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Greening the offices of the future

The British Council for Offices grappled with controversy over its selection of speakers and issues of sustainability at its annual conference in Edinburgh, writes Peter Murray

One might suppose 'keynote' speakers are invited to address the assembled delegates with a speech to set the tone of the event.

They provide the 'key' to the arguments the organisers have painstakingly constructed. It is odd, therefore, that the British Council for Offices should have invited the charismatic Dane, Bjørn Lomborg, to be a keynote speaker at the organisation's annual conference last week. Author of best-selling The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg challenges widely held beliefs that the global environment is getting worse.

He presented the conference with convincing statistics that fossil fuel supplies are not under threat, that London air has not been cleaner since medieval times, that asthma is not caused by pollution and that the money spent on reducing carbon emission would be better spent on healthcare.

For balance, shadow culture secretary Tim Yeo spoke in support of greater responsibility towards environmental issues by the corporate sector. He proposed a system of site trading in which a developer can only build on a greenfield site if they have already developed a brownfield site.

Defending the BCO's decision to give Lomborg the main platform, chief executive Richard Kauntze said: 'We leave it up to our delegates to come to their own views about the arguments.' But in the light of the scepticism about environmental issues among the office agency fraternity, who made up a substantial percentage of the attendees, the BCO did its policy of communicating green issues no favours. 'Lomborg's speech set the arguments for a more responsible attitude back 10 years, ' said one leading City agent.

The tone of the conference was better set by the workshops and seminars. Land Securities reported on progress in meeting company targets to improve its environmental governance. The firm has installed some 70,000m 2of chilled beams and ceilings in its properties and has 90,000m 2under construction, in contrast to the less energy-efficient fan coil VAV air conditioning systems so loved by office agents. LandSec was the first company in commercial property to publish a stand-alone environmental report; it has centralised waste and recycling management schemes in its multi-occupied sites; is taking part in a DTI-funded investigation into photovoltaics; is one of the few property firms to have joined the government's carbon trading scheme; and is monitoring energy use on its new Esso Glen building in London's Victoria, designed by EPR Architects.

Glen Irwin of services engineer Roberts and Partners suggested that Part L of the Building Regulations would create extra work for architects. Office building costs would rise five per cent as a result, he said.He proposed a holistic approach to the design of energy efficient buildings, with services engineers involved in the process from the start.

Sara Fox of Swiss Re was introduced by Richard Beastall of TP Bennett, her fit-out designer, as someone 'whose main hobby is beating up consultants'. She put sustainability at the top of her list of requirements in the design of the firm's new landmark headquarters by Foster and Partners in the City of London; the company wanted natural ventilation in the tower and they didn't want car parking. Her other demands for the 'erotic gherkin'were investment quality - it must be attractive to other potential occupiers; it had to be efficient - despite the circular core Fosters has succeeded in designing the space with a 1.5m planning grid and almost rectangular spaces; and it has to be flexible so it can be fitted out with either all open plan, all cellular or a mixture of both.

Fox became agitated when she described the lengthy delays in the planning system - getting permission took as long as the whole construction process. 'If we knew then what we know now, we would have gone to Canary Wharf, ' she said.

The conference took place in Terry Farrell's Edinburgh Conference Centre and Sir Tel was there to lead a tour of the area he masterplanned (see review, page 10). Today it reflects the economic boom that has engulfed Scotland's capital in the intervening years. Delegates toured a range of buildings that reflected the city's recent growth - the Edinburgh waterfront at Leith and Granton, the Alba Campus, Edinburgh Park (originally masterplanned by Richard Meier with buildings by CZWG, Page and Park and Bennetts Associates) and Miralles' Scottish Parliament building.

Much of the work illustrated the level of seriousness with which sustainability issues are being addressed.On hearing the Lomborg message, the sceptics might feel they are able to relax their efforts to improve building performance. As a statistician Lomborg extrapolates figures convincingly into the future on, say, the reduction in the use of fossil fuels and the take-up of renewable resources. However, the loquacious Dane was stumped when architect Andrew Chadwick asked him: 'Worry leads to creative decisions.

What is the statistical effect on your prognostications of an absence of worry?'

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