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Industry calls for BCO Guide overhaul

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As BCO prepares to revamp its flagship design bible, current Guide to Specification described as pushing ‘sealed glass boxes’ and stifling innovation

Key players in commercial development have said the industry bible, the British Council for Office’s flagship Guide to Specification, is stifling innovation.

Critics described the guide as ‘too prescriptive’ and ‘a victim of its own success’. The comments emerged in response to news that the BCO will launch an updated guide in 2014, for which it is seeking feedback from the industry.

The latest edition of the BCO Guide was published in 2009, before recent updates to the Building Regulations, specifically Part L, and prior to the introduction of the London Plan and BREEAM offices, and the wider adoption of BIM.

The guide, which contains recommendations for everything from office temperature to occupant density, has been widely adopted as the rule of law by clients, agents and occupiers. But its success is also viewed as a barrier to the wider adoption of sustainable design.

Speaking at the 2013 BCO Annual Conference in Madrid last week, Peter Williams, director and head of buildings services at engineering consultancy WSP, said: ‘The danger is that the BCO Guide has started to make the market, rather than inform it.’

‘It’s looking like a one-way street. We hadn’t made it clear in the guide that there are choices to be made.’

Benjamin Lesser, development manager at commercial developer Derwent London, agreed, describing the guide as ‘a victim of its own success.’ Lesser said: ‘It has become a specification and it’s read as a simple checklist. We need to unshackle ourselves from the BCO one-size-fits-all glass box with fan-core units.’

We need to unshackle ourselves from the BCO one-size-fits-all glass box with fan-core units

The most controversial aspect of the BCO Guide is its suggested office air temperature of 24ºC. Critics in the property world say this has encouraged the over-specification of air conditioning, limiting the adoption of natural ventilation and driving excessive energy use.

The suggested occupant density ratios of 1 person per 10m² in the BCO Guide are also seen as out of step with the greater density employed in flexible working space plans.

‘We are overspec-ing buildings,’ said Russell Durling, senior project manager at Derwent London. ‘Sustainability is the issue. The 24ºC rule needs to be relaxed. The BCO spec has become the standard for agents, but agents are dinosaurs.’

‘Temperature bands should be wider,’ agreed Allen Williamson, director of engineering consultancy Norman Disney & Young. ‘In a sealed environment, you would expect tighter conditions, but a naturally ventilated environment will tolerate a wider band.’

But Williams disputed criticism that the BCO Guide encourages a preference for air-conditioned offices over naturally ventilated ones. He said: ‘The assumption is that the BCO Guide has moved us towards tightly controlled, sealed boxes. This is not the case – naturally ventilated buildings are in the guide.’

But Williams admitted that, because natural ventilation guidance is absent from the widely read summary, this has fueled the misconception that the BCO advocates sealed buildings.

Neil Pennell, head of sustainability and engineering at developer Land Securities, who oversaw the complete revision of the 2009 BCO Guide to Office Specification and the second edition of the BCO Guide to Fit Out, is hoping the 2014 edition will address some of these issues through a change of format.

Pennell said: ‘The problem is not the guide – it contains nuanced advice – but the summary at the end. [It] is all the agents have read, and they read it as a specification, not as guidance.

Agents read the guide as a specification, not as guidance

Referring to the BCO’s plans to launch the future edition online, he said: ‘With the new guide we are looking to create a more flexible tool, accessible for a mobile world. We want to create a flexible, adaptable guide, regularly updated, and globally recognised.’

But engineer Hanif Kara, founder of AKTII, warned against the rigid adoption of the guide. He said: ‘The danger of writing documents like these is that they become the bible.’

Kara’s concerns included the over-specification of floor loads and an obsession with column-free spaces. He said: ‘What has driven steel construction over concrete is the desire for open spans. But we can live with columns.’

Kara also said the future BCO Guide would need to address existing stock. He said: ‘Seventy-five per cent of our offices are already built. How does the guide deal with that?’

Architect Glenn Howells and quantity surveyor John Boxall also emphasised the importance of a flexible guide – specifically when it comes to office capacity.

Boxall said: ‘With the standard occupant density rate at one per 7-8m², we are building offices 40 per cent smaller than 15 years ago. The guide is out of date.’

Other commentators called for the BCO to incorporate a more sophisticated definition of sustainability to include the wellbeing and productivity of occupants.

Richard Francis, director of project manager Gardiner & Theobald, said: ‘There are lots of studies of LEED-accredited buildings which show [they lead to] a reduction in leavers and absentee days. The office sector needs to do more of this research, but hospitals know this already – that a view outside makes people need less medication.’ 

Pennell agreed. He said: ‘If people can read better, they make less mistakes [and] fresh air makes them stay more attentive, provided they have good food and access to drinks. There are lots of things that impact on productivity. And some degree of control over the temperature and lighting has a massive effect on people’s comfort.’

But, despite its perceived failings, Williams defended the power of the BCO Guide to influence the good design of office space. He said: ‘It’s there to advise clients and designers. A lot of what’s built is built speculatively. The guide is a safety net. It is providing good advice to prevent investment going wrong. These documents have their weaknesses. But they are the best that are out there.’

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