The Breathable Office – Fresh Air Matters

The events of 2020 have seen many observers questioning the future role of the office. Some are even pronouncing its end…

CO2 particulate sensors

Even before the rise of the global pandemic we were undoubtedly living in exponential times with the rate of technological change far outstripping the physical workplace. 2020 has simply accelerated what was already happening with an ever increasing divergence and mix in demand now accentuated by the world wide work from home experiment. This does not, however, mean that the office is dead but it does mean that it should evolve to a more people centric approach understanding key issues around neurodiversity as well as physical diversity.

We need to create working environments that respond to the fluidity of change creating space that allows people to learn new skills as well improving comfort and wellness. In terms of Health and Wellbeing, evidence already shows that some simple changes of emphasis can lead to powerful results. We must avoid the gimmicks – what we used to call green bling has now unfortunately drifted towards hipster bling – putting in a pool table or taking out the ceilings really isn’t enough I’m afraid – we must focus more on research, post occupancy and evidence – too little of which is currently done.

For us at 5plus one of the most important aspects of the internal workplace environment is the quality and quantity of fresh air. For too long we have simply accepted the institutional norm that a Grade A office must be sealed with mechanical ventilation and comfort cooling and/or full air conditioning. For many of the UK regional cities outside London external temperatures very rarely exceed (and certainly not for a prolonged period of time) levels that would necessitate full internal environmental control and the provision of these systems takes away user control and increases carbon emissions. Continuing down this route is not beneficial for the occupant nor for the environment.

City centre air quality is going to improve with the continued reduction in vehicle Movements and the move towards more sustainable forms of transport and electric vehicles or hydrogen. The opportunity to be able to open the façade through manual or controlled mechanical means will lead to improvements in the following;

  • Health and well-being of occupants
  • Environmentally sustainable, clean buildings
  • Low running costs

Our own office is located on the 4th floor of The Hive – a building we designed in 2007-10 and which is an award winning and pioneering naturally ventilated building, providing speculative office space aimed at the Creative industries in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

A post occupancy study commenced with the University of Reading in 2015/16. This year long research measured the internal office environment over a short period of weeks, during summer, winter, spring and autumn. Using wearables, we picked staff members to be measured on how they responded to the internal environment during each period. We undertook an online survey with all staff. As a result of the survey/study, additional training was provided covering the window opening system, to reduce unacceptable CO2 levels. Assessment was conducted to increase the number of temperature sensors and provide on floor controls to the night time ventilation louvres.

Additional CO2/particulate sensors were sourced and installed in early 2018 to promote awareness of the importance of CO2, as well as temperature, in the design of naturally ventilated buildings and this work went on to inform the new BCO guide to specification 2019. Most recently the greatest success has involved working with our own staff, along with a diverse range of partners, to analyse the building and effect of the changes which have had a positive influence on staff during the lockdown. The influence has increased as we have continued to occupy the building in a more flexible way during the pandemic – the Awair monitoring devices and dashboard providing regular feedback to our staff that there is adequate fresh air in the space and creating occupier confidence that the space is not only healthy but also safe (or at least as safe as it can be).

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