Taking action on Climate Change

by Michelle Agha-Hossein, BSRIA Building Performance Lead

Most nations now recognise climate change as an established, perturbing fact that needs immediate attention. We can see the effects in the worsening and more frequent extremes of weather: flash floods, droughts, strong winds, heavy snow, heat waves, etc.

UK temperatures in 2019 were 1.1°C above the 1961-1990 long-term average and it was a particularly wet year across parts of central and northern England. Still fresh in the memory are storms Ciara and Dennis in February 2020 with strong winds and heavy rain that caused significant damage to homes and commercial buildings. There is growing evidence that periods of intensely strong winds and heavy rain are likely to increase in the future.

The UK is not the only country affected by climate change. Many other countries are (and will be) suffering disproportionately. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned that we might have just 12 years to keep global warming at a maximum of 1.5°C. After this point, the risk of extreme weather conditions will significantly increase. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather will affect all but is most likely to bring catastrophic consequences in many less economically developed countries, where food shortages and water scarcity can trigger deep social changes.

Immediate radical action is required to limit carbon emissions, and the built environment industry can play a crucial role by changing the prevailing culture.

Most building-related carbon emissions are generated from energy use in buildings. However, there are choices that building owners/operators can make and initiatives that they can undertake to lessen the related negative impact on the environment:

In brand new buildings, the most effective way for addressing emissions is reducing consumption through energy efficient design. In existing buildings, the issue can be addressed by efficient retrofitting and effective maintenance strategy. Adopting renewable energy technologies in both cases can significantly reduce building emissions.

Steps building owners and operators can take today.

There are several initiatives/activities that can help building owners/operators combat climate change:

  • Consider ‘net-zero carbon’ targets for your building: UKGBC launched its Advancing Net Zero programme in 2018 and published the ‘Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition’ in 2019. The framework provides the construction industry with clarity on the outcomes required for a net zero carbon building.
  • Ensure the required outcomes for a ‘net-zero carbon’ building are achieved: As advised by UKGBC in the framework definition, initiatives like BSRIA Soft Landings should be adopted in new build as well as in refurbishment projects to ensure a net zero carbon building will be achieved. The BSRIA Soft Landings framework provides a platform for project teams to understand the required outcomes for their project and ensure all decisions made during the project are based on meeting those outcomes.
  • Maintain your net zero carbon building effectively: Business-focused maintenance is a methodology developed by BSRIA that can be adopted to help building operators maintain critical assets effectively and efficiently to sustain a net zero carbon building within budget.
  • Investigate failure quickly: Is the energy bill for your building higher than it should be? Investigate the problem as soon as you can. The first and easiest step would be looking at the energy end use breakdown to see which areas are using more energy than expected. If the issue is related to the HVAC system, check the system’s setting points and monitor the indoor air temperature and relative humidity. Thermal imaging of the fabric of the building can also help to identify, thermal bridging, missing/damaged insulation and areas of excessive air leakage.
  • Promote a healthy diet among building occupants: This is a non-technical initiative that building owners/operators can adopt in their buildings. Eating less meat and gradually shifting to more plant-based foods is vital for keeping us and our planet healthy.  It is important to think about initiatives such as using signage or lunchtime talks, to educate building occupants about healthy diets and encourage them to eat more fruit and vegetables. Research has shown that adhering to health guidelines on meat consumption could cut global food-related emissions by nearly a third by 2050. Healthy diet is also supported by Fitwel and the WELL building standard.

Building owners and operators, to play their role in combating climate change, should ensure their decisions and the way they create and run their buildings contribute positively to the wellbeing of our planet and its citizens.

So, make a start today and choose the first thing you are going to assess/change in your building to help combat climate change.

To find out more about how BSRIA can help you improve building performance, visit us here.

The wellbeing and environmental effects of agile working

by David Bleicher, BSRIA Publications Manager

How many times in the last few months have you started a sentence with “When things get back to normal…”? For those of us whose work mostly involves tapping keys on a keyboard, “normal” implies commuting to an office building five days a week and staying there for eight or more hours a day.

When lockdown restrictions were imposed, things that were previously unthinkable, such as working from home every day, conducting all our meetings by video call, and not having easy access to a printer, became “the new normal”.

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that changes to our work habits are possible – we don’t have to do things the way we’ve always done them. Since lockdown, agile working has been high on companies’ agendas; but agile working has a broader scope than flexible working. It is defined as “bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task.”

Working from home with a cat

The triple bottom line

Agile working is indeed about much more than changing people’s working hours and locations. It’s about how people work – becoming focused on the outcome rather than the process. It’s about making the best use of technology to achieve those outcomes and it’s also about reconfiguring workplaces to better suit the new ways of working. But, when considering these outcomes, we should be looking further than the financial bottom line. The term triple bottom line is a framework that also brings social and environmental aspects into consideration.

How, when and where people work has a major impact on their wellbeing. The past few months have served as an unintentional experiment in the wellbeing effects of mass home working. Some people are less stressed and more productive working from home, providing they have regular contact with their colleagues. Other people – particularly those who don’t have a dedicated home working space – returned to their offices as soon as it was safe to do so. It depends on the individual’s preferences, personal circumstances and the nature of the work they do.

On the face of it, it would seem that increased working from home or from local coworking spaces would be a win-win for the environment. Less commuting means fewer CO2 emissions and less urban air pollution. But a study by global consulting firm and BSRIA member, WSP, found that year-round home working could result in an overall increase in CO2 emissions.

