1 November, 2019

The aim of the British Council for Offices (BCO) Guide to Specification’ is to define best practice for the design of office buildings and workspace. It is typically updated every five years; the most recent update was launched at the BCO Conference in Copenhagen in June this year.

As well as drawing on the expertise of BCO membership, this update takes on board evidence-based research from the BCO on trends like cycling, agile working, occupational densities, as well as the output from major studies into workplace productivity, and health and wellness. It also reflects current developments and drivers for change in working practices and technological advancement. Indeed, to reflect our increasingly digital age, this is the first time it has been made available as an interactive electronic version.

The most significant shift is thematic as it now echoes the accepted thinking that the workplace is less about property and more about space that brings people together and enables them to do their best work. In a nutshell there is a definite focus on people, the workplace experience and wellbeing as a catalyst for creativity and productivity.

Just over a week before the 2019 BCO Guide to Specification was launched, a book written by a sixteen-year-old Swedish Nobel Peace Prize nominee, called no one is too small to make a difference (Penguin 2019) was published. It brings together eleven key speeches made by climate change activist, Greta Thunberg, focusing on the current climate emergency. This is arguably the most critical issue of our time, and with real estate having such a massive impact on climate, it’s likely to have a significant impact on future editions of the Guide.

The current version already includes a chapter devoted to sustainability, significantly noting the current gap between design intention and performance in use as one of the single most important and immediate issues for the industry. 

Its the end of the world as we know itHistorically, the spotlight on reducing carbon has been focused on meeting the increasingly demanding requirements of Building Regulations, Part L, rather than addressing the amount of energy a building consumes during operation. The BCO’s key criteria and the widely adopted sustainability benchmarks, like BREEAM, have been successful in targeting this and will continue to do so. For example, the current BCO Guide includes an appendix that provides practical solutions aimed at achieving low and zero carbon installations across a range of building services elements, such as solar water heating and photovoltaics.

As a result of the greater understanding of the performance gap, it is likely that the drive towards achieving low and zero operational carbon will receive increased attention in the next edition of the Guide. For example, BCO could require the completion of CIBSE TM54 operational modelling to understand anticipated operational energy consumption. This might not be such a stretch because it has already been introduced in BREEAM 2018.

Another influence on the next edition of the Guide will be Net Zero Carbon. Especially, as the C40 Cities (a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change, including London, New York, LA, Paris and Frankfurt), have committed to the Net Zero Carbon Declaration which seeks to achieve:

  • 100% of new buildings to be designed as net zero carbon by 2025
  • 100% new buildings to operate as net zero carbon by 2030
  • 100% of buildings to operate net zero carbon by 2050

Currently the BCO key criteria, part of the BCO Guide to Specification against which buildings are often assessed by prospective tenants and investors, does not set specific standards for embodied carbon, other than indirectly by reference to BREEAM.

It seems however inevitable that the carbon used in the extraction of raw materials, transport to the factory, in manufacture, in use and repair and subsequent removal and disposal from site is a significant focus and will be for some time yet.

As overall operational carbon emissions fall, embodied carbon will become the most significant remaining challenge; it will become the focus of more aggressive regulation, guidance and sustainability targets.

The first challenge for us will be defining what net zero carbon means, as there is currently no clear definition accepted across the industry. Initial steps have been taken. For example, the World Green Building Council defines a net zero carbon building as highly energy efficient and fully powered from on-site and/or off-site renewable energy sources. The UK Green Building Council has also launched a task force to produce an industry definition for net zero carbon buildings in the UK.

Where this will take us will be interesting to say the least. New materials and methods of construction will likely emerge. Setting aside for a moment the investment model that underpins the development of most commercial workspace, perhaps the most compelling paradox will be this; will it be better for the planet to build very light, simple, almost improvised structures that can be disassembled and reused easily, or to focus on building once and for the very long term with enough inherent flexibility to allow our buildings to last indefinitely. In 2025 and beyond, BCO may have to make this judgment.