World Green Building Week

Sean Lockie
World Green Building Week is upon us. So is the glass half empty because of all the policy and funding cuts, or half full because business understands sustainability more than ever?

On the half full side, the move from mandated to voluntary marks a significant change in behaviour. Individuals and organisations go the extra mile because they want to rather than have to (compliance). Design and development teams and clients are more inquisitive if they know the outcome of their study will result in things like; running cost reductions, higher rental or property values and better productivity. These are done to obtain outcomes rather than having to orchestrate a particular study through Building Regulations or a planning condition (e.g. BREEAM).

Changing business case:

The old business case for sustainability used to be ‘if I spend a little more on my building specification to improve performance will it pay back?' Inputs into the financial model in those days were things like a) the capital costs, b) the energy and maintenance savings. Now the data we have on buildings is so much richer because feedback loops are much improved, energy submetering and air quality sensors are cheap, wireless and have long battery lives. This feedback loop is a game changer. Now the challenge is to be able to measure the increase in productivity linked to green / healthy buildings. The World Green Building Council (WGBC) has been publishing lots of thought leadership in this area with offices and retail taking a priority. I predict very shortly smart phones will be able to measure air quality, temperature and other environmental aspects and users will be able to ‘like’ or 'dislike' spaces and buildings just like we do on Facebook or Instagram. Imagine the impact that will have on a company’s brand if their buildings are disliked? This real time feedback is more game changing stuff.

Sustainability as a proxy the right word to use?

We do lots of training and change making in the sustainability area. The risk of calling something ‘sustainable’ means it goes over the head of the main players in the project and into the inbox of the person with sustainability in their title. This has worked reasonably well up until now but it hinders sustainability getting into the mainstream and becoming the responsibility of us all and in some cases produces perverse outcomes. We need to treat sustainability as a proxy for quality. Good daylight, air quality, healthy specifications are all on the sustainability agenda but to me we are really talking about getting a good quality building. Of course we want healthy buildings, buildings that perform as the designer intended, buildings that are affordable, delight, facilitate good communication, win awards etc etc. We must therefore move away from a compliance based / point chasing approach to one where if we want the design teams to do say, a climate based study, or a whole building energy performance, it’s not about getting a point for it. If we don’t do it we run the risk of not having a comfortable, healthy, high performing building. Our BREEAM assessors clearly articulate the benefit of undertaking an activity, not because it will give the team two credits but because the outcome is explained.

A benefits driven approach:

If we want the design team to do studies that are beyond compliance then the benefits of these need to be clear. So what are some of these benefits? Staff costs (salaries and benefits) represent approximately 90% of a business’s typical costs, whilst rent and energy costs represent circa 9% and 1% respectively. Office employees spend circa a third of their day (i.e. 8 – 10 hours/day) in their working environment. Research carried out by the WGBC highlights the costs associated with poor health in the workspace and reveals overwhelming evidence, demonstrating that the design of an office can have a significant impact on the health, wellbeing and productivity of its occupants.

But exactly how much does employee absenteeism cost the Industry?

  • Absenteeism is thought to be costing UK industry approximately £30billion a year (lost production, recruitment and absence) and the typical employee is estimated to take an average of 2.1 sick days over a three month period.
  • In the US, private sector employers are burdened with circa $2,100 per year per employee due to poor staff health and absenteeism. 
  • In Australia, incurred costs due to employee absenteeism reach $7 billion/year, whilst poor employee performance due to medical conditions is costing $26 billion/year.

And how is performance affected by the indoor environment?

Indoor environmental conditions can be used as proxies for occupant satisfaction and staff performance and health. The term ‘indoor environment’ refers to availability of daylight, quality of fresh air, indoor temperature, draughts, noise levels and CO2 levels, all of which can have a direct impact on occupier health and wellbeing. In addition, giving occupants the ability to control and adjust their indoor environment is also a parameter of great importance which is directly linked to occupant satisfaction.

Current research by the WGBC (PDF 3.71 MB) highlights the correlation between indoor conditions and occupant health and wellbeing, with typical examples being:

  • Staff performance is worsened by 4 and 6% respectively if the indoor environment is too cold and too hot respectively.
  • Performance drops by 66% when office workers are distracted by a noisy working environment.
  • Improved air quality can increase productivity by 8-10%.
  • Openable windows in the workplace can increase productivity by 18%.
  • Improving the lighting design can improve productivity by 23%.
  • Working near good daylight during the day can add 45 minutes to night sleeping.

How does the Industry respond?

The benefits of designing and operating ‘healthy buildings’ are recognised across the industry. CBRE’s 2014 -2015 European Occupier Survey states: We see an extension into the “wellness” agenda in which the physical comfort and performance of the workspace come to play a growing role in building production and management- in a way that in future will come to be seen as “normal” rather than a “luxury”. In the same survey, 5 out of 10 employees consider indoor environment to be amongst the most important features in the workspace, while the same number of employers cited increasing employee productivity as motive for workplace strategy.

Some of the benefits we are starting to see quoted include:

  1. Lease faster – now seeing a sustainability requirement in corporate conditions.
  2. Rent for more – 2013 BRE research claims certified greener buildings rent for 20% more.
  3. Cheaper to run – our research shows up to 20% savings, with water savings of 39% according to Fulbrooke.
  4. Valuation premium – brown discount / green preimuim - Green buildings having better yields (WGBC Business case for Green Buildings).
  5. Sell for more – Higher sales premiums for LEED and Green Star, which is supported by the RICS.
  6. Brand – people want to work for a sustainable company. 96% of 18-25 years and 98% 26-35 years want to work in a green office (Deloitte study).
  7. Cheaper to build - Proper consideration of materials efficiency associated with the building fabric and structure can dramatically reduce requirements and potential reduce capital costs associated with sustainable design measures.
  8. Health & Wellbeing.
    - 85% of a business’s costs are spent on staff salaries, 10% rent, 1% energy (Persram et al 2007).
    - Carnegie Mellon University (Centre for Building Performance and Diagnostics) … linking improved ventilation with 11% improvement in productivity … Lighting design improvement 23% in productivity … Openable windows increase in productivity 18%.
    - Department for Education daylight link to attainment - concentration. Students get 5-14% higher scores and learn 20-26% faster in well daylight schools.
    - 46% of respondents cited increasing employee productivity as motive for workplace strategy (CBRE, European Occupier Survey, 2014 - 2015 (EMEA Research).

Concluding themes

The sustainability profession is a fantastic career, covering the science, finance, design, construction and operation of buildings and organisations. Presenting and communicating ideas up and down an organisation is important with the ability to talk strategy with the estates and finance directors, through to the technical with design teams and then translating this into on the ground actions with the contractor that eventually builds and FM teams that will operate. Above all you need to be able to speak the language of business and have a thirst for innovation.