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The future's bright, the future's green

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technical & practice

At the second one-day conference jointly hosted by the British Council for Office with the AJ, 300 delegates from the uk construction industry gathered in the air-conditioned ambience of the Queen Elizabeth conference centre in Westminster to hear about and debate environmental and commercial property issues.

After welcoming the delegates, bco president Geoffrey Lander, asked what the incentive is for developers and investment funds to finance the construction of green buildings, when the uk lags behind the rest of Europe in the provision of government incentives to support new technologies?

Conference chair Tim Battle reminded delegates that the property industry is a key player in global warming and climate change, continuing with a quote from an unexpected source. ‘Today adults hold the planet under a full repairing lease,’ Maggie Thatcher had exhorted, an observation lost on her old friend Ronald Reagan. The us apparently exhausts 19 tonnes of CO2 per person into the atmosphere each year, more than twice the figure for the uk and more than five times the world average, according to figures quoted later by Paul Morrell of dl&e.

The Thatcher quote provided a pertinent moment to invite Michael Meacher, Minister for the Environment, to provide us with the keynote address. ‘I am here today to put my weight behind the growing debate about ‘greening ‘buildings,’ he said. ‘Commercial buildings use finite resources. They are responsible for about 15 percent of uk carbon emissions. Many existing commercial buildings are notoriously inefficient. The energy bill for non-domestic buildings amounts to some £7 billion every year. Making these buildings more efficient would considerably help achieve sustainable development goals.’

These weren’t his own words. He was quoting his Property Advisory Group, of which some members were present. ‘Some owners, developers and users of commercial buildings are already doing things better - your presence here today demonstrates that,’ Meacher continued. The audience nodded - he was preaching to the converted. What we wanted to know was what he and the Labour administration would do to help.

Our national goal, he reminded us, is by 2010 to reduce CO2 emissions to 20 per cent of 1990 levels, in accordance with the Kyoto targets for world-wide reductions. As the government is the single largest construction client, he is up to his neck in ‘green’ issues. To help us do better, there are a number of government-supported initiatives, he assured us: Sir John Egan’s task force which aims, through demonstration projects, to show how to increase efficiency, achieve higher quality, reduce waste and costs; along with the government’s best practice programmes and the detr’s Construction Innovation and Research programme. To encourage us do better, neither sticks nor carrots were mentioned. Instead Meacher threw back a challenge. ‘I invite everyone here … to write to me to say what you are doing today that is relevant to sustainability and your ideas to make progress fast.’ An official response was promised for each letter received!

Sir John Houghton from the Met Office presented the government’s response to the facts of climate change. Global warming is a fact, he assured us. Impressing upon us the enormity of the situation, he showed us an array of statistics. Not only was the year 1998 the warmest on record, so was each month of that year. This trend is predicted to continue by scientists from the International Panel on Climate Change, Houghton said.

The greenhouse effect arises from solar radiation being trapped in our atmosphere. Infra-red radiation from the Earth’s surface gets blocked by CO2 and other gases on its way back out to space, which is necessary to maintain our presence on the planet - without it the Earth’s surface temperature would be a chilly -18degreesC. However, problems arise when there is a build up of gases preventing heat from leaving the atmosphere, yet allowing solar radiation through. For example, burning fossil fuels unlocks ancient carbon deposits, while cutting down forests slows down the process of photosynthesis and the recovery of carbon from the atmosphere. Positive feedback ensues and temperatures increase. A global average increase of 2.5degreesC is predicted in the next century. Alarmingly, this is half the temperature change that was required to thaw out the last ice age.

Expansion of the oceans accompanies global warming, and a rise of half a metre in sea levels is predicted, as is a more intense hydrological cycle, ie rain and evaporation. This will erode top-soil, and increase fresh-water run-off which may change ocean currents and leave the uk as cold as Spitzbergen! To mitigate the worst effects of global warming, says Sir John, ‘we know what to do but must have the will to do it’.

Predicting the consequences for the property industry, Professor David Cadman of Environmental Governance and ucl considered, ‘it may be that we should expect climatic disruption to be more severe and more rapid than we think’. With reference to future development profitability and investment performance he identified four key questions:

1. What would be the impact of energy taxation and regulation? The Marshall Report of 1998, he told us, recommended that the government explore taxing business energy use and the trading of CO2 permits. Following on from energy targets proposed for Part L of the Building Regulations, the government, he said, is considering ‘mot’ tests and energy logbooks for buildings. Additional costs would have impacts on rents and values, with some buildings, due to location or age, much more vulnerable than others.

2. What would be the impact of traffic regulation? Traffic congestion, he reported, is becoming a disadvantage to some of out-of-town residents. The government’s White Paper ‘A New Deal for Transport’ is aimed at restricting the growth of private transport by such measures as road pricing and parking levies - car commuting can be responsible for as much energy consumption as building occupancy. Cadman asked us to consider whether occupiers in future may opt for locating to towns where good traffic management provides a better working environment.

