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Nowadays, businesses can’t afford to ignore their environmental and social impact – it’s
increasingly tied into brand image and the ability to attract the right people.
Charles Harris image Charles Harris


Health & Environment

How can you make your office building more sustainable?

Nowadays, businesses can’t afford to ignore their environmental and social impact – it’s increasingly tied into brand image and the ability to attract the right people.


In 2015 researchers found nearly two-thirds of UK millennials wanted to work for an employer that makes a positive impact. And businesses scoring highly on sustainability are more profitable than competitors over the medium and long term, according to global management consultancy McKinsey.

But does a more sustainable office building always involve big spending on major refurbishment projects or intelligent software that automatically tracks all kinds of sustainability-related data?

Not necessarily. But a more sustainable office does go much deeper than hanging a certificate in reception. It comes from understanding how well the business is performing today, and establishing a set of clear, achievable goals.

Start with your office building – after all, buildings generate nearly 80 per cent of London’s carbon emissions, according to the Mayor. It’s important to identify its specific features and needs because any changes must work with these.

For example, is the air con system well maintained, could windows be opened, is there scope to boost natural light, and is there underused parking space that could be repurposed for bike racks or electric charging stations?

It’s a challenge to quantify your office’s carbon footprint – the greenhouse gases emitted directly and indirectly because of energy and water consumption and activities like procurement procedures, business travel, and in-office recycling.

To reach a number means gathering information on energy and resource use and workers’ activities, then applying an emissions conversion factor to each area. (The government updates these annually.)

You can subcontract the task to a third party or invest in sustainability software – although it’s still essential to understand the issues. If you opt to DIY there is plenty of information and support online. For an overview, BREEAM ratings are a gold standard for buildings’ environmental impact in 10 areas, including energy, waste, transport, and ecology. WWF’s sustainable office guide includes a worksheet for calculating emissions, and the Better Building Partnership Responsible Property Management Toolkit provides detailed advice and checklists for achieving more sustainable energy and water use, travel, and more. The UK Green Building Council’s Commercial Retrofit Report provides insights into real-world “light” retrofits and the resulting carbon savings. Small99 provides a tailored (and free) carbon reduction plan to small businesses.

Don’t forget local authority resources, like Westminster’s online carbon footprint calculator for energy, waste, transport and supply chain data. It’s part of a free bespoke energy savings plan for local businesses to identify current emissions, practical actions and cost and emissions savings. SMEs in the Square Mile can learn how to do this themselves via free online modules about sustainability and net zero.

Sustainability headlines

Data is a powerful ally. Regularly monitor energy and water usage via bills or meters. Tools like BBP’s online calculator can show you how well the building is performing compared to other offices, measured by the Real Estate Environmental Benchmark.

Auditing waste can also generate sustainability wins; for example, by identifying what people throw away most and offering reusable alternatives. Try London Recycling’s online calculator for general waste and different types of recycling.

People are essential to better sustainability at work. It’s critical to get workers engaged – via minor changes like re-using stationery items to bigger commitments like cycling to work.

Raise awareness about how they can contribute by providing real-world info, activities and challenges.

Think outside the building. Could you get more from natural resources like daylight and rainwater? As well as increasing urban biodiversity and enhancing workers’ wellbeing, a green roof could cut heating costs by improving thermal insulation, and help to cool surrounding air, reducing the “urban heat island” effect caused by materials like concrete and asphalt.

It can be small scale – bike shelters have green roofs at an Ikea south London site. Consider including different habitats like logs, mounds and boxes and mixed wildflowers to attract invertebrates and birds. In Broadgate, legal firm Evershed Sutherland recently revitalised the planting mix in its 1,500sqm green roof specifically to boost biodiversity.

Green, biosolar (including solar panels), and blue (rainwater-storing) roofs vary in type, complexity and weight. Start with professional advice via the Living Roofs organisation.

Practical tips

Here are just a few steps you could take towards a more sustainable office building. Energy:

  • Switch fluorescent tubes for LED bulbs. LEDs last significantly longer (one 2019 study says up to 25,000 hours) because they convert almost all the energy they use into light rather than heat. Some suppliers like 299 Lighting can alter older fittings to take new LED bulbs. But a totally new LED system will allow for smart energy-saving features like app-based scheduling, or changing colour temperatures (lumens) to react to changing light conditions.
  • Smart thermostats learn the habits of people working in the building, and adjust the heating or aircon so it can work more efficiently (and cheaply).
  • Water: Less water wastage can be achieved by installing fittings that restrict volume, like aerated sink taps and dual or low-flow toilets. JETS claims its vacuum toilets can reduce water consumption by up to 90 per cent. These can use only 1 litre or less for a full flush.
  • While it’s a bigger investment, collecting and storing rainwater for non-drinking use can also make a big impact on a building’s water demand. In Bloomberg’s new London HQ, this reportedly led to a 73 per cent reduction.
  • Materials: When scheduling a refurbishment, using recycled and locally sourced materials, like second-hand furniture helps to reduce its impact, but can also have a positive social impact. Among its many sustainability innovations, Cambridge University’s new sustainability HQ, the Entopia Building, has a reception desk from Netflix’s office and recycled LED lights that were re-warrantied by the manufacturer.
  • That “new office” smell may come from VOCs (volatile organic compounds) often used in modern paints and finishes. Low-VOC alternatives boost air quality, helping workers stay healthier.
  • Waste: Prevent waste in the first place by introducing reusable items into kitchens, stationery cupboards and storage areas, and replacing bins with recycling options. Download prevention and recycling do’s and don’ts posters from London Recycling.
  • Look for schemes like Smarter Giving, run by the Baker Street Quarter Partnership, which allows businesses to donate used office furniture and equipment to local charities and community groups.
  • Check whether another waste collector can recycle more. Joining (or creating) a waste consolidation scheme with other local businesses could give you access to more recycling options – try London Recycling’s toolkit and Transport for London’s guidance on setting up a scheme.

Purchasing:

  • Can you make procurement more sustainable? Lots of organisations offer expert guidance on which suppliers to use, and avoid, for key items like food, paper, and electric devices. For example, the Living Wage Foundation lists certified service providers, which could be built into tendering.
  • When replacing appliances like dishwashers, check their efficiency rating.
  • Talk to suppliers about how they’re managing their carbon footprint, workers’ wellbeing, and other key sustainability issues. This will help you integrate sustainability ratings to use when putting services like maintenance, waste, and cleaning out to tender.
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