Time to rethink the office, how it is lit and how we buy it

Bob Bohannon, President of the Society of Light & Lighting, looks at an post-Covid office that is better designed and better lit, sustainable both in its operation and in its procurement

Many reading this article will be working from home, proof positive of humankind’s innate ability to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances – in this case the risks of coronavirus transmission. The economic shock from lockdown has prompted the need to stimulate the economy, however rather than seek to merely regain ‘business as usual’, the call has been to Build Back Better – restabilising our future economy on much more sustainable lines.

The office is changing, sustainability is more important to the investment decision and this is increasingly reflected in The Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB) rating, tenant decisions and the need for corporate social responsibility. The government has adopted a target of 2050 to reach Net Zero carbon emissions. The popularity of working from home, the time (and C02) saved from not commuting will have large impacts on office use and office design. It is widely thought that many offices will becomes hubs and meeting zones, places where the crucial networking and organisation culture are exchanged, but with much work done from home.

The government is calling for a doubling of resource productivity by the year 2050. This requires changes in luminaire construction (for example replaceable drivers to ensure extended service life and reusable bodies), but also changes in procurement and application.

The past is a foreign country – they did things differently then
When we look back it often surprises us what poor building performance figures we accepted, the obvious example is the tungsten light bulb with its abysmal energy efficiency, the low energy compact fluorescent lamp alternative had its drawbacks, but now everybody’s go to technology is the LED. However we still regularly accept a similarly questionable standard practice in our office procurement. The CAT A fit out.

In the UK, a very large proportion of offices are speculative developments, built before the end occupant is either identified or consulted on their needs. Some in the development and real estate sectors consider that to let out the building, every office floor must be fully fitted out with ceilings and lighting – known as the CAT A fit out. If you do not know the client, what they do or where they will sit, then the lighting design becomes dangerously simple – light everything, a blanket 400 lux wall-to-wall, corner to corner, so that the bin in the corner gets the same amount of light as a prime desk top.

The ’carpet bombing’ approach was sold as being energy efficient, and indeed lighting has been well in advance of many building services in terms of energy efficiency improvements. With the migration to LED over the last five-10 years, lighting has focussed on output efficiency (the energy efficacy of the luminaire itself) – i.e. a product led strategy. Improvements in luminaire efficacy are now suffering diminishing returns whilst scheme quality has been compromised, the resultant schemes are bland, boring and unpopular.

The problem arises when the tenant moves in and not unreasonably wishes to arrange the space according to their own organisational objectives. The result is that very often a new and almost unused lighting scheme is thrown straight in the skip, with the likely destination of the near new light fittings the shredder for raw material recycling. If they do not rearrange the lighting, but do install acoustic partitions or cellular offices the occupier will quickly find that some areas fall below British Standards or Society of Light & Lighting minima – as an employer you are now at risk.

CAT A was conceived at a time when there was not the widespread investor interest in sustainability, energy and carbon metrics that we have today. The CAT A paradigm can, indeed must, now itself be consigned to the skip and revisited to better align with current regulatory, sustainability and investment requirements.

Time for a rethink
Ellen MacArthur broke the world for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005. Her bravery and talent to overcome the challenges are a given, but the journey gave her an insight. All the supplies to successfully complete a round-the-world sailing race were loaded onto her boat before setting sail - there would be no opportunity to gain more resources after that, they would just have to be used wisely. Her insight was that our planet is the same; our resources are limited. She went on to launch the influential Ellen MacArthur foundation in 2010 promoting the progression to a Circular Economy.

The logical way to release further energy savings is to move to a delivery efficiency focus, i.e. a design led approach where target task light levels are focused on the desk, with visual comfort guaranteed by pro-rata lighting of the floor, walls and ceiling. Purpose designed schemes lend themselves to correctly zoned and commissioned control systems, ensuring that the lighting is only on when and where needed.

A net zero carbon building is a highly energy efficient building that is fully powered by on-site and/or off-site renewable energy sources and offsets. Unpacking the first half of that definition – the lighting system must minimise carbon in both construction, operation and whole life cycle.

