accusation commonly heard from building service engineers who feel they are rarely brought into the construction process early enough to point out such errors. Even when they are allowed to contribute, the raucous voice of selling agents take precedence.  Over-powered buildings exist because agents said this is what the loading  occupiers demand. "But they were forecasting straight-line growth in power demands without taking into account that the technology would become more efficient," says Peter Marks, who as head of property management services at JLW now has the task of explaining big bills to occupiers.

  Other "advances" in building services are less controversial. New technology has been harnessed to management, making control of various systems more efficient. Even the most modest warehouse can be fitted at a reasonable cost with computers which automate control of ventilation, temperature, access and safety.

 The drive for energy efficiency started in the early Seventies with oil-price hikes but has continued to make ground through advances in areas such as boiler technology. Fire engineering has moved forward to cope with new demands such as enclosed shopping centres, the chiney-like properties of office atriums, and a host of new health and safety regulations  - particularly from the European Commission.

  The closest many occupiers get to perception of the machine around them is when they stray into the building manager's screen-clad hideaway after getting out of the lift on the wrong floor.  But if  the lift itself breaks down, they realise  how dependent they are on this technology. Making it work is a science. Making it pay appears to be an art.