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Green Sky Thinking: POE highlights the issues of open plan working

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Sofie Pelsmakers reports from ECD Architects’ Green Sky Thinking event

For Green Sky Thinking 2015, ECD Architects presented the initial findings of a detailed Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) and Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) of their own offices. The POE was lead by Carrie Behar, a doctoral researcher at the Bartlett, UCL, where she also runs the POE module for MSc students. A Building Use Study (BUS) was undertaken with almost all of the 45 ECD and Keegans staff taking part in the survey and focus groups, alongside some limited monitoring of internal conditions in different locations and energy use analysis. The offices are located in a former warehouse which was converted 15 years ago, and which ECD have occupied for the last 10 years; over this period the office has grown to accommodate almost twice as many staff.

User feedback highlighted several issues and the difficulty of working in an open plan office, lack of space and that most of the office is too hot all year round, even in winter, with some staff complaining that this affected concentration levels. Actual data collection confirmed the high temperatures in the open plan offices, highlighting that during winter, temperatures were above CIBSE office comfort benchmarks. Further analysis has shown that this overheating is caused by a combination of factors including the building’s characteristics and high internal heat gains from the number of people and the equipment they use, as illustrated by the diagram below. It also appeared heating may not be entirely switched off at the weekend.

In response, ECD intends to review energy management and control and thermostat settings in addition to making incremental changes such as arranging desks better to suit individual preferences as well as investigating passive design measures to the building such as solar shading and night cooling to prevent summer overheating. It seems that initial solutions may be straightforward and at little cost, yet with potential significant gain to occupant satisfaction and comfort. All of the above will be followed up by continuing evaluation and feedback and James Traynor, director of architecture at ECD Architects, intends to give an update at next year’s Green Sky Thinking week.

An interesting discussion with the audience followed, where more stories (and some solutions) were shared. A few other themes appeared:

  • A discussion about PII took place and the view that undertaking POE and/or BPE is often considered as more risky to insurers, while the feedback loop actually ensures lower risk for each subsequent building and should be rewarded with lower premiums. Given the numerous parties involved in a typical building project it would not be appropriate for a single party to take full responsibility and that the purpose of POE is for the whole project team to share the learning for the long-term benefit of clients. Hence Alex Tait from the RIBA research group, stated that as long as we are not volunteering single responsibility for issues raised by POE/BPE, this should not be an issue.
  • Undertaking POE/BPE brings with it occupants’ expectations so it is essential that those expectations are managed but also that without action POE/BPE is meaningless.
  • The overall proportion of energy costs to run the building were insignificant (less than one per cent) compared to rental cost, general overheads and salaries. Yet it is unknown how any dissatisfaction may feed in lack of productivity or sickness leave for example.
  • Sara Kassam from CIBSE raised that it is still considered rare to not only undertake such monitoring and evaluation, let alone sharing results in a public forum as sharing problems is still seen as a reputational issue, yet this is how we learn from each other and prevent making the same mistakes.
  • One of the final remarks was that the Government’s Soft Landing (GSL) Policy in 2016 is a step in the right direction, bur also raised the question ‘why is this not obligatory/regulated for on all projects?’.

ECD are to be applauded for undertaking this study, but also for sharing it publicly and understanding that going through this process means nothing without also action towards improvement.

  • Sofie Pelsmakers is a doctoral researcher at UCL and author of The Environmental Design Pocketbook
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