As people start to return to offices, George Adams, director of energy and engineering at Spie UK, looks at how technology can help make ensure buildings are safe, healthy and more sustainable places to be now and in the long term
With the UK beginning to make the first steps out of its national lockdown, many businesses have either begun to tentatively welcome employees back to the office or are preparing to do so. This process is still fraught with uncertainty, especially as new variants of concern threaten to disrupt the UK’s reopening.
The built environment is going to be at the forefront of helping organisations navigate the challenges of reopening. Few other industries have such oversight of the spaces in which we live, socialise, learn and work.
As buildings reopen, the top priority for many businesses and their employees will be health and wellbeing. At the forefront of everyone’s mind is the potential risk of infection now possible in buildings, particularly as it relates to airborne infection and transmission in common areas. It is important to note that, while this has been brought into focus by the pandemic, it is not simply about combatting Covid-19.
In order to manage the risk of transmittable diseases in a building, you need proper procedure in combination with monitoring and air cleaning technology.
While more work is needed to understand how a virus travels through a building, having proper ventilation systems in place is critical. Technology can help with managing the associated risks, such as using infrared CO2 sensors to measure the level of ventilation. There is also a significant and growing body of evidence that suggests that germicidal ultraviolet light, using light in the UV-C spectrum in a safe manner, is effective against Covid-19 and other diseases, although it is not a replacement for proper ventilation.
It should also be recognised that how a building impacts our health goes beyond disease. Lighting, humidity and room temperature can be stressors on people’s wellbeing that lead to poor health outcomes over time. The built environment should take advantage of the current heightened awareness around buildings and health to drive change here too. Automated systems that regulate room temperatures are clearly of use here, as well lighting solutions that optimise the balance between artificial and natural light.
What will the workplace look like?
A major challenge for organisations and landlords is going to be the desire to reimagine the workplace. This doesn’t just mean plush surroundings, a great location or cityscape views. To successfully usher in the era of hybrid work, spaces will have to be adapted to create vibrant workplaces and atmospheres regardless of occupancy levels.
Early indications, both from the UK and also countries such as Australia, where restrictions have been relaxed for longer, suggest that businesses need to actively optimise the use of space in a hybrid working environment. As usage patterns fluctuate, organisations should adopt a hotdesking approach and optimise the use of space. This will create the social interaction needed to draw people back to the office.
In optimising the use of the space, organisations can also realise significant efficiency savings. These savings will not be automatic, however. Systems need to be put in place to measure the utilisation of the office space and ensure that heating, lighting and ventilation is only in use when rooms or sections of the office are being utilised. If scaled across the UK’s entire commercial building stock, such changes would make a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions.
Sustainability in two senses of the word
This brings us on to the point of sustainability, which has to be understood in two senses.
As well as the economic considerations outlined above, shareholder pressure is increasing for greater action on issues of corporate social responsibility. Moreover, in the United Kingdom, large businesses are already required to report publicly on carbon emissions in their Directors’ Report.
This was followed recently by the introduction of a green gilt in late 2020, which will force large companies and financial institutions to report on their exposure to climate risks.
To make a true impact on sustainability, meet increasing market pressure and ever-more stringent regulation, easy efficiency savings such as opting for more energy efficient light bulbs, installing more efficient heating systems and using technology to automate the control of these systems will not be enough.
As businesses encounter this challenge of having to make more sizeable commitments, we come to a second notion of sustainability in this context: how we recycle our buildings. Demand for high-quality, sustainable office space cannot be sustainably met by simply building new office space. Yet as organisations reassess their estates and jettison unneeded space there is a need to find new uses for these structures. To solve these two problems, it is critical for the built environment to understand the relevant technologies, techniques and expertise needed to manage these changes.
Enacting the change, through the upgrading and repurposing of existing buildings, will also require extensive knowledge of information technologies, particularly Building Information Modelling (BIM).
Redesigning building layouts, rerouting existing services and infrastructure in the building, and introducing new services will be most easily achieved if the numerous parties involved have the single point of truth that BIM provides. Without it, the potential for collaboration to break down increases, costs can spiral and projects may be delayed.
How often employees choose to return to offices is one of the known unknowns of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is for this reason that organisations and landlords need systems that can help them respond flexibly to changes in usage patterns. To be most effective, these systems ought to be AI-based and automated as much as possible, helping drive efficiency savings and reducing emissions.
It is impossible to avoid the need to upgrade our buildings, but we must do so without it being a drawn-out and expensive process. To help ensure success, the built environment should be forthcoming in its adoption of technology, including BIM, to mitigate these problems. Then we can begin reimagining our current building stock as the sustainable and collaborative spaces that are required of the future business and regulatory environment.
Director of energy and engineering
Tel: +44 (0)207 105 2300
LinkedIn: SPIE UK