Any building, or space within a building, is going to have an environment that is unique unto itself. Therefore, any plan for the environmental impact of that space, and the energy efficiency of managing it, needs to be designed for that area specifically.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the tricks that can be used to bring the footprint of a commercial building to life using smart innovations that will reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency.
A reliable management plan must be technological. This starts with simple things like automatically turning off the thermostats when they aren’t necessary, and turning off the lights when no one is in the room. Automation should be favored whenever possible, rather than relying on processes that people have to remember to do.
With automated monitoring and control of a building’s environment, we can apply this principle in a few different ways. Automatically turning on the air conditioning when it begins to get hot is all well and good. But a better method might be to use the temperature differential between different rooms to control airflow between those rooms. Though this applies mostly to normal operation, given the limitations of cross room ventilation during the Covid pandemic, things will eventually get back to normal and allow for these more efficient setups. An even better and more energy efficient way, perhaps, would be to automatically draw the shades when the sun hits the windows, so that the office stays cool and the air conditioning perhaps need not be turned on in the first place.
A technique that is becoming more popular in hotter climates is using part or all of the building as a ‘cold battery’ at night. By pre-running the air conditioning when electricity is at its cheapest, the building owner can take advantage of well insulated buildings and avoid using too much HVAC during prime hours.
Letting the Environment Do the Work
A reliable plan must also include passive temperature management. This means spaces that are designed to use existing environmental factors, such as ambient temperature, available natural light, existing airflow, and the convection patterns of the building itself, to control temperature. Every degree of temperature that is controlled by natural ventilation is a degree of temperature that doesn’t have to be controlled with any system that consumes energy, which brings both environmental benefits and cost reductions. By designing spaces and systems that take advantage of these free environmental forces, we can deliver results that are not only automatic, they are as energy efficient as possible.
All of this must be done with an awareness of the function of the building. The human purposes of the space, whatever work is being done there, are in a sense another environmental factor that the design needs to account for. The plan for each space, whether that means an entire building or a smaller section within the building, needs to be tailored to the people who are going to be working there. For example, an open plan office, which is relatively enclosed but which needs consistent and reliable lighting, has very different environmental control needs from a group of individual offices that could be cooled in isolation when occupied and left alone when unused. And both would have different needs when compared to a retail space that gets continuous foot traffic in and out. That’s an environment where positive pressure and over door heaters that generate air cushions in the winter would be useful. And it’s the kind of design that would want to maximise the effect of passive factors like convective airflow and constructed heatsinks.
The Human Component of Environment
Perhaps the greatest hurdle to overcome in energy saving technology is making it so convenient and automatic that human beings can’t screw it up. If the steps to save energy need to be remembered, if they take time and effort, if the people in the building need to go out of their way to do them, then from a statistical standpoint they simply won’t be done.
Instead of trying to scold people into changing the ways they work and live, the task of the green smart systems designer is to eliminate the element of human frailty as much as possible. That means recognizing that people are the weakest, least predictable link in an otherwise perfectly planned environment. The design, therefore, needs to be adapted to people, and not vice versa.
Understanding the human factor in space design also means directing humans to use their environment to the fullest. This can encompass things such as avoiding the placement of desks under skylights where it gets very hot in the afternoons. It may also involve a managed hotdesking system, or more complicated plans like rotating workstations throughout the day, or throughout the seasons, to get maximum use out of natural light and keep as many people as possible in the spots where the temperature is naturally the most comfortable.
The Uniqueness of Each Building’s Environment
Understanding which of these plans are appropriate for a space goes beyond mere calculation of the effect on the energy bill. It means understanding the needs of the people occupying the space. Perhaps accessibility concerns mean that direct air conditioning is essential. Perhaps the nature of the work being done means that desk rotation and hotdesking are out of the question. Perhaps the nature of some materials that are being worked rules out the use of natural light or natural airflow. This is why it is so crucial that the solution be customised and optimised for each space specifically.