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Design for flexibility: the Living Building

Reducing energy consumption and optimising material usage are obvious actions for mitigating climate change. Possible disruptions of gas supplies and the EU regulations on lowering demand by 15% are now forcing us to take a closer look at our dependency on fossil fuels, in particular at gas. Rethinking indoor office environments can help to reduce this resource dependency and related operational costs, while delivering significant benefits in user wellbeing. 

Rethinking comfort in the workplace

Companies across Europe are increasingly feeling the pinch of high gas and electricity prices. This is the moment to reconsider our ideas and requirements for a comfortable indoor environment. While buildings are intended to protect us from the elements, mechanical systems have locked out all aspects of nature, good and bad. Humans, however, need variety and thrive when connected to nature.

Whether designing a new building or retrofitting an old one, it is always prudent to consider alternative energy sources such as the installation of PV panels; the use of natural ventilation and the use of daylight rather than artificial light. Do we really need a constant temperature of 21°C throughout the office building, winter and summer?

Space requirements change over time, and so do our needs around indoor climate. When we were working from home during the Covid pandemic, we could be more flexible by adapting our clothing rather than increasing the thermostat as temperatures dropped. The recent gas woes may offer new insights into what we consider comfortable in our work environment. It may be possible for some spaces in the office to have lower or higher temperatures than other areas, so that each person can choose the space that is most comfortable to them. Also, to let temperature boundaries vary over the seasons. In summer higher temperatures are acceptable, in winter lower temperatures.

Interestingly, requirements for refurbishing premises are usually less rigid than for new buildings. The criteria set out for new buildings differ and these more flexible requirements can work to a building owner’s advantage. Where there is more room in the IEQ requirements, companies can save energy costs.

Three insights into energy savings:

  1. Installations are often designed to function at 100% capacity to be able to deal with peak loads in demand.
  2. Reaching the last 10% of this required capacity usually requires 30% more energy.
  3. In reality, however, we can get away with 50% capacity about 90% of the time

So, what if we rather design for a general load to be sure we meet the requirements 80% of uptime instead of 100%. For the remaining 20% of the uptime we accept a slightly higher or lower temperature. Isn’t it time we think differently about the use of our buildings and reconsider the requirements we have in terms of our indoor climate specifications and conditions?

A tried and tested example

One example of this mindset shift is the Alterra building at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. With the use of large glass panels and a lot of greenery in the interior, the indoor climate is well connected to the outdoor climate. People can work in the spacious atrium where the temperature fluctuates with the seasons. Despite the building not meeting the parameters we see in most projects, people feel far more connected to the outdoors and don’t complain about temperature variations.

Bringing the outside inside

We can adapt to temperature fluctuations, and the variety in temperature is actually good for us. We should use the outside environment to improve the indoor experience and, at the same time, lower our energy consumption and investments. We can look at inside temperatures fluctuating with the changing seasons, use openable windows for natural ventilation, add greenery to the interior for air purification, and offer several different indoor climates so people can decide which room is most comfortable for them to work in. Employees will feel better, while investments and energy costs are reduced.

Reconsidering the requirements we have for our indoor office environments offers potential benefits to building users as well as asset owners. Let’s take this conversation forward. Contact Pieter Schepman or David Wesdorp for more information.

Let’s talk design for flexibility

Pieter Schepman

Unit Director Building Physics and Energy