3. What physical effects would follow climate change? Existing building regulations have been based on a predicted approximate 50-year return cycle of severe storms. Taking the view that this cycle is shortening, Cadman said, the bre has suggested the following effects be considered in the future design and construction of buildings:

increasing temperature variation on building interiors and exteriors

higher winter rainfall and increasing summer drought, affecting weather penetration

more frequent flooding

more frequent storms and severe winds causing structural damage

Cadman then asked us to consider further consequences such as the additional cost of insurance, the increased rate of building obsolescence and differential effects of high-rise and low-rise buildings.

4. Is the industry prepared for change? The short answer may be ‘no’, but Cadman did see signs of an encouraging start. Firstly, the latest Environmental Governance, Property Industry Survey published last month reported a significant improvement in performance over the last year. Secondly, the Property Advisory Group has acknowledged the role commercial buildings would have in reducing CO2 emissions and making commercial buildings ‘greener’. Recognising a profligate use of energy in many commercial buildings, the pag has noted there may be a role for ‘green taxes’, environmental audits and energy benchmarks.

Cadman said that he saw increasing environmental awareness have an impact on values and returns as occupiers become more discerning about building and location preferences. Common ground between developers, investors and occupiers is now needed, and he concluded by suggesting that the bco could play a major role here.

How far recent building projects demonstrate an acknowledgement of this common ground was addressed by Spencer de Grey of Foster & Partners. A sustainable building, he said, is one which is energy-efficient, healthy, comfortable and flexible in use and, most crucially, designed for long- life. He presented several case studies illustrating sustainable design, including the Commerzbank in Frankfurt (aj 20.2.97), the Reichstag in Berlin (see pages 70-71), Willis Faber Dumas in Ipswich and the Thames Valley Business Park, Reading, the only spec building included.

At Commerzbank, 40 per cent additional office space was gained, in a deal with the local planners, in exchange for designing to a ‘green’ specification. The presentation showed that, located on a tight urban site, the tallest building in Europe overshadows its immediate surroundings. Forming two sides of a triangular plan are 15m-deep office floors, with a third side designed as a garden and providing a ‘social focus’. Within the heart of the triangular floor-plate is an atrium through which fresh air circulates at temperatures between 20 and 27degreesC. Back-up mechanical ventilation and cooling are provided for the 35-40 per cent of the year with periods of extreme temperatures. With the help of a triple layer of external glazing, one key objective - currently being monitored - has been to reduce energy costs to between 50 and 75 per cent of those commonly associated with high-rise buildings.

Willis Faber, now 25 years old and probably Foster’s best office building, was used to illustrate that quality pays through sustained energy performance and long-term adaptability. On the spec office at the Thames Valley Business Park, designed with exposed thermal mass to a high breeam rating, the occupier later installed more traditional mechanical services, we heard to our surprise in a subsequent talk.

The overall message from Spencer de Grey seemed to be that continental Europe:

has a high proportion of owner occupiers

is more experimental with ‘green’ design

is more financially supportive at regional and national level

is more prescriptive on human factors, for example Germany allows 12.5m2/person and the right to natural light for office workers.

George Martin of Forum for the Future picked up on the role of human capital in his talk on ‘Sustainability for the Construction Industry’. His bottom line was that sustainable development involves economic, environmental and social accountability. Applying sustainable development to commercial buildings, he said, involves such factors as siting on previously developed land and life-cycle costing. While the Egan report had not specifically mentioned environmental sustainability, he saw its request for greater efficiency from across the industry as a clarion call for sustainable development.

Siting on previously developed land was central to Helen Gordon’s argument that rail locations owned by Railtrack can help government achieve its aspirations. She pointed out that rail is less polluting in terms of CO2 emissions than either road or air transport. On the basis of grams emitted per passenger kilometre travelled, rail she claimed scored a mere 78, while the car was a spluttering 200 and the aeroplane a soaring 465. Vaunting rail as having greener transport credentials, she then explained why the government should endorse the development of high-density, inner-city sites above existing rail termini such as the one at Broadgate.

The relationship between transport and urban sustainability was further explored by John Worthington of degw. Drawing on studies in Holland, he presented the idea of a ‘distributed city’ which relies on high-speed connections between city centres. In his case this involved Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and The Hague.

The Netherlands experience, he said, demonstrated a sensible approach to investment in integrated public transport with co-ordinated bus, train, tram and taxi services. Interchanging effectively between modes of transport, he observed, could be key to future sustainable development. Such interchanges or ‘transferia’ as he called them, would provide the right type of site for high-density mixed-use development, including 24-hour shopping and car servicing. Most importantly he thought, it could improve the environmental quality of cities through a significant reduction in city-centre parking.

