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How to find an eco-friendly (and cost-effective) office

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Moving offices can be an opportunity to reduce bills, but what features are guaranteed to keep bills down when moving into a new office?

While you’ll know exactly how much you’ve signed up to pay in rent, predicting how your energy bills will change as you move or grow can be a challenge. Especially as energy efficiency varies considerably from building to building. 

But there are some tell-tale signs which will let you know that your bills are likely to be higher than they should be. Here they are.

1. Efficiency Ratings explained

Like domestic properties, virtually all commercial properties are required to have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC), which rates the building’s energy efficiency on a scale from A to G. 

The EPC assessment takes into account the way the building is built and insulated, and the heating and lighting systems within the building, and can be a really useful guide to the energy costs you would expect to face. A large commercial building is required to display their EPC rating, along with information on how much energy they use. 

2. Lighting

Lighting is a big cost in a large offices – a quarter of electricity on average – so the first thing to look for in new premises is the amount of natural light. Many companies don’t consider the obvious: large windows will greatly reduce the amount of extra lighting needed during daylight hours. 

Beyond this, establish what kind of lights are currently in place. Replacing traditional bulbs with compact fluorescent and LED lighting can not only reduce lighting energy usage by around 80%, but also generate significantly less heat, reducing the strain on air conditioning systems.

Sensors which automatically switch lights off when offices are empty can mean significant savings from bills, as can dimmable switches which allow lighting output to be adjusted to anywhere from 5% to 100% of power. For larger offices, there are opportunities to scale savings: in the British Gas offices in Oxford, intelligent lighting management systems manage overall power use and react automatically to changes in daylight. Assessing the amount of available daylight, perimeter lights only turn on when necessary. It is also worth noting that dimmable switches are better in meeting rooms than sensors, so you can achieve the correct lighting levels if using a projector or audio visual equipment.

3. Heating

Like domestic properties, heating is usually the main drain on energy for commercial office buildings, and can be one of the most expensive things to change once you move in. Broadly speaking, newer boilers are more efficient, so ensure that you check the age and efficiency of the current system before signing anything.

Quite often we see buildings trying to heat and cool at the same time, wasting a considerably amount of energy. Ensure your systems are not fighting each other by setting timers correctly and checking they remain correct throughout the year.

There are some innovative heating systems on the market. In our Oxford building Econergy designed and installed three 100 kW Froling Wood Pellet Biomass Boilers to power Fan Coil Units throughout the building. Each boiler is fed by its own supply of pellets from a 14 tonne mass storage enclosure. 

Although you’re unlikely to stumble into properties with this kind of technology built in, don’t hesitate to get an external assessment of what might be feasible, particularly if you’re planning to retain a premises for an extended period.

4. Insulation

As well as the heating system itself, the quality of insulation in the fabric of the building can have a significant impact on bills: high quality roof insulation may retain up to 25% more heat. While the EPC should give you a sense of the building’s overall heat efficiency, ask to see a breakdown of existing insulation in the building, and if you’re leasing space, push the landlords to commit to improvements; simply upgrading roof insulation tends to be a relatively inexpensive way to reduce costs. 

Crucially, remember that efficiency isn’t just about keeping the heat in. For buildings with a lot of external glass, proper window blinds, or even brise soleil (concrete instalments to offer sunshade), can be crucial to reducing the workload for your air conditioning systems. Windows that open easily can be a temptation, but losing already-cooled air is a huge drain on power, and will rapidly stack up on your bills.

5. Investment

Increasingly, businesses are turning to more innovative solutions to reducing bills. Solar thermal technology, unlike traditional photo voltaic panels, uses the energy in the sun’s rays to heat liquid-filled tubes, which in turns heats water and can reduce the demands on traditional water heating systems. Solar thermal arrays on the roof can account for up to 25% of hot water demand on a sunny day.

More innovative still are rainwater harvesting systems which collect and filter rainwater from the roof of larger buildings for use in bathrooms or, if treated, as mains water. The main challenge with this is finding external space for the tanks, but you can always consider placing this below ground level.

Energy efficiency is often uncharted territory for businesses moving office, but it doesn’t have to be. Carry out an assessment of the systems already in place to get as detailed a picture as possible of the bills you’re likely to pay. But also see the move as an opportunity; while rainwater harvesting may be beyond many small business budgets, simple changes to heating, lighting and insulation can mean big savings.

Sam Martin is property manager for British Gas across the south of England and Wales, and oversaw the development of British Gas’s Oxford offices, one of the country’s most energy-efficient buildings of its size.

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