Opinion – Jeremy Myerson

JEREMY MYERSON SAYS SUSTAINABLE OFFICE DESIGN IS NOT ALL ABOUT CONSIDERED MATERIALS AND LOW-ENERGY LIGHT SOURCES – PEOPLE HAVE TO WANT TO WORK THERE AS WELL, DON’T FORGET

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I recently paid a visit to the Greenest office building on the planet. Melbourne City Council’s CH2 facility is a ten-storey structure that sets a new world standard in sustainable design.

Its architect, Mick Pearce, best known previously for studying termite ecology in to design an office building in Zimbabwe without air-conditioning, has really pushed the Green envelope in Melbourne to avoid any wasteful energy consumption.

On my tour of the building, on a typically hot and dry Australian summer’s day in February, I marvelled at the intent from top to bottom – from the wind turbines, photovoltaic cells and solar panels on the roof, to the vertical planting, shower towers that collect rainwater and chilled ceiling panels which absorb heat.

CH2 wears its sustainable credentials on its sleeve. In exterior form, it is demonstrably an icon of Green awareness in office design. But, as I wandered around, I couldn’t help wondering if the building will be as socially sustainable as it is ecologically correct. The wavy concrete ceilings, so essential to natural air-cooling, make for a gloomy interior ambience, especially when combined with dim, low-energy light sources. In fact, the whole workplace has a feel more akin to an underground car park than a busy office environment.

In such conditions, the spark of social animation so essential to the best-designed offices is too readily extinguished. The somewhat sparse human presence on the work floors of CH2 told its own story. Many employees clearly don’t find the environment conducive to hanging out with colleagues. And, when low energy use is set against low occupancy levels, the Green exemplar is immediately called into question.

I am sure that, in time, CH2 will fix its initial interior design teething troubles and add meaningful social dynamics to the clever way in which it recycles air and water around the building. But therein lies a tale that will perhaps, inevitably, lead more office design professionals to make the assertion I’m making – that the most sustainable offices are not necessarily those that put a wind turbine or a solar panel on the roof, but those that use space and time most efficiently to guarantee high occupancy levels.

The more intensely we people existing office space, the more efficient the use of energy to heat and light that space, and the less the need to build additional space. At a time when it is beginning to dawn on opinion-formers that the office property sector is far worse than the airlines when it comes to wasting energy and polluting the planet, this message cannot be ignored.

Anonymous office architects and developers, whose buildings boast occupancy rates of less than 30 per cent, and whose lights burn bright through the night, illuminating whole cities, have avoided airline-style direct action from the environmental lobby up to now. But such anonymity cannot be guaranteed any longer.

What this means is that, in the rush to build more sustainable offices, all those consulting experts on space efficiency, who coined that phrase in the late 1990s, are back in business, albeit on a new Green ticket. Making sure that density of occupation is achieved throughout the working day is a devilish design exercise that combines the disciplines of mathematical modelling, space planning and facilities management in ways that few organisations get right on their own.

Designers like Andrew Chadwick of Chadwick International, who introduced the first really sophisticated space-time efficiency models in places like Andersen Consulting a decade ago, are now warming to the theme of organisations being Greener by the simple expedient of using space more intensively.

Last time around, the drive to reduce the property footprint of organisations was a pretty brutal affair. Loosening the grip of employees on ‘owning’ their own space, to achieve higher densities of occupation, was achieved by highly directed means in the late 1990s. Hot-desking, accordingly, became a dirty word.

This time around, Chadwick concedes that the move from allocated or owned office space to bookable or informal space should be more gradual and, dare we say it, more organic. It should be accompanied by less of a Taylorist flourish and more of a nod in the direction of creating a proper, shared sense of place. In other words, office interiors must be seen to be socially sustainable by the people who use them.

All of which brings me back to Melbourne’s CH2 office building. Here is a scheme that visibly signals its ecological sustainability to the people who use it, but fails to deliver the interior comfort, quality and buzz that will create a truly sustainable social community. When it comes to office interiors, saving the environment means much more than thermal gain, air-conditioning loads and shading strategy.

Jeremy Myerson is director of the Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre and acknowleged expert on workplace design

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