Insights 1st June 2021 building automation

When it’s safe for offices to play host to occupiers once more, there are positive signs of appetite to return. One study shows that 65% of the UK workforce are planning a return in June, with two thirds expecting to be back by July.

If the next few months are likely to bring a steady flow of employees back into offices, the onus is on business owners, and landlords, to increase focus on employee health, which means creating healthier workplaces. While employers may find it easier to encourage staff to return to the workplace with promises of hybrid working, increased hygiene and socially distanced desks, ventilation will also feature highly on the list of employee concerns.

Although government ad campaigns have encouraged opening windows at home to let in fresh air to dissipate Covid germs – this is not always possible, or advisable, in the workplace. In urban environments where air pollution on the street outside is above safe levels, opening a window will let in untreated air and vehicle exhaust fumes, exposing occupants to particulate matter (composed of black carbon, sulphate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, and mineral dust). This poses health risks of its own, because particles travel into lungs and the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Harness the power of technology for healthier workplaces

For occupiers to leave their homes and gardens to come back into an office, building owners require data to be confident in their ability to offer clean environments. The quest for this data and the need to make healthier workplaces has prompted many landlords to harness the power of technology. Forward-thinking developments such as UV light air purification, touchless fixtures and hi-tech filters in ventilation systems are becoming more and more common.

The UK government has included proposals on how to improve ventilation in its consultation on the future of building regulations. Under the plans, offices would have to use ventilation systems that can provide fresh air at 50% higher rates than the existing minimum standards, although many have exceeded the building regulation requirements for years.

But the drive to healthier workplaces doesn’t necessarily mean overhauling or replacing HVAC systems. Smart building technology platforms can analyse and optimise existing systems to modernise existing buildings. Intelligent building operating systems, such as Workman’s IBOS, work via remote connectivity to monitor all occupier comfort factors, such as air quality, lighting, safety and emergency systems around the clock, with built-in alarms and notifications.

IBOS enables accurate and robust data, so that occupiers can understand the temperature and air quality levels in their section of the building. It creates cleaner air by informing building managers exactly when to replace air conditioning filters, for example. Rather than arbitrarily replacing filters twice a year, these can be replaced on an as-needs basis, whether that is once a year or six times.

With a much higher degree of control, IBOS allows building owners to address the issue of office air quality by taking advantage of technology to measure carbon dioxide – and other chemical pollutant levels – and make necessary adjustments. And, because it takes a lot more energy to push air through a dirty filter than a clean filter, savings are made in terms of cost and carbon.

Healthy workplaces are key to the mental and physical health of employees. There are also gains to be made in productivity, especially since the post-lunch slump – when CO2 levels are at their peak – can be avoided by programming IBOS to boost air circulation around this time of day.

Different sections of the building can benefit from increased levels of ventilation, depending on the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. This also applies to heating and cooling, which can be controlled at granular levels, according to numbers and demographics of people using individual areas of the building.

Mind the workplace gender data gap

Of course, not all employees are equal. There is a gender data gap in the workplace, with office temperatures and chemical analysis being largely based on male data rather than a combination of both female and male data. The 2019 book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Design for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez, shows that the formula to determine a standard office temperature was developed in the 1960s around the metabolic resting rate of the average man. But a recent Dutch study found that the metabolic rate of young adult females performing light office work is significantly lower than the standard values for men doing the same activity. In fact, the formula may overestimate female metabolic rate by as much as 35%, meaning that current offices are on average five degrees too cold for women.

These differences also apply to the quality of air itself, because men and women have different immune systems and hormones, which can play a role in how chemicals are absorbed. Women tend to be smaller than men and have thinner skin, both of which can lower the level of toxins they can be safely exposed to.

For workplaces to be truly smart, and operate at safe levels for all, data around the needs of employees needs to be collected from groups reflective of today’s workforce, not just the male contingent.

Healthy buildings mean healthy income

In the meantime, data afforded by IBOS gives landlords better insight into how they can improve the environment and the wellbeing of occupiers. Rules can be set within the system to reduce imbalances across an office as well as optimising energy use, while also keeping everybody as happy and comfortable as possible within their specific area of the office.

There are significant bottom-line gains to be made. Buildings certified as healthy attract rents between 4.4% and 7.7% more per square foot than their nearby non-certified peers, according to The Financial Impact of Healthy Buildings‘, research conducted in December 2020 by the MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab. The increased financial impact of buildings certified by schemes such as Fitwel or Well, is independent of all other factors, including building age, renovation, lease duration. Healthy buildings are seen as an asset associated with occupier wellbeing and productivity.

In the wake of the pandemic, the premium for healthy spaces is likely to increase. By deploying technological solutions like IBOS, building owners can keep occupiers safe from Covid, while providing healthier and therefore more attractive workplaces, on-demand.

By Vicky Cotton, Head of ESG, Workman and James Hallworth, Senior Associate, Building Technology Lead, Workman

Read more about Workman’s IBOS, the key to delivering smart buildings.

Read more about Workman’s IBOS, as reported by EG.