Green guide for office buildings

Copyright: David Lawson - first published Financial Times June 1990

OFFICE designers spent the much of the last decade learning how to handle high technology. New buildings were successfully crammed with a proliferation of electronic equipment and modern materials. Now they must deal with the consequences.   The modern office complex can consume as much energy and produce as much pollution as a small town. In the 1990s it may be judged as much on its impact on health and the enviromnment as on its business efficiency.

  The "greening" of offices is already under way. Frequent outbreaks of "sick building" syndrome and Legionnaire's Disease led to reappraisal of systems such as air-conditioning. This has now been overlaid with a  wider concern about how buildings can harm the ozone layer and help deplete tropical forests.  At first this seemed like a fringe activity by a few eco-enthusiasts, but mainstream architects and developers are now directly involved.

 The Royal Institute of British Architects is producing a "green guide" to good practice for its members.   Rosehaugh Stanhope, Greycoat and Olympia & York are sponsoring an experiment to produce a system of green labelling  for schemes according to how successfully they eschew CFCs, hardwoods and toxic materials. Some have already banned these materials from their own buildings.

  A significant  sign that investors are taking the problem seriously comes from Legal & General, which has  backed green policies. Michael Bowser, L & G Property's consultant engineering manager, says the group has uprated its standards. He suggests increased use of high-frequency fluorescent lighting, increased use of outside air in ventilation and higher insulation standards.  The motivation is not entirely altruistic.  "It makes sound commercial sense," he says. Both capital and running costs are reduced and tenants' are made happier.

  But there is only so far you can go in ameliorating the impact of  office buildings. The whole planning system would need changing to remove the central problem of town-centre offices, says Julian Ryder Richardson, of architects GMW. "We are really just scratching the surface at the moment," he says.  High land values in town centres demand high-density developments. Deep-space buildings use less natural light and require air-conditioning. Only by reducing site densities can this fundamental problem be attacked. This would need to be imposed from above, as developers will not voluntarily sacrifice millions of pounds of income by building less densely.

 Yet paradoxically, the most efficient location for office buildings may be in town centres. Land values and densities are lower on out-of-town business parks but staff usually travel there by car. Clustered town-centre buildings require less energy and are served by more efficient public transport. So the solution to environmental problems may involve drastic measures by planners to reduce town-centre site ratios and ensure that business parks are linked to public transport. Both these measures fly in the face of current practice, but the change of direction would be only slightly more  revolutionary those already made by developers and architects in a few short years.