By Ian Jeffries, Managing Director, EEVS

As published in Energy in Buildings & Industry, April 2021

With lockdown restrictions easing and the vaccination rollout continuing, the focus for many organisations is now about considering the future of their working models. Will they be introducing hybrid working models where staff work from home for part of the week, or will employees return to offices on a permanent basis? Are they disposing of sites as part of an estate rationalisation drive?

Questions about energy usage and the carbon performance of offices during the pandemic are perhaps not always part of these discussions. But in the face of a climate emergency and with many corporate and public sector organisations declaring net zero commitments, it’s important that they are considered as part of any new workplace and real estate strategies.  

There is a potential scenario in which increased energy usage will lead to a carbon rebound as people return to offices. Many energy teams will already be focused on how their real estate strategy aligns with their corporate net zero vision. But they need to do this by preparing for a carbon rebound and, crucially, should now be making plans to mitigate it.

Why could we see an increase in carbon emissions? Building operators seeking to create safe working environments are likely to require more from their mechanical ventilation systems. The HSE guidance is clear that adequate ventilation reduces how much virus is in the air. Ventilation helps reduce the risk from transmission, when someone breathes in small particles (aerosols) in the air after a person with the virus has been in the same enclosed area. The risk is greater in areas that are poorly ventilated.

New Government recommendations made as part of the proposed Future Buildings Standard from the MHCLG will also increase usage. The current regulations suggest a minimum air exchange rate of 10 l/s/p and the new report from the MHCLG recommends an increase of 50% on top of this. The requirement to filter air and provide such high air change rates makes natural and passive ventilation strategies difficult to achieve. It is likely that some new buildings will have larger air handling units to pump air around buildings.

The MHCLG has suggested that larger equipment running at lower capacity will reduce the energy consumption required.   

This is debatable. Mechanical ventilation is already being used more energy intensively. Some offices are now operating ventilation over a 24-hour period and switching to 100 per cent fresh air, rather than a mix of fresh and re-circulated air – both of which are already driving up consumption. For example, there are some offices that during lockdown had 80 per cent less staff but were only saving 10 per cent of energy compared to before the pandemic.

What in practical terms should energy teams consider to mitigate the impact of increased energy usage?

When businesses consider the new workspace strategy for different occupancy levels, they should think about the energy dimension to that as well. Yes, space utilisation is key for a world where there is a need for new collaboration spaces and quiet areas for virtual meetings, but in many buildings it might not be practical or efficient to operate all floors and disperse people around the building. 

The days of every floor in a multi storey office being operational every day of the week might be over. Smart controls and understanding the performance data of offices and space usage will need to come to the fore.

To deliver meaningful action on carbon and energy consumption requires better reporting. Corporate reporting for many businesses is going to be notched up to higher levels because of the Government’s commitment to mandate carbon disclosure for listed and large private business.

Informed decision making will be key. One potential solution could be provided through building sensors. Careful monitoring of air quality could provide data for facilities management (FM) providers to operate ventilation within a building in a more targeted manner.

Independent assessment of energy performance across a property portfolio is going to be crucial. The reality is that many businesses do not have a detailed understanding of energy performance or cost saving across their portfolio. 

There are several examples of FTSE-100 companies successfully incentivising their FM providers to save energy across their estates. How they structure these innovative contracts – with their FMs paid to manage the energy consumption of buildings, including the operation of the internal environment – is key. Performance-based contracts incorporating financial rewards for over-performance provide a tried-and-tested solution. They also represent an area of significant untapped potential for both client organisations and outsourced facilities management providers.

With potentially greater ventilation demands and in some cases 24-hour use, organisations should also pay particular attention to contracts with M&E contractors paid to maintain their systems.  Changes to these systems could well have interactions with performance-based FM operations, requiring relevant information to be shared and actions taken according to their governance processes, which may be further complicated if different suppliers are involved in providing these services.    

Beyond putting in place appropriate contracts, there is a need for clients to have energy and cost saving initiatives independently verified. A detailed qualitative and quantitative assessment of all the methodologies and calculations used to generate a savings figure is essential if an occupier is to truly understand how it has been calculated. It typically should involve a full review of all relevant contractual documentation, datasets and analytical processes.

This independent verification is important to provide greater certainty and transparency. This will be important for robust carbon reporting and understanding at a granular detail where the energy savings or increases are happening. Get all that right and you can fully understand the performance of a building and wider office portfolio.   We’re living in a time of unprecedented change and a climate emergency. Organisations are going to adjust to new working models. Buildings in the age of Covid-19 will need increased ventilation and therefore energy. Government policy in the form of the Future Buildings Standard is evolving. As more business plot the return to the office, let’s do everything we can to prevent a carbon rebound.

Read our latest Energy Efficiency Trends report

The research was undertaken between April and June 2021 and completed by 69 UK-based respondents, including 33 participants from organisations consuming energy efficiency products/services and 36 participants from suppliers of energy efficiency products and services.

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