The latest British Council for Offices specification is the leanest and greenest yet

The office developments of the future will need to meet toughening legal standards governing their environmental performance and deal with the rapidly changing needs of occupiers as they adjust to changes in work practices.

That is the message that the British Council for Offices is sending through the publication this year of its office specification guide - a document that appears every four years and has become the industry standard in how office developments should be designed, built and valued.

Since the last guide was published in 2005, a raft of environmental legislation introduced by the European Union has come into force in the United Kingdom. Energy Performance Certificates and Energy Display Certificates are now a reality for landlords and occupiers, whose buildings can now be judged for their impact on the environment.

The last four years have also witnessed the rapid decline of the United Kingdom economy. This means that finically pressed occupiers are cutting back on staff and space and wanting to use the premises they have more efficiently. This means the issue of occupancy costs is once again at the forefront of a developer's mind when they are looking for tenants.

Neil Pennell, director of project engineering at Land Securities and a director of the board of management at BCO, says the revised guide will reflect the growing influence of environmental legislation on the property industry.

"If you look at the timing of the last guide in 2005 there was a lot of legislation that was about to come through and there was a lot of talk about what those requirements would probably contain and what they might mean," says Pennell. "What we've had since then is a period of time where we have been using those requirements as well as the other aspects of the Energy Performance of Building Directive has come in. We've lived through four years of implementing those requirements and understand their impact on design, at the same time there has been a driver for the quality of design to be improved."

Climate change has now become accepted wisdom and the government is looking towards the developers of new buildings and landlords of existing assets to assist in cutting carbon emissions. Real estate is responsible for 40% of the UK's total emissions.

"There has been a growing realisation that our energy policy needs to be reviewed," reflects Pennell. "There is climate change on one hand and then there is energy security on the other. Buildings are big part of that and are responsible for getting on for half of the UK's emissions."

The guide will deal with bringing developments into line with the new legal structure and the standards that refurbished buildings should also attain. "Both the built asset base and the new buildings are affected," he says. "The focus has been on new buildings, but there has to be a growing attention on the built base. That will happen over the next few years and that's where the focus is moving, especially when the amount of new development is slowing down as well."

The spectre of climate change looms large in the latest BCO specification. It sets out that the adaptability and flexibility of buildings will have to increase so they can cope with hotter and longer summers, and colder and wetter summers. In short, they need to be able to deal with the extremes - a perennial problem for the United Kingdom's infrastructure, which was designed for more benign weather conditions rather than plummeting winter temperatures and heavy snowfall, coupled with summers that would rival the French Riviera.

"The envelopes - the glass and skin of a building - will have to work harder," says Pennell. "We all like to have a great view and see daylight, which also offsets the use of artificial light which saves energy. On the other hand it can let in the sun which creates a lot of heat to deal with, particularly in commercial buildings."

Such considerations have implications for the development of statement architecture, which have typically been glass towers, such as the Gherkin in the City of London and the Shard at London Bridge. Pennell says there will need to be a more pragmatic approach in the future.

"You can still get a good solution to this in building with glass," he says. "What you need to do is use it in combination with solar shading, and other solid materials. There will be a greater emphasis on slightly less glazing in buildings than perhaps we have seen in the past. The key is making it perform in the high temperature conditions. Less glazing is an equally valid solution, but the trade-off is you then need more artificial light."

In the intervening years between the last BCO guide, the economic climate for those who will use it has changed beyond recognition. Since those heady days of 2007 when the champagne flowed recklessly at MIPIM in Cannes, the outlook has deteriorated with unprecedented pace.

BCO 2008 occupancy density survey

While developers have born the brunt and have had to mothball projects, the recession has forced occupiers to re-think how they use their space. Pennell says the guide advocates that work practices have moved away from a hierarchical structure - where bosses sat in offices and workers sat in cubicles toiling away - to more open plan structures. This is even true for the more traditional firms such as accountants, financial services firms and lawyers.

This means that space is being used much more intensively by occupiers that have a knock-on effect to office design.

"There is no doubt there has been an intensification in use of buildings and a general movement from different styles of office working," says Pennell. "In the past working practices were more regimented and hierarchical. These have now been broken down and the environment is now much more knowledge driven to create value from the staff in the building."

This change, says Pennell, has led to "open plan, interaction space", which is proving a challenge, particularly if buildings are to be refurbished. 'A building that could support cellular layout was a driver in the past,' he says. "Now it still has to be recognised that it could be part of a requirement, but predominantly when people fit out space they want open plan with all the supporting space they need."

