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Refurbishing existing office space could support businesses and help the planet

Corporate building owners are opting for redesigns as they grapple with flexible working patterns and new environmental regulations.

The pandemic changed office culture irrevocably. With hybrid working now fully instilled, this has impacted not only companies’ organisational structures, but their physical infrastructure as well.

Building design now needs to accommodate ebbs and flows in capacity – according to research from the insurance broking firm Gallagher, 63 per cent of UK business leaders are changing office space due to a shift in ways of working, with many businesses also investing in more collaborative and shared spaces.

New environmental regulation, established to curb building-related carbon emissions, is also pushing owners and occupiers towards new spaces. All commercial buildings now need to have an energy performance certificate (EPC) rated E or above, rising to C in 2027 and B in 2030. But according to the estate agent Savills, nearly three quarters – 73 per cent – of London’s office buildings are currently rated D or below.

Given the cost of building upgrades, some occupiers might be tempted to simply abandon their office stock. However, from a sustainability perspective, that’s the worst thing they could do, argues Benjamin Lesser, head of design and innovation at the property development business Derwent London.

“It would be a disaster to hollow out our cities,” he says. “The sanest position will be to have high-quality, highly sustainable buildings that make it desirable for people to come into the city.”

That means we are likely to see a wave of refurbishments over the next few years, intended to accommodate our changing work patterns as well as increase energy efficiency. Luckily, the two go hand in hand. “It’s not necessarily bad to use energy – it’s just bad to use energy that you don’t need to use,” says David Healy, director for building services at the multi-disciplinary professional services consultancy WSP. “So having buildings that can respond to new flexible working patterns is one area of focus for energy reduction.”

The approach in the past was always to “go belts and braces and put in as much cooling and power as you could economically fit in”, he adds. These days, since buildings are rarely occupied at their peak, these systems end up being much more powerful than necessary. The best way to improve a building’s performance, says Healy, will be to optimise what you put into it in the first place. Smart technologies can help here, such as services that tailor supply to demand in real time. WSP is itself refurbishing its UK headquarters in London, using a team of its own engineers to create a vibrant new space which is all electric and targeting a 65 per cent reduction in energy consumption.

Chris Twinn, a strategic sustainability adviser and board member of the Low Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) – a network of more than 1,000 built environment professionals focused on reaching net zero – says that buildings are also beginning to look at new forms of energy storage, to balance out the peaks and troughs in demand. “Big buildings may be able to generate energy themselves and shift it, so that they’re not having to drag from the grid at a time when there’s peak demand,” he says.

[See also: Will the UK pay up for climate loss and damage?]

Aside from the regulations, the need to decarbonise our built environment is not in doubt. According to the World Green Building Council, buildings account for a staggering 39 per cent of global energy emissions. And while the bulk of this figure comes from operational emissions (running costs from heating, cooling and electricity), over a quarter comes from their materials and construction (embodied carbon). So while it might be tempting to knock down a poorly performing building and start from scratch, the most sustainable route is usually to work with what’s there, as demolition can result in much higher carbon emissions.

“The question is how we can work with buildings that we don’t want to knock down because there’s an awful lot of carbon that’s gone into building them,” says Twinn. “How can we repurpose those buildings to be appropriate for ten years’ time?”

That doesn’t mean that more drastic renovations are never an option. In practice, green refurbishments can run the gamut from something simple, like getting rid of gas boilers or improving ventilation systems, to major projects in which everything other than the structure is changed.

Modern digital tools now enable construction companies to predict and assess the carbon footprint of different prospective refurbishments. WSP has a digital carbon tracking tool called Daisy, which uses artificial intelligence and algorithms to create various design options – by varying amounts of daylight or different cooling and heating options – and assess the overall embodied carbon the designs would generate. Derwent London also always starts its feasibility design on its projects with an embodied carbon and operational carbon analysis, to compare working with the “bones of the existing building” with “the alternative of taking that building down and rebuilding something new”, says Lesser.

Samantha Carlsson, senior sustainability manager at Derwent London, adds that even when a building needs to be demolished, it’s important to consider what can be repurposed. “What materials can we use from those buildings, if we’ve determined that it can’t be used in situ? Can they be turned into a different product or use?”

Of course, green renovations can be pricey – Savills places the average cost of raising an office’s EPC rating from D to B at £437 per square metre. However, the economic case is clear. From a landlord’s perspective, high performing buildings lead to higher occupancy rates, with the demand for sustainable properties pushing up rents and creating a “green premium”.

For business tenants, their workspaces typically play an important role in their own net-zero ambitions. They will also struggle to sublease office space that doesn’t meet environmental standards. “ESG has risen to the top of the agenda in most boardrooms, partly for their own corporate agenda but also because people are attracted to companies who are walking the walk,” says Lesser. “It’s incredibly important for the occupier community.”

Healy adds that tenants increasingly arrive in a building wanting to know about its sustainability credentials. “Then we see the owners asking the tenants questions about how they’re going to use the space. That drives two-way mutual improvement, which will hopefully result in a virtuous circle,” he says.

Of course, for many environmentally conscious owners, there is more at stake than simply meeting the building regulations. The new rules are the minimum starting point for businesses, says Twinn, and will hopefully instigate stronger environmental guidelines for corporate buildings in future. “The regulation… isn’t setting the goalposts as to where we ought to be,” he says. “[It is] only an intermediate in what is a movement to a world where we’re more in harmony with the planet.”

While building owners are being forced to rethink their office designs for both behavioural and regulatory reasons, this shift could also benefit them. Research shows that improving building design, from the air and water quality to the availability of quiet spaces, natural light and foliage, can help to boost employee well-being and productivity, ultimately reducing turnover rates. Although refurbishments may be costly, it could be the best thing for business, as well as the planet.

[See also: Patrick Vallance’s seven rules for net zero]