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20 Aug 2009

Greening existing buildings

Words by 

Ken Giannini, the newly appointed Interior Design Director for Scott Brownrigg, discusses the ins and outs of bringing existing office stock up to current standards

The sustainable building movement is suffering a crisis of overhype and from focusing too often on new buildings.  We have seen a groundswell of ideas, legislation, and examples of new green buildings in recent years, but comparitively little work has been done on how we make existing buildings more sustainable. Considering that existing buildings make up 99 per cent of our stock, it seems we have been spending most of our efforts solving one per cent of the problem. Making existing buildings more sustainable will be the next big focus for the design industry. Albeit by default as new build opportunities are limited by the recession. Landlords will have to consider how best to market empty properties and occupiers will fit-out or refurbish their offices in order to sweat their assets. They will also be responding to the wishes of staff, customers or shareholders to be green. 

Making our existing building stock more sustainable may also be the best way for the design industry to contribute to helping meet the aggressive government target of 80 per cent carbon reduction by 2050. 

We are seeing greater interest from landlords to refurbish and for many of them the motivation is to add value. This is the holy grail. Value can mean different things including premium rents for green buildings. There is not enough clear evidence to say that green buildings demand higher rents, but recent research in the USA shows that on average green buildings demand six per cent higher rents or sell for 35 per cent premium compared to non LEED buildings.  I am not sure any UK developer would agree with those figures but there is a general concern among landlords about being left behind.  There is also the risk that future legislation will make poor performing buildings subject to tax penalties.

It’s not an easy feat to refurbish older office stock because it means facing up to issues like services that are past their life and no longer meet standards and regulations; DDA access requirements; providing adequate insulation; facades and windows that are single glazed; common parts that are tired and run down and do not convey the right brand; lack of raised floors; low slab to slab height; inadequate means of escape to suit high density occupation; or buildings that are occupied at the time the work needs to be carried out. 

The list goes on and on.

The good news is that older buildings often have advantages including higher car parking ratio allowances, sometimes higher plot ratios, so no risk of triggering section 106 agreements. 

A recent study we took part in with the British Council of Offices, called Can Do, dispelled a few myths regarding old buildings and their potential such as the idea that it is more expensive to refurbish than build new, that new builds will be less of an investment risk or more sustainable, or that it’s not an option to refurbish an occupied building.

It is a common misconception that as interior architects or designers we have very little to contribute to a building’s sustainability credentials when designing a fit-out or refurbishment for the occupier. This is not true. Most designers specify products responsibly and consider, for example, locally sourced products, products with recycled content, recyclability, materials from renewable sources or that have low embedded energy, using alternatives to natural stone or petrochemical products.These are common sense choices and often have little cost implications. But we have to be reasonable in our specification and realise that if we drill down into every product and interrogate every aspect of its sustainability credentials, we probably will find something non sustainable.

The occupier’s use of buildings is where I believe there is even greater scope to help our clients be green. Behaviour and operational protocols are developed in the briefing process and designers can flesh this out and then create the physical environment with these in mind. The menu of these protocols can include:  Getting rid of rubbish bins, flexible working and desk sharing to increase density, recycling, temperature set to 24 degrees in summer, lighting controls, shutting down certain areas not in use, filtered water on tap, bike sheds and showers, rainwater harvesting to flush toilets, blinds and space planning the southwest corners of buildings to respect the heat gain issues. Steps like this will take us a long way to greening existing buildings.

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