Research carried out by the BCO to be included in the guide shows that the amount of space each employee uses in a building has dramatically fallen. In the last decade, it stood generally between 12-17m² per person. Today, it is closer to 8-13m² per person. "There has been a significant shift," says Pennell. "There are more people in the same space. It is a cost of occupancy issue. The users of space want efficiency out of what they lease and buy. It was always important and it is important now."

Alongside the obvious economic considerations, particularly during a time of recession, Pennell says there have also been changes in attitudes by employers. They now believe workers will be more productive in office spaces conducive to the free exchange of ideas.

"There's been an evolution in the way we work. When you move away from one type of layout you can fit more people into that space," he says. "If you move from cellular type and hierarchical structures and use a more open plan working, that is better for sharing information and getting people to work together and releasing the intelligence. We are no longer in a production office where rows of people type out invoices all day long. That is now done by computers. The actual value comes from workers producing new ideas and new products going forward."

Technology has also played it part in the direction that office design and specification will take. The war on paper has taken a decisive turn in recent years as more offices become reliant on IT. The in and out trays have been replaced by the PCs and the laptops.

This has led to two consequences. One, workers generally need less office space to do their work. Second, while the amount of paper may have fallen, the power levels that needed to be available in the building to run the office technology has had to increase.

"The accepted wisdom was that we can't have intensified the people in the space without the same happening in technology," says Pennell. "You go into some areas of working where people have got two or three screens in front of them, or a trading floor where a dealer is looking at five screens. But if the technology becomes more efficient, we could see power levels starting to drop away. The flip side is we could see another technology must-have enter the office environment which takes it the other way - it is very difficult to know."

While the atmosphere at the BCO conference this week in Edinburgh may be more subdued than in previous times, the once constant has been the emergence of the Specification Guide. This year it is published amid a market tumult. But as in previous incarnations, it will set the agenda for the next several years.

The US office is still a mad world

Mad Men TV

The American television series Mad Men now showing on BBC2 offers an insight into New York office life in the early sixties, complete with chain-smoking, rampant alcoholism and institutional sexism.

Yet it also offers an insight into present day working practices in the United States that will be brought to light in a significant piece of research carried out by the British Council for Offices and to be published next month.

The report - The next generation of global cities: pointers for successful economies - analyses office specification standards in London, New York, Abu Dhabi, Bangalore, Moscow and Shanghai.

Among its findings is that the use of office space in the United States is far less efficient in the UK because of the highly rigid management structures like those portrayed in Mad Men.

"Mad Men is a very good example of some of the issues that are still inherent today in the way office space is utilised in the United States," says Richard Kauntze, chairman of the BCO. "You have an established hierarchy where the most senior people get the biggest offices with windows and the secretaries sitting outside the door. Those that are further down the food chain are packed in, sometimes in windowless rooms. Not much has changed in that regard in the United States over the last four decades."

These types of office layout are increasingly being rejected in the UK. In April, Stephen Hester, the chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, ordered his senior directors to give up their office suits and “go back to the floor”. The bank's executive wing at its Edinburgh headquarters is being knocked down.

The BCO research found that a standard office specification - part of everyday life in UK development - is largely an alien concept in other parts of the world. A key finding is that there is no definition of Grade A office space that helps international occupiers choose in which international city they should sign up for leases.

"You would think it was an obvious thing, but what comprises Grade A office space differs depending on where you are in the world," says Kauntze. "This makes it very difficult for occupiers to benchmark what they should be expecting."

The report will show that there is potential for the BCO specification guide to be expanded internationally. "It would be very difficult to have an international standard in that a building in Moscow has to withstand different extremes of temperatures than a building in New York," says Kauntze. "But there may be areas where some form of international standard may be possible."

BCO Specification Guide at a glance

The previous Specification used an average occupancy density of 12-17 m² per person as the basis of design, the new research has found workplace densities of 8-13 m² per person.

The new Specification interprets the impacts of these two different measures on many of the key parameters that drive office design.

Wider adoption of flexible working patterns has been made possible through advances in workplace technology.

Modern offices are highly dependant on IT systems to drive the business functions. Base building design has to be flexible and adaptable to meet the demands of different user requirements and how these may change during their tenure in the building. The Specification provides the user with a path through the maze of trying to design for the unknown.

As carbon reduction targets start to bite and as corporate social responsibility rises up the boardroom agenda the environmental impact of buildings will grow in importance as a differentiator and value driver. The new Specification explains how to design sustainability into all aspects of the built form.

Buildings account for about 40% of the worlds energy use and in the UK are responsible for approximately 50% of national carbon emissions. Commercial office buildings produce a significant part of these emissions. In the future mandatory carbon budgets will have far reaching effects on building design.

In the 2008 budget the Government set aspirational targets for zero carbon new non domestic buildings by 2019.