A lot of offices designed pre-recession and waiting to be built won’t meet the toughest environmental standards. Once we start building again, we have to aim higher

In the years preceding the recession, the design of new office space was defined by the creation of stunning, visually stimulating buildings. Statement architecture on a significant scale prevailed: 122 Leadenhall, Swiss Re’s HQ, the Shard and the Pinnacle, each designed by “starchitects”.

As consumers, we are inexplicably drawn to the most attractive product on offer. So during more buoyant times we longed to own the most beautiful buildings, as opposed to the functional, which may have been perceived as ugly. Such opulent statements attracted high rents and huge returns on investment. Our attitudes towards buildings as symbols of extravagance and wealth may have been tempered by the economic downturn, but arguably these developments are now seen to offer great potential - and even value - in providing sustainable, flexible and efficient office space and as such are likely to continue to dominate our skyline.

Developers have had to comply with building regulations not because of any obvious business advantage, but simply in order to get planning permission

But what of the impact of the encroaching tough legal standards? The awareness of the threat caused by global warming is now greater than ever. A host of new regulations over the past few years, including Part L, Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) and the London Plan, are forcing change.

Building regulations have been introduced to make glass and walls more thermally efficient. Developers have had to comply with these regulations not because of any obvious business advantage, but simply in order to get planning permission.

In parallel with these legislative changes, we have increasingly seen the effects of climate change in the news, with rising numbers of reports of natural disasters such as droughts and flooding. It is safe to say that climate change has finally entered the public consciousness and there is a greater understanding that we cannot continue to waste precious resources.

From October this year, the key changes to Part L (conservation of fuel and power) of the Building Regulations came into effect. Its target is to reduce building CO2 emissions by some 25% compared to the 2006 target. The construction industry will face a considerable challenge in meeting these new targets for commercial buildings. Additionally, all buildings will now have to undergo solar gain tests, which will place limits on glazing type and height. It is likely that 50% glazing will become the new norm.
What does this mean for our current building stock? Ninety-five per cent of existing buildings have an energy performance rating of “E”, “F” or “G”. The government has stated that it will not occupy any new accommodation with an EPC rating below “C” - regardless of whether it is newly developed or an existing building. Many new buildings that already have planning permission have an estimated EPC rating below a “C”, so over the next few years, there will be a potential disconnect with the changing market requirements.

Significant reductions in glazing are now needed to achieve the targets set out by Part L. For the brave few that consider the benefits of mixed-mode ventilation, the result will be a substantial decrease in the building’s energy consumption. In contrast to a lot of new and proposed buildings, a number of yesterday’s buildings are very well-placed for tomorrow.

I believe that when development starts again no developer will set out to build “C” or “D” rated buildings. “A” or “B” will be a minimum starting point. Much of the new stock that was designed just before the recession has been awarded planning permission and is waiting to be built. If these are modern, fully glazed with sealed facades and complex MEP systems, they will almost certainly be “D” rated, unless significant effort was made during the original design to reduce energy use.

How will these iconic or indeed, fairly standard, buildings stand up in terms of future asset-value? Have we reached a tipping point?

Nick Offer is a director at Arup and sits on the British Council for Offices research committee