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Offices must support the health and wellbeing of users or become redundant

Office buildings that fail to demonstrate how they support the health and wellbeing of users will swiftly become redundant, according to a group of building services engineers.

A webinar hosted by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) heard that the pace of change in workplaces over the next decade would be “astounding”.

Frances Brown, Senior Associate at the engineering practice Hoare Lea, told the webinar that people now had far greater choice over when, where and how they work, which was fundamentally changing the way offices were used.

“Employers now need to treat staff as customers…and health and wellbeing is a big selling point,” she said. “We are moving towards a service model for workspaces and people will want to get what they are paying for, including the right indoor environment, rather than just a physical space.”

She said future workspaces would have to use digital systems to provide users with up-to-the-minute information about indoor conditions so they could decide “where to work and what is best for the planet” on a day-to-day basis. She said, eventually, the decision could be made by algorithm and workspaces that don’t meet the aspirations of users would become redundant.

“The current rate of learning for our industry is phenomenal. We are now able to study performance data in much greater detail both to help reduce carbon emissions and improve the user experience,” said Brown. “So, you have to ask, will we still be building new offices from steel, glass and concrete in the future?”

BESA’s Head of Technical Graeme Fox, who chaired the webinar, said it was increasingly important that buildings found a way to demonstrate they were “safe havens” from conditions that could be harmful to health including poor indoor air quality (IAQ). He said QR codes could now be more widely used to provide visitors with real time information about the indoor conditions allowing them to make a decision about whether to enter a building or not.

The role of office lighting in protecting people’s wellbeing was also highlighted by the President of the Society of Light and Lighting (SLL) Ruth Kelly Waskett.

She said: “Daylight is one of the biggest components of a healthy office because it gives us a connection to the outdoors and has a direct impact on our sleep patterns. Circadian rhythms are disrupted by artificial light and there are some very scary statistics about cancer in shift workers.

“We must design workspaces that give people access to natural light and make greater use of smart lighting to improve working conditions.”

Kelly Waskett, who is also a Senior Associate at Hoare Lea, pointed to the increasing use of wearable light sensors as an example of the type of digital tool that is already helping people to monitor their own working conditions.

Jordan Jeewood, Product Marketing Executive at Mitsubishi Electric, said the industry should make more use of “modular approaches that improve flexibility” in offices.

“This will help to improve whole-life carbon performance and affect the construction materials and the type of products used to keep occupants comfortable in the building. All manufacturers are now working on the embodied carbon of their equipment,” he added.

Mitsubishi Electric has also produced a White Paper on ‘The Future Office’, which flags up the product choices and design challenges facing building engineers as they wrestle with less predictable occupancy levels while simultaneously trying to drive down carbon emissions.

“It is really important that we don’t make office spaces worse just to save energy,” Hoare Lea’s Brown told the BESA webinar. “We need to keep measuring and monitoring, especially around IAQ. CO2 monitoring can help you design your control systems so you only install what you need and don’t over-ventilate. It is all about doing enough; not doing too much these days.

“That’s where the data comes in and helps us to get that balance right. Modular is a good approach, but we also have ways of making central systems work better for office buildings. The system no longer needs to be either on or off.”

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