Imagine buildings that can sense where its inhabitants are, what their schedule is at a given time of day, and direct them to spots that are most productive for their tasks.
These buildings are not in a distant future; in fact, one such smart building is already making global headlines in green design.
The Edge, an innovative office building in Zuidas, the financial centre of Amsterdam, features, among other things, 4,100 square meters of rooftop solar panels and ethernet-powered LED lighting.
Completed in 2015 by London-based PLP Architecture, The Edge was awarded the highest rating (of 98.36) ever recorded by the Building Research Establishment (BRE), a United Kingdom-based research centre.
The mind behind The Edge is architect Ron Bakker, founding partner of PLP Architecture.
In a recent interview with Eco-Business, Bakker shares that sustainability is no longer simply about conserving energy and resources, but is also about building quality infrastructure that creates a better environment for people.
As one-third of people’s adult lives is spent in the workplace, “office buildings should be attractive; they are not purely functional places to work,” he adds.
In devising a green building nowadays, constructing it with materials that are least detrimental to the environment is pretty much the baseline, says Bakker.
But a truly smart building should know, say, where daylight is best and comfort is optimal at any given moment, as proper control of sunlight entering the building (which warms it up) will help companies save on the electricity required to cool it down.
This is a particularly pertinent idea for buildings in Singapore, a tropical, Equator-skimming city-state where average temperatures hover around 30 degrees Celsius, and whose population treats air-conditioning—a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions—as a basic human right.
“The equation is simple,” says Bakker. “Sunlight is bad, but daylight is good”.
Learning from the edge
Bakker is scheduled to speak at the International Green Building Conference, themed “Build Green: The Next Decade”, in Singapore on September 8.
Some key messages he plans to share include the importance of using smart technologies in buildings; how and why The Edge is a successful model for green offices around the world; and above all, why considering people’s needs is paramount in the approach to sustainable architecture and design.
“The Edge is a very smart building that uses technology as much as possible,” explains the Dutch-born architect. The building knows exactly what is happening throughout the day, such as what the temperature is and where the people are concentrated, he adds. Therefore, it can respond in a very agile manner to the conditions at any time of the day.
At the same time, people are connected to the building through their smartphones via a mobile application they can use to find workspaces suitable for a specific task, be it conducting a meeting, taking a phone call, or quietly reading a 100-page document.
The freedom to choose from a wide range of seating arrangements works particularly well for a company like professional services powerhouse Deloitte, which is The Edge’s main tenant, says Bakker.
The firm’s consultants are typically at their desks only 30 to 35 per cent of their time, and The Edge’s seating availability allows about 3,000 people work in just 1,100 spaces.
“The principle is, you use the available space as intensively as possible, as efficiently as possible. If you don’t need it, don’t build it. You can [focus instead on building] better quality spaces,” notes Bakker.
In fact, he also believes that this thoughtful approach to office architecture should happen at the city level, especially in Singapore, a city that thrives on high density and efficient use of land.
“People are not given enough [opportunities to view the built environment] as a high quality part of their lifestyle, so a real challenge for densely-populated cities is to create a high quality of life and enjoyment,” explains Bakker.
“As cities get more dense, [developers and designers need to] talk to people about their work, how they work, and what their aspirations are,” he notes.
“We increasingly find that the most important part of an office building is not so much the workspace itself, but its location in the city, its entrance, and its identity,” adds Bakker.
The economics of going green
Of course, investing in sustainability solutions does not come cheap, acknowledges Bakker. But he argues that the economic rewards of making buildings smarter and more efficient come from more avenues than those visible on an income statement.
“Most of the money spent on sustainability is carefully considered in terms of the amount of time the investment pays back,” says Bakker. “So if you’re going to save energy by making things more energy efficient, you can calculate the number of years it will take for a return on the investment.”
My main message is that yes, sustainability is important, but it has to make places better; it’s to do with people and enjoyment and prosperity.
Ron Bakker, partner, PLP Architecture
Another intangible benefit is productivity per person per hour, which Bakker notes is much higher in places like Scandinavia and the Netherlands—renowned for their emphasis on sustainable business and lifestyles—where people work 35-hour weeks, and take proper lunch breaks.
“[Work-life balance] is one of the reasons people choose to work for Deloitte,” says Bakker. People want to work there. If you put that in [dollar terms] for Deloitte, attracting talent, and retaining it, far outweighs their costs.”
Planning the next decade
In addition to designing sustainable buildings that meet the needs of their inhabitants, another principle that Bakker and his practice are passionate about is a humanistic approach to design.
He hopes to convey through the firm’s approach that the future use of space in a building or city should be flexible in order to better connect people with one another, while organising structures according to technical advantages.
He is also advocating for more sophisticated standards of measuring progress in sustainability efforts that extend beyond BREEAM and LEED, which he calls point-scoring exercises.
BREEAM, an initiative by BRE, is the world’s longest established method of assessing, rating, and certifying the sustainability of buildings; LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a green building standard developed by the United States Green Building Council.
Regarding design as a service to people, rather than the pursuit of accreditations, is a better, more holistic approach to sustainability, says Bakker.
“My main message is that yes, sustainability is important, but it has to make places better; it’s to do with people and enjoyment and prosperity,” he explains.
He adds: “Nobody is against having better buildings or more beautiful parks in a city, but what [we have] to figure out is how the increase in quality and well-being of users of cities can go hand in hand with creating more efficiency and more productivity.”