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Sustainable buildings

Atkins | 01 Dec 2015 | Comments

As global leaders work on new targets for greenhouse gas reduction we look at how high quality design is creating more sustainable buildings.

Estimates from the World Green Building Council show that buildings are not only responsible for 40% of global energy use and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, but the resources that go into constructing them absorb 32% of the world’s resources. So the potential for the built environment to make savings in terms of energy and carbon is therefore huge and something that world leaders in Paris at the 21st annual Conference of Parties (COP) conference will be aware of as they work on achieving a legally binding, universal agreement which aims to keep global warming below 2 degrees.

“Paris is important to re-establish ambitions towards better performance of buildings,” says Julian Sutherland, director for environmentally sustainable design at Atkins, explaining that achieving better buildings starts in the early stages. The success of “low energy or low carbon is really around the quality of design. We know what we need to do and there is strong collaboration between informed clients, experienced design teams and good contractors. When everyone operates in their sweet spot, we see great solutions.”

A critical component of this is focussing on building performance rather than compliance with metrics, as set out in building regulations. “We need to understand total energy more regularly than we do at the moment. We need a better understanding of how buildings really do perform and joining up the life cycle of buildings in terms of operation and design to make it much more predictable and understand the choices that we are making,” he says.

Important as they are, building regulations tend to only cover regulated energy which is a relatively small part of total consumption. “It is concerned with the electricity, heating or gas used to create the environment. It doesn’t take into account any of the internal equipment like computers, catering equipment or anything operational.”

The only way to accurately ensure that a building is truly running at optimal efficiency is to model the total energy use which can be four or five times more than the regulated figure. “It is all about knowing what the right numbers are. If you look at regulated energy when you are making decisions about renewable energy and sustainable solutions you are only looking at a very small part of consumption so how can those decisions be the right ones?” asks Sutherland.

For building owners this means taking a long term view on how the building will be used, what will be inside it, when will people arrive and leave and daily occupancy levels. “In order for clients to understand the consequences of their building they have to get into this stuff and understand it. It means more focus on asset management and how to own operate and deliver these facilities in a professional way,” says Sutherland.

Louise Sunderland of the UK Green Building Council, of which Atkins is a member, agrees with taking a more outcome focussed approach. “Of course regulations have a large influencing factor on all professionals in the supply chain however that needs to be balanced with the real world perspective because we are designing buildings for people to live and work in,” she says explaining that that unregulated energy is becoming an increasing proportion of the total energy used and the fact that this is currently not a requirement of the building regulations means that the performance gap between actual energy use and that expected according to the regulations can be wide.

Abstract as this might sound Atkins’ Sutherland points to a very real example of a new build office project that has modelled total energy use to ensure that it is as sustainable as possible. It is set to have an energy performance certificate (EPC) rating of ‘A’, score ‘Excellent’ according to the BREEAM ratings scheme, and just as importantly create a healthy environment that promotes the wellbeing of staff and visitors. The project is Atkins’ own historic UK headquarters in Epsom, Surrey. “The design is unique while fusing pretty standard technologies and solutions but putting together in a really smart way to make it low energy, high performance great environment for our staff,” says Sutherland.

The new building will house around 1,000 workstations for Atkins’ staff and the modern flexible working space replaces the original office block built in 1962. Designed to accommodate working practices of the time with large drawing boards dominating the spaces, the existing building was struggling to keep pace with modern demands. “There were no computers in those days, it is single glazed, there is very little insulation and there were some significant maintenance issues to overcome."

“We worked really closely with the Local Authority to identify a location on our site which is quite big, for a new building carefully designed to meet all of the neighbours, stakeholders and the Local Authority’s own requirements. So it is a very sensitive building,” says Sutherland who acted as the technical adviser on the project

Planning permission for the high quality design was unanimously approved and as Sutherland explains it embraces simplicity to ensure the most cost effective and sustainable outcomes. “We want reliable, simple, practical solutions as those are the ones that work,” says Sutherland explaining that this starts by ensuring that the orientation of the building is such that it maximises solar gain, daylight and promotes natural ventilation. Chilled ceilings reduce the need for cooling in the summer and the façade performance is “fantastic” says Sutherland. “All of the systems and components are working together to provide an environment that is appropriate for our staff and visitors to the site.”

Providing a healthy environment is another important aspect of the project, and sustainable buildings in general. In its “Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices” report the World Building Council finds that strategies to maximise health, wellbeing and productivity are compatible, and often enhanced, by strategies to minimise energy and resource use. For example it shows that improvements in air quality can lead to an 8 to 11% improvement in productivity by staff. “It is the users that will tell us whether the building works or not. What do the users see, hear, experience, feel and want? Energy and carbon all links in to work on health and wellbeing,” says Louise Sunderland, pointing out that to really ensure that buildings become more sustainable a culture shift among building owners, facilities managers and users is needed to ensure that the technical possibilities are being taken up. This can be incentivised by government policy she says. “The best thing we could possibly get from the COP is international certainty to provide absolute backstops and with those in place it is up to each country to figure out the best way to meet those obligations.”

Such “backstops” would essentially be carbon emission limits aimed at keeping the global temperature rise below two degrees. Louise Sunderland says that the targets set from this by individual governments should be science based and these would ultimately give more certainty to businesses in the green energy sector.

For the built environment sector to effectively reduce carbon from buildings, more transparency and accuracy on the actual performance of buildings is needed. “For example, there have been calls for a Kilowatt hours per square metre (kWh/m2) measure to be included in part of the compliance regime,” says Louise Sunderland. This would begin to enable the benchmarking of buildings and enable owners to compare actual performance to design figures.

In the absence of performance based regulation, industry has been taking the lead as astute companies make the connection between better design and better performance. “Our design is based around life cycle costs and finance mechanisms for 25 years,” says Sutherland of Atkins’ new building “We have managed to produce a design that will match with our agile working processes and it represents better value for us,” he says.

Life cycle costing is a critical aspect of the process and as Sutherland points out investing more in a high quality design that includes total energy use modelling means that for a small increment of additional investment cost at design stage, total operational savings are exponentially realised. This is something that is being recognised increasingly in the commercial sector says Louise Sunderland, but the absence of policy mechanisms to encourage this further is limiting growth in the sector and is something that both Sutherland and Sunderland hope will change following the Paris climate conference.

But regardless of the policy situation sustainable buildings are more cost effective buildings and the volume of organisations that are recognising this is increasing. For those about to embark upon the creation of a new building Sutherland has some words of advice. “Think carefully about what you want the building to do and the team that you are bringing together to actually try and solve that problem. There are lots of ways of producing a sustainable building. It is about putting it together to get the best solution for your requirements,” he says. “Make informed decisions, get good advice and match your team to your ambition.”