Lesley Punter of Reading Borough Council gave a community view of planning for sustainability. She told us that the forthcoming urban White Paper ‘Planning for Communities of the Future,’ would support high-density mixed- use development that included affordable housing.

Presenting the environmental benefits of recycling, such as minimising embodied energy through refurbishment, Steven Beckers of S A Berlaymont 2000 illustrated his practice’s work on the ec headquarters in Brussels (aj 14.1.99).

The afternoon presentations started with Julian Barwick of Development Securities chairing what was probably the best performance of the day. It involved Rab Bennetts of Bennetts Associates, Ziona Strelitz of zza and Paul Morrell of Davis Langdon & Everest on ‘The Art of the Possible’, challenging conventional thinking on sustainable office development. There are six key things we need to do:

respect the planet by maintaining bio-diversity

reduce transport emissions by minimising car travel

sweat the building through longer operating hours

limit energy use through design based on researched use patterns

pursue lean design through reducing embodied energy

aim for user contentment and productivity by designing adaptive buildings that support global interaction and local privacy.

‘Why isn’t everyone doing it?’ challenged Paul Morell. Mainly, he said because CO2 emission is always somebody else’s problem. ‘Don’t demonise buildings,’ he continued, since the greatest per capita energy usage comes from travelling to and from work. In a presentation replete with fascinating comparative data he pointed out that were China, with 21 per cent of the world’s population, to achieve the same per-capita CO2 generation figure as the us, it would virtually double world emissions at a stroke. He felt there is a general lack of belief in available figures and called for verifiable data, stressing the need for a proper science of the subject. Concern, conscience and conviction are not enough - we needed compulsion too. He believes that one of the barriers to occupier concern was the current taxation anomaly which treats capital and running costs in the same way. In the question and answer session that followed, Guy Battle asked the panel whether government carrots and sticks will be essential to make sustainability work.

The last theme of the conference was economic issues. Alistair Elliott of Knight Frank pointed out the financial risks involved in moving away from the standard Category A fit-out. Occupier requirements for mechanical cooling in the Thames Valley market, for example, he said, are still higher than the bco specification suggests is best practice. Things are changing but at a slower pace than many of us would wish. Among 11 respondents to a recent survey he conducted with Thames Valley occupiers, he did see encouraging signs. While all replied that a ‘green’ building appeals, when asked could a ‘green’ building work for your company, seven were in favour and four against.

Frank Duffy of degw proposed ways of improving workplace productivity. Despite the huge rise in call-centres, he claimed, research shows a predicted trend in working patterns away from old-style routine work with little freedom over its pacing and control, towards ‘high-performing teams’, with personnel having lots of freedom in space and time to do what is required.

Workplace performance is critical to producing business results, Duffy said. He took bt at Stockley Park and his own business as examples of what the future holds for those bold enough to embrace a flexible approach to the time management of office space. Using space more efficiently while attending to issues of design quality clearly can be key to reducing occupier costs and reducing CO2 emissions per employee.

Graham Francis of Sheppard Robson spoke about the economic issues surrounding the development of the Helicon building in the City of London - a mixed- use complex of shopping, banking and offices. (A full account by Francis of this project, can be found in Green Buildings Pay, edited by Brian Edwards and published E & FN Spon).

‘Back to the Future’ was aj editor Paul Finch’s contribution. Reminding us of the dictum from Alex Gordon, past president of the riba, defining environmentally responsible building design as ‘long-life, low-energy, loose-fit’, he argued we had not yet taken these issues fully on board, despite Gordon promoting this approach as long ago as the oil price hike of 1973. Finch said that high-density developments in city centres were the smart move that architects wanted years ago but which until now had been resisted by the planners. In conclusion he quoted the architect Frei Otto, ‘If you really want to be ‘green’ then don’t build’.

But the final contributors of the day were not interested in talking about not building. They made up a development team with more experience than most in exploring the use of photovoltaic technology - Trevor Silver of Akeler Developments, Stuart McLarty of Aukett Associates, and Crispin Matson of Rybka Battle. They played out the evolution of an approach to business park design that had received support from ec funds. Doxford and Reading business parks together with the Equinox building in West London were illustrated how new and refurbished commercial buildings could achieve high breeam ratings in their design.

In the final question-and-answer session there was a consensus from delegates on the lack of carrots coming from government to encourage, for example, retrofitting commercial buildings instead of starting from new. Whether or not the market will take the initiative will have to be seen.

Tim Battle, in his closing address, reminded us that revision 3 of the bco ‘Guide to Good Practice’ is due in spring 2000, and will be revised to reflect the outcome of this conference.

Paul Stansall is a director of Tectus Architecture

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