Low carbon retrofit takes the office power seat

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The Riba Journal

When one of the UK’s largest practices says the focus of its work in the office sector has shifted from newbuild to refurbishment, something is going on. It’s the government’s minimum energy efficiency standards, which require rented commercial properties to have an energy performance certificate (EPC) of at least B by 2030. With property consultant Savills calculating that 74% of UK offices are below B, the pressure is on to act to avoid assets becoming stranded. But other influences sit alongside that, including protests against high-profile demolition and rebuild plans, increased business focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria and hybrid ways of working.

British Council for Offices updates to its specifications and fit-out guides make what BCO president and Sheppard Robson partner Mark Kowal calls wholesale change to the metrics. They take into account net zero carbon (NZC) ambitions and post-pandemic hybrid working, and perhaps most controversially advocate reducing workplace density occupation criteria from 8m² per work setting and 80% utilisation to 10m² and 60%. ‘Saying you need more space for fewer people seems counter-intuitive, but over-populated buildings can’t perform to net zero carbon standards,’ explains Kowal.

But project design and delivery are no more straightforward. Lack of policy clarity on defining NZC buildings has left industry relying on proliferating industry tools and led a coalition including the RIBA to develop its own UK NZC Buildings Standard. Kowal says: ‘There’s frustration at so many bodies and accreditations. It’s a minefield to put them together to get to the right answer.’

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