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Liveable Cities Series: Working towards greener offices

When senior software development manager Keerthi Muthirulandi goes to work at software developer Autodesk’s Singapore office, he enters a bright, modern office whose open floor plan and low workspace dividers allow every employee a green view and plenty of natural light.

Automatic air sensors and the non-toxic, recyclable materials used for walls, flooring and furniture ensure optimum air quality, which is a crucial factor when he and his colleagues are embarking on a new project or headed to the kitchen and lounge area for an intense table tennis match.

Should any spectators show up for the match, they would tote their own mug from the well-equipped kitchen, as disposable cups are frowned upon in this green office.

This two-storey office at Solaris building at Fusionopolis, located in western Singapore, is a model and testing ground for green office design that was developed with help from Autodesk’s managers and staff.

The firm used its own building information modelling software, which creates virtual models to help architects and designers see how a building will look and perform in terms of light and air quality, and energy efficiency.

Mr Muthirulandi, who was part of the team consulting on the design, told Eco-Business on a recent tour to the Autodesk office that he was pleased with the results.

The office, completed a year ago, had been designed with flexibility in mind so that it promotes collaboration amongst the staff. The office’s modular furniture, made from recycled materials wherever possible, makes it easy for 50 workstations to be rearranged in a single day, for example.

Autodesk, whose US division was named last month in Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, is now seeking to have this office space become Singapore’s first LEED platinum-rated office - a feat it hopes will add to its reputation as a good place to work.

If it succeeds, the Singapore office will be the firm’s seventh LEED-certified office space.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, was developed in the United States and is the most widely used certification for green buildings globally. Platinum is the highest rating.

Autodesk’s head of cleantech in Asia Pacific, Jake Layes, explained why it is important for the firm: “The green office culture is definitely a part of who we are… it goes hand in hand with the company’s overall policies on sustainability.”

The effort to integrate sustainable design in a pleasant, more comfortable physical environment contributes to a more productive and engaged work force, he noted. A green office helps promote a staff culture in which workers recognise they have a role in sustainable behaviour, such as using public transport, teleconferencing, recycling paper or bringing cups to work to avoid the use of plastic water bottles.

Signs posted around the office remind staff to do their part for energy efficiency.

As part of the firm’s internal reporting process, employees have tools they can use to measure their own impact. This, in turn, helps Autodesk track its environmental footprint globally and reports statistics on carbon emissions, energy use and waste recycling in annual sustainability reports.

Greening buildings inside and out

Organisations are increasingly recognizing that a green building will not perform well enough if its interior - and its users - are not green.

Autodesk’s office at Solaris, which is certified as a platinum green office building, is one example of how companies within green buildings can go one step further by ensuring their own operations are green as well.

Green buildings have been identified as ” ‘the single greatest opportunity for reducing CO2 emissions worldwide, at the lowest cost”, according to Globe Alliance.

The global network, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from buildings, notes that buildings account for about 40 per cent of the world’s energy use and produce about 33 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Those certified green are assessed on factors such as the use of environmentally friendly materials, energy efficient air conditioning and lighting systems, indoor air-quality, the use of alternative energies, and systems to minimise the use of water and the creation of waste.

Governments and private sector firms now recognise that green buildings are crucial to sustainable cities. But while the green buildings are rated for  overall design and use of sustainable practices, the interiors – which are determined by either tenants or building owners – are rated separately.

Australia-based Brett Pollard, who is head of knowledge and sustainability for global architecture firm Hassell, told Eco-Business that successful green office buildings require a holistic approach.

Designers often do a quick survey of the site surroundings and then ‘zero in’  only on the physical building. Such an approach can be futile, for example, if the supposedly green building is located with no access to public transport.

“There’s no point creating an energy efficient building if it’s in a location everyone has to drive to,” he said.

Mr Pollard added that consultation is key to creating green offices. When designers from Hassell sat down with South Australia’s water utility to plan the new award-winning, 6 Star SA Water House in Adelaide, they found themselves at the table with the human resources department.

The presence of the HR managers, who wanted to ensure there was a sustainability-focused office culture that would attract young talent, was an indication that issues such as environmental performance,corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies and HR issues including worker welfare and productivity are increasingly intertwined.

And studies have proved that such a strategy works.

Mr Pollard said that in the case of SA Water House, the new environment and worker-friendly culture was considered partly responsible for a 30 per cent reduction in sick leave and for job applicants from recent graduates more than doubling.

SA Water’s figures support the green building sector’s claims that green offices contribute to happier, more productive workers.

According to a study published last year by the Institute of Sustainable Development & Architecture at Australia’s Bond University, sickness declined markedly among employees that worked in green buildings.

Of the 510 employees surveyed, the 351 from the green offices felt more comfortable and complained less of fatigue, noted the authors.

Researcher Ann Murugan, who assisted with the study, said in a statement that the results showcased the relationship between smart, environmentally sustainable design and worker-friendly spaces.

