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Flexible space: The key to the future of work

The pandemic has changed the UK’s working patterns forever, creating a major challenge for building services engineers with clients calling for more flexible office solutions.

The demise of the traditional office space has been forecast for some time. Long before lockdowns and instructions to work from home, building services engineers were already grappling with increasing demand for more flexible spaces that combined dynamic and often unpredictable working patterns with the need to cut carbon emissions.

Since the Covid-19 emergency, however, that challenge has reached fever pitch with employees also demanding a greater sense of health, well-being, and safety to entice them back into communal spaces.

A global trend towards at least partial working from home was already underway long before 2020. Half of the 15,000 respondents to a 2019 report from the workspace management company IWG (formerly Regus) said they were already working away from the ‘main office location’ for at least half of the week – and 80% said they would give preference to a job that offered flexible working when applying for new positions.

So-called ‘flexi-offices’ and serviced spaces operated by companies like IWG were becoming increasingly popular before the pandemic. There had also been a clear move towards the ‘hub-and-spoke’ approach, which means workers are not expected to travel to a central location every day but can operate from more suburban shared spaces to still have access to the support services of a large employer.

This had the inevitable consequence of many organisations looking to downsize their headquarters and look for more flexible alternatives. And now, after a series of lockdowns and with new instructions from the government to work from home wherever possible, it seems likely that this trend will continue.

Earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that almost a quarter of all UK businesses had already committed themselves to more remote working. However, that can take many forms. Many still favour communal facilities and want to ensure their main offices remain viable by reducing seating density, offering hot desking, and erecting partitions and other Covid-secure measures.

Whatever form the future office takes, one thing is certain: To get people to use it – even for shorter and more intermittent periods – they will have to be convinced that long-standing issues around health and well-being are being addressed. This is also captured in the ongoing review of Part F of the building regulations, for example, where the provision of greater amounts of controlled ventilation is a new requirement – and the need to manage and maintain those systems to protect occupant well-being will be paramount in the future.

Awareness of how indoor air quality (IAQ) affects the transmission of disease and reduces productivity has grown exponentially during the Covid-19 crisis – and the role of ventilation in buildings is enjoying unprecedented public profile.

 

Harness this with much greater focus on energy efficiency, also the subject of review under Part L of the building regulations, and the need for expert building services design and installation work – particularly in existing buildings – will only increase.

Updates to Part L of the Building Regulations are due to be introduced in 2022 and it is already clear from proposals that the government intends to push hard on mechanisms such as MEES (Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards) for commercial buildings.

Currently, MEES rules require a minimum EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) rating for a commercial building of E. A commercial landlord cannot lease a property that only achieves an F or G rating. However, it is now certain that this minimum will be raised to a C or B in the next few years in line with wider government targets to cut carbon emissions.

Retrofitting existing buildings to make them more sustainable will not be cheap, but will be necessary to avoid expensive buildings becoming ‘stranded assets’ with no long-term lettable value.

Fortunately, while these challenges have increased so has the access to appropriate technology that can find the right balance between delivering good IAQ and meeting increasingly stringent carbon cutting requirements.

Connectivity is the crucial change that allows designers to match the performance of heating, cooling and ventilation systems more closely to user demand. The availability of wireless networks means systems can be more easily configured, commissioned, and controlled. They also give engineers a route to tackling the individual pieces of equipment that consume the most energy, such as fans and chillers by making sure they only operate when needed.

This means engineers can design systems with health and well-being AND energy saving in mind.

Targeted
At Swegon, our WISE system is a good example of this approach that has made it possible for the industry to harness ‘traditional’ ventilation techniques with cutting edge digital technology to help engineers create more flexible spaces. It can optimise airflows to meet flexible occupancy patterns and ensure ventilation is also correctly targeted to minimise health risks and dilute airborne contaminants.

This demand control ventilation (DCV) can reduce the amount of fan energy used by as much as 80% in an office and the energy saving for cooling and heating can be up to 40%. This is because air, cooling and heating are supplied in just the right amounts, at the right places and at the right time based on the user’s demand patterns. This cuts out unnecessary operating time.

The system also has water optimisation feature that uses data input from each room to control the heating and cooling system, resulting in a further decrease in energy consumption of up to 15%.

WISE products, such as dampers and diffusers, communicate via integrated radio nodes – and they can piggyback on existing IT infrastructure. This means significant cost savings thanks to reduced cabling, and it eliminates the risk of misconnections.

 

The Swegon Early Stage Building Optimisation (ESBO) and the product selection software Indoor Climate Design (ICD) help the design team create a system from scratch that is exactly tailored to the needs of the building in question with products distributed throughout the building to provide heating, cooling and ventilation in separate zones and rooms – linked by the wireless radio network.

Ease of installation and commissioning opens up considerable possibilities in the retrofit market where the biggest energy savings and performance improvements are to be made, particularly as office users intensify their efforts to make spaces more flexible, but also safer, healthier and fully fit for the future.

That is real progress, but we are also working towards the next level up where we can collect information from outside the system, such as weather predictions and up-to-the-minute costs of electricity. By combining this information with data from the ‘smart’ products already in use we can create smarter buildings that, effectively, adapt the indoor spaces to deal with prevailing outdoor conditions, but also minimise run times during high tariff periods.

In the end, people are sociable and gravitate towards shared spaces that support collaboration and networking as well as shared ideas and companionship. Making that possible in this new era is the building services sector’s newest and greatest challenge – but fortunately we clearly have the tools to make it possible.