In short, it reduces office air conditioning energy use in the summer, but greatly increases home heating energy use in the winter – more than offsetting carbon savings from reduced commuting. Perhaps what this highlights most is just how inefficient the UK’s housing stock is. If we all lived in low energy homes with good level insulation and electric heat pumps, the equation would be very different. Perhaps a flexible solution allowing home working in summer and promoting office working in winter would be best from an environmental perspective.

A possible long-term effect of increased home working is that some people may move further away from their offices. For example, someone might choose to swap a five-days-a-week 20 km commute for a one-day-a-week 100 km commute. If that is also a move to a more suburban or rural location with more scattered development, less public transport and fewer amenities within walking distance, then (for that individual at least) there’ll be an increased carbon footprint. Not very agile.

Impact of technology

There’s another aspect that may not yet come high up in public awareness. Remote working is dependent on technology – in particular, the video calls that so many of us have become adept at over the past few months. All this processing burns up energy. The effect on home and office electricity bills may be negligible because the processing is done in the cloud. This isn’t some imaginary, nebulous place. The cloud is really a network of data centres around the world, churning data at lightning speed and, despite ongoing efforts, still generating a whole lot of CO2 emissions in the process. Videoconferencing definitely makes sense from both an economic and environmental perspective when it reduces the need for business travel, but if those people would “normally” be working in the same building, isn’t it just adding to global CO2 emissions?

We don’t yet know what “the new normal” is going to look like. Undoubtedly, we’re going to see more remote working, but responsible employers should weigh up the pros and cons economically, environmentally and socially. Terminating the lease on an office building may seem like a sensible cost saving, but can a workforce really be productive when they never meet face-to-face? Does an activity that seemingly reduces CO2 emissions actually just increase emissions elsewhere? Any agile working solution must take all of these things into account, and not attempt a one-size-fits-all approach to productivity, environmental good practice and employee wellbeing.

For more information on how BSRIA can support your business with energy advice and related services, visit us here: BSRIA Energy Advice.

Acoustics in the workplace – What’s the “new normal”?

Rebecca Hogg
Acoustic Consultant, BSRIA

Wooden blocks spelling 'new normal'

There is no denying global events this year have turned every aspect of our lives upside down, and as we all start to try and get back to normal while lockdown restrictions ease, we realise it is a “new normal”.

Workplaces have changed, some almost unrecognisable from before, and there is a myriad of requirements to consider beyond the essential health and safety measures. Occupant wellbeing was a prominent consideration prior to lockdown, and this included provision of a good acoustic environment, but how are new COVID-secure workplaces affecting the acoustic environment?

For many years there have been acoustic standards and guidelines on internal noise levels in offices, determining sound power levels of building plant, and predicting the sound absorption of materials. Well designed open-plan offices have allowed large groups of people to collaborate and communicate effectively, and noise regulations have ensured factories and construction sites operate without disturbing neighbours.

In recent months, the workplace has been turned on its head. Following government guidelines many people began working from home. Suddenly the familiar hum of the workplace was replaced in some instances with squabbling children or impatient pets, and if you live alone maybe unwelcome silence replaced your usual face-to-face conversations.

As people are gradually allowed to return to a place of work, new COVID-secure offices have changed the acoustic environment. The installation of screens, the partitioning of open plan spaces, wearing of face coverings, and a lower level of occupancy have created acoustic challenges. For example, speech intelligibility is affected by the reverberation time of a space. Fewer people and more reflective materials, such as plastic screens, will decrease the sound absorption and increase the reverberation time, resulting in poorer speech intelligibility.

Building services have been specified, installed, and commissioned for a particular set up of a workplace layout and building occupancy. If a space is divided into individual offices to allow for social distancing, then the building services provision also needs to be reconsidered. Changing the control settings of a system will have an impact on the internal noise levels and subsequently on levels of occupant annoyance.

Not everyone works in an office, so, what about situation in different workplaces? Factories, shops, and construction sites have been redesigned to allow for social distancing, and often operating hours have been extended to allow for shift patterns, potentially increasing noise nuisance for neighbours.

In these environments the noise levels are also often higher and communication between people can therefore be harder. People working further away from each other and wearing face coverings will inhibit successful communication and influence performance, and if someone must shout to be heard does this have the potential to spread virus droplets further? There should also be consideration of the highly overlooked 12 million people in the UK who suffer from some level of hearing loss. Being unable to lip read because someone is wearing a face covering, or unable to hear the conversation over a bad video conferencing link is incredibly frustrating and isolating.

The acoustic challenges within a COVID-secure workplace may seem overwhelming but there are several simple solutions. Firstly, identify noise sources in the workplace and maintain them appropriately to minimise background noise.

Something as simple as cleaning filters inside a fan coil unit can increase airflow and capacity, meaning the fan speed can be reduced and subsequently the noise level.

Secondly, examine acoustic specifications of any new products being installed – ask to see test reports and consider how a new product could influence the acoustic environment.

Finally, consider the occupants of your workplace and how they use the space. Tailoring the acoustic environment to the needs of the occupants can increase productivity, decrease annoyance and overall improve the wellbeing of all. The focus on workplace safety is paramount, but long-term considering other design parameters, such as the acoustic environment, will ensure workplaces not only survive but thrive.

BSRIA acoustic experts publish guidance, and support our members and clients with a range of acoustic testing solutions. Read more about our UKAS-accredited laboratory for acoustic testing to BS EN ISO 3741, BS EN 12102 and BS EN ISO 354 here.

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