Certified green offices have a number of features that might explain the link. Such features include better lighting – with natural lighting wherever possible - to reduce glare and eyestrain, improved indoor air quality and materials without harmful chemicals.

Another way green offices are accommodating the needs of workers is through flexible workstations that can be adjusted according to the task or surroundings.

Hassell’s Mr Pollard noted that most traditional office interiors are designed based on studies from the 70’s, when designers aimed to keep environments comfortable for 80 to 85 per cent of people.

Newer models are more adaptive, and allow people to make small adjustments to their space so that they will be satisfied with a wider range of temperatures, he explained. This approach reduces energy demand and also allows companies to achieve a better use of space and potentially greater productivity.

A flexible design also helps to empower workers and create a sense of ownership that is useful for promoting green office behaviour, but managers need to embed it into the office culture as well, said Mr Pollard.

“There’s a growing sense that green buildings need green occupants,” he noted, adding that green offices must be designed to make sustainable behaviour simple and easy.

Getting greener

Regardless of the behaviour of the occupants, the number of green offices is increasing within the region.

Peter Hilderson, the Asia Pacific head of Energy and Sustainability Services for international real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, noted that while demand for green buildings is still patchy in some countries, he has noticed a tendency for multi-national companies to spread the green building trend across borders.

Developers of new office buildings in areas with a large number of multi-national firms have been adding green features and ratings to accommodate the global CSR policies of those organisations and to differentiate their product, he said.

Once companies establish green offices in those mature markets, they make the practice a corporate standard and bring it into offices in other markets, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, he added.

Research shows companies are willing to pay for it.

A 2010 CoreNet survey, commissioned by Jones Lang LaSalle, of companies renting office space found that about 49 per cent of tenants would pay up to 1 to 10 per cent extra for green space.

Mr Hilderson said that those tenants, knowing they could reduce their energy costs by 5 to 15 per cent with a green office, may accept a ‘lower standard of green performance’, but that they would expect a lower rental price or a commitment from the landlord to improve the building’s environmental performance.

Such a commitment would be written into a ‘green lease’, an addition to the rental contract that is becoming a corporate standard for many tenants, he noted. Green leases can oblige both tenants and landlords to address the environmental performance of a building’s operation.

In Australia, where Mr Hilderson is based, green buildings are given a Green Star rating according to their design. But their environmental impact will also be rated on an on-going basis through the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (Nabers) – a system of annual audits on energy, water and waste management.

Since November of last year, landlords have been required to publish their Nabers rating on office spaces over 2,000 square metres when they are sold or let. Building owners and tenants who fail to comply risk a fine of up to AUS$110,000.

Mr Hilderson said the new regulation was having a definite impact on the industry now that it has gained traction, and disclosure of Nabers ratings is becoming a habitual part of the contract process, he noted.

Currently, green office buildings cost 5 to 10 per cent more than standard buildings, but he predicted that cost will go down as people get used to designing and maintaining green buildings. And as building green becomes ‘business as usual’, he added, building owners may be viewed as negligent if they do not build green because they are not ‘future-proofing’ the building.

This pressure to raise green office building standards also extends to existing buildings, which in most cities make up about 95 per cent of the corporate real estate market. “To be competitive, particularly in a downturn when vacancy rates are higher, building owners will have to make improvements,” said Mr Hilderson.

Motivation for greening an office stems from competition between firms too. In his experience, companies in the finance and property sectors are keen to show their green credentials. And several of his clients compete to win places on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, he added.

Designed by MMoser Associates, JLL’s Hong Kong office was the first in the world to acheive a LEED score of 95. Image: MMoser Associates

Jones Lang LaSalle’s Hong Kong office made the spotlight last year when it achieved 95 points on its LEED rating for its commercial interior, which at the time was the highest LEED rating achieved thus far in the category. Now the company is hoping to duplicate that accomplishment in their other offices, said Mr Hilderson.

Elsewhere, in Singapore, a programme called Project Eco-Office reflects a growing awareness of the importance of green offices. This programme also features a formal certification - the Eco-Office Label, for which businesses can apply. This involves verification by third party auditors that the certification requirements have been met.

Spearheaded by the non-profit Singapore Environment Council (SEC) and local real estate developer City Developments Limited, the programme is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.

SEC executive director Jose Raymond told Eco-Business that under the Eco-Office Labelling Scheme 2011, a total of 35 new offices have been certified. This is the  highest number of new certifications within a calendar year. The project now has 108 actively participating businesses.

Companies seek the certification for a number of reasons, including raising staff awareness and fostering a sense of responsibility for environmental issues. They also benefit from the cost savings of more efficient operations and from an enhanced reputation for environmental responsibility, he noted.

Green offices help cities become sustainable and also help companies meet their environmental targets. But to achieve success, office staff and management have to share the same pro-environmental values, he added.

“Project Eco-Office is about the attitudes and behaviour of people. The occupants are, in fact, the key to this being a success,” said Mr Raymond.

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