Carbon is emitted, and energy and raw materials resources are embodied into a light fitting at manufacture, delivery and installation. Following the principles of the Circular Economy, this embodied energy and resources can be used more efficiently by lengthening the useful operating life of the fitting – short working lives have the opposite effect.

Sustainable lighting procurement that works with all stakeholders
End clients are calling for a Net Zero ‘label’ for their investments and nobody is investing in non-green schemes, but many are not yet ready to embrace what true net zero actually builds out as and there will likely be resistance. We must thus offer practical ways to build that better future, which fit with the corporate objectives of all stakeholders in the building supply chain.
The guidance below suggests how the developer can move further towards net zero carbon buildings and be cost neutral whilst delivering a higher quality space, all the time observing circular economy principles and reducing waste and improving sustainability. If we do fewer CAT A fit outs we’ll achieve more of these things.

The GRESB comments: “… forward-thinking organisations identify the linear economy as a risk to their bottom line and as such are changing their business models to reduce exposure by adopting [Circular Economy] CE principles. However, it is a challenge to remain competitive when faced with prevailing economic structures, regulation and standards serving short-term linear business models.”

The following attempts to meet that challenge, working within the industry’s commercial interests whist delivering improvements in low carbon performance, circular economy compliance and waste reduction, and comfortable and effective office lighting:

  1. Minimise any barriers to letting – build out a show floor with finished zones displaying different lighting and ceiling options. The rest of the building is core and floor, the CAPex saved from the CAT A scheme, is held in escrow ‘pot’ and is offered back to tenants to create their fit-for-purpose ceiling/lighting scheme.
  2. Developer win – they deliver client choice and can be demonstrably greener when letting.
  3. Contractor win - the tenant scheme could still be delivered by the main/electrical contractor so no work is lost, plus the potential exists to upsell.
  4. Agent Win – Whilst the agent still has the show floor to demonstrate a lit space, they can also now let and sell spaces that are more environmentally responsible and potentially more aligned to the WELL standard, which many clients are now asking for.
  5. Tenant win – they gain a purpose designed scheme to suit their organisation.
  6. End user win – the lighting for their task is designed for them and their task, it will be more suited to their job and will typically be healthier.
  7. Planet win - no CAT A Fit Out scheme is scrapped bar the demonstration zones.

Have a good look at the future
So let us imagine that our post-Covid office is not just smaller, but now better designed and better lit for its use and is sustainable both in its operation and in its procurement. But what might it look like? The Swedish government is already questioning the ubiquitous recessed 600x600 LED panel as a source of bland and visually uncomfortable spaces. Research shows that most space users prefer direct-indirect schemes and some control over their space. Moving the lighting design on from an overly simplified task surface allows more consideration of lighting for people.

A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution and keeping products and materials in use. From an office lighting perspective, this suggests not disposing or replacing fittings before end of useful life, extending useful life by ensuring components can be replaced or upgraded (particularly the driver within the LED fitting), setting in place supporting maintenance, warranty or lighting as a service structures, reusing redundant fittings elsewhere and ensuring fittings can be readily dismantled into component parts and materials.

Our objective is to combine effective working plane lighting within a visually comfortable space whilst achieving environmental sustainability over whole scheme life. By taking a holistic and intelligent approach to lighting design, the energy savings made in other areas of a scheme allow a ‘carbon budget’ for some ‘feature’ lighting which hugely benefits people’s emotional response to the office space.

The Society of Light & Lighting (SLL) publishes guidance and codes which are internationally recognised as authoritative and sets the criteria for best practice in the lighting profession. SLL is a division of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE).

For more information about the Society please visit www.sll.org.uk

The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) is a source of expertise for sustainable buildings, harnessing its members’ skills and knowledge to raise competence across the industry. CIBSE is a Licensed Institution of EC (UK).

More details are available at www.cibse.org

Bob Bohannon, MSc. FSLL, MIET, is a leading member of the UK’s lighting design and consultancy community with recognised expertise in major and heritage projects, innovation and sustainability. He is also a University tutor teaching Lighting Design.