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Four Ways That Offices Are Becoming More Sustainable 

While Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk scramble to colonize Mars, most of us here on Earth are contending with the reality that we’ve only got one planet to live on. The COVID-19 pandemic forced people around the world to realize that an impending health crisis can shift from a faraway abstract threat to an in-your-face reality fast, so it’s no wonder that people are now viewing the ongoing climate crisis with a increased sense of urgency. With this renewed awareness for their physical well-being, employees all over are beginning to realize that the climate crisis can directly impact their individual health, so they’re more willing to work in an office that strives for environmental sustainability.

NEXT Energy Technologies, which surveyed over 600 remote employees, senior managers, and C-suite decision-makers examined how employees want a healthier and more sustainable office once COVID-19 finally fades away (which hopefully will be very soon). “Employees,” the report says, “want the sustainable office of the future, and if they don’t get it, they’re willing to change jobs.” Sustainable practices in the office are no longer a fad, they’re now a tenable measure to coax employees back into the office, and office developers might be pleasantly surprised at the amount of cost-savings these measures can provide.

Biophilic design

It is not just the growing number of amature gardeners that want greenery, office employees are hankering for plants as well. Biophilia, or the rationale that humans have an innate desire to interact with nature, is a design trend that has risen in popularity thanks to its sustainability and the medley of health benefits it provides (such as lowered stress and increased cognition). The crux of biophilic design is that by incorporating natural elements into the aesthetic of a given space, the inhabitants of the space foster a stronger bond with nature, and thus begin to care more about the environment. It’s a nudge in the ecological sustainability direction.

Biophilic office design is more than plopping a houseplant into a cubicle, it’s a concept that has been acknowledged by the scientific and design sectors for decades, and by the general public for hundreds of years. Lush green spaces with abundant plants, water features, and natural materials not only provide a significant mood boost to the people who inhabit the space, it lowers a development’s carbon footprint and better regulates building temperatures.

Biophilic design has long been thought of as a luxury for property owners who want to provide the greatest possible working environment for their staff or who want to demonstrate their commitment to environmental stewardship. However, based on well-researched neurological and physiological evidence, bringing nature into the built environment is not a mere indulgence, but an investment in health and productivity that makes financial sense. Even small investments which involve very low up-front costs, such as providing employees access to ample daylight, natural views, and plants can provide healthy returns. For instance, “integrating quality daylighting schemes into an office space can save over $2,000 per employee per year in office cost,” according to a peer-reviewed paper by Terrapin Bright Green LLC. 

Integrating AI and IoT

Incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoT) into the workplace can aid in improving overall energy efficiency. In a virtual panel discussion about the Future of Workplaces, Jeremy Sheldon, JLL’s Head of Leasing in Asia Pacific explained that buildings today have “a whole plethora of systems for functions such as measuring air temperature, indoor air quality, traffic patterns, and space occupancy,” to generate an enormous amount of data which can lead to more efficient decision-making. 

AI gives the exclusive advantage of providing a building manager or property owner with the means to tailor building systems to meet sustainability goals. That efficient decision-making Sheldon was referring to can include drastically reducing energy consumption by automating a building’s HVAC system to make continuous adjustments to keep temperatures in a predetermined range depending on the time of day, outside temps, and the number of people in a given space. In another example, AI systems can offer a better understanding of how much light is required for a given space and how long it needs to be on for. 

Smart windows

One of the fundamentals of environmentally sustainable design is to work from the outside in, improve the structure before tuning the space. Substituting energy efficient smart glazing windows for inefficient glazing parts of buildings has a lot of promise to reduce energy consumption for lighting and temperature management. Because of that, the smart window is one of the most essential design aspects of today’s sustainable building envelope. 

Smart windows which use a glazing of millions of micromirrors can adjust their tint based on cloud cover and sun angle, allowing more light in while decreasing heat and glare. Not only that, they can lessen the heavy-lifting of the building’s HVAC system by directing solar radiation into the room they are built into. In the summer, if there’s no one present in the room, the smart window switches up to keep the solar heat out of the space. When the smart window does sense people in the room, the glazing in the windows reflects the daylight into the ceiling, effectively keeping the room both illuminated and cool. In the wintertime, smart windows shift to radiation heaters, reflecting solar heat throughout the room to lower heating costs. When the smart window detects a person in the room during the colder months, it continues reflecting radiation to heat the room, but points it at the ceiling to minimize the glare.

While property managers and owners can smile at the amount of money and energy they can save by investing in smart windows, employees will also be pleased. Dr. Alan Hedge, a professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University, found that exposure to natural light, which smart windows are designed to maximize more so than traditional windows, can reduce headaches by 63 percent, drowsiness by 56 percent, and eye strain by 51 percent. While employee comfort may seem irrelevant when it comes to sustainability, there’s a consistent correlation between eco-conscious measures and increased worker productivity. Frankly, it’s probably the best argument for implementing sustainable practices. 

Recycling wastewater

Recycling wastewater (or “blackwater”) may not sound appealing at first, but it’s gaining traction as a sustainability practice in commercial office development. As surprising as this one may sound, six in ten employees would prefer a universal adoption of 100 percent water recycling in offices, according to a survey conducted by JLL

Commercial buildings generally use a massive amount of water, and toilet water alone takes up around 63 percent of office building’s water consumption. Recycled wastewater for non-potable use (like industrial processes, irrigation, and, yes, toilet flushes) has been shown to be an efficient and effective method of generating a new and reliable water supply without endangering public health, and will only become more popular in the future. 

Recycling wastewater can involve a complex filtration process that includes microorganisms which feed on the organic matter in the wastewater, a series of filters to remove pollutants, and UV light to destroy contaminants. As this is a relatively new advent for commercial buildings, there are significant up-front costs with installing equipment that can treat the wastewater, the long-term cost and energy savings are well worth the expense. Recycling wastewater on-site saves money and energy by reducing the expense of pumping and transporting water to be treated elsewhere. More importantly, reusing water within buildings reduces the strain on city water supplies. 

The initiative of water recycling in offices is becoming an increasingly popular sustainability initiative as well as a wise hedge against rising costs and water shortages in the event of persisting droughts. One of the more recent examples of offices opting to recycle wastewater is the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, which uses a network of pipes to filter the dirty water generated by the structure’s daily activities and return it as clean, non-potable water for toilets and drip irrigation. By doing so, Salesforce’s goal of cutting their corporate water use in half is becoming more of a reality.

The pandemic was not the cause of the demand for sustainable offices, but it definitely accelerated it. Offices are becoming greener, not just in response to increased pressure on businesses to fulfill their commitments to sustainability and net-zero carbon emissions, but because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it’s a solid tactic to attract new talent.

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