Huge retrofit programme needed to get buildings working

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Only an ambitious renovation plan for commercial buildings will get us on the path to net zero and improve the health and well-being conditions for occupants, according to BESA’s head of technical Graeme Fox.

The dramatic surge in energy prices has once again turned the spotlight onto the energy efficiency of our existing building stock.  While much of the focus has been on residential fuel bills, the implications for commercial buildings are equally alarming.

Progress on renewables and the push for widespread use of heat pumps is no substitute for improving the energy efficiency of services and the building envelope – we need both to start bringing down energy costs in a long-term, meaningful way.

An ambitious plan to renovate and retrofit will also be essential for tackling lifecycle carbon emissions and getting us properly on the path to net zero.

This issue was discussed in some depth during November’s BESA National Conference following a keynote address from architect and TV personality George Clarke. He called for a “global retrofit revolution”, which he said would be vital to cut carbon emissions and make our buildings more resilient to the impact of climate change.

He urged the government to abolish VAT on building restorations and renovations to speed up the decarbonisation of existing buildings – pointing out that 80% of the buildings we will be using in 2050 have already been built.

Embodied

Currently the tax regime discriminates against retrofit and incentivises demolition and rebuilding despite the obvious embodied carbon penalties of that approach.

This issue also has implications for health and well-being. During a BESA webinar a group of consulting engineers argued that many office buildings were at the risk of becoming redundant because they no longer catered for the requirements of the modern workforce and would need to be extensively remodelled.

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 well-being 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?”

It will be increasingly important that buildings find ways to show they can be ‘safe havens’ from conditions that could be harmful to health including poor indoor air quality (IAQ). One possibility is the use of QR codes linked to IAQ monitoring systems that can provide visitors with real time information about the indoor conditions. This could even allow them to decide on the spot whether to enter a building or go elsewhere.

The role of office lighting in protecting people’s well-being has also been highlighted by the President of the Society of Light and Lighting (SLL) Ruth Kelly Waskett.

“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,” she said. “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,” she told the BESA webinar.

Sensors

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.

“It is really important that we don’t make office spaces worse just to save energy,” Hoare Lea’s Brown added. “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.

“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?”

How commercial buildings adapt to changing occupancy levels and are retrofitted to meet energy consumption challenges will go a long way towards determining whether the UK meets its ambitious targets for achieving net zero in the years ahead – as well as rising to the growing health and well-being challenge.

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