Amsterdam's 'The Edge' is hyper-green and hyper-connected - and holds the title of the world's smartest building. Photo; PLP Architecture

An office where sensors follow you around, where the lights are turned off automatically if no one is there, where cleaners get told how dirty the bathrooms are, and systems work out who’s drinking all the lattes. Where all the energy it consumes is generated on the premises – sometimes from the work gym. It might sound a little creepy, but that is the green future of office work. 

However, to become energy efficient and make worthwhile power savings over the next 30 to 50 years, office tower builders have to take a leap of faith now – because those efficiency measures add another one percent to the build cost. If a tower is being custom-built for a company intending to make it their headquarters those sums add up, because construction is 10 percent of the cost over 30-50 years, and operation costs over that time are 90 percent. If the building goes on the market when it’s finished, corners will be cut and added incentive will be needed to push them into it. One industry insider says that push needs to come from government regulation, and it needs to come quickly. 

A trade show in Auckland next week with the catchy name of Facilities Integrate will lay out a raft of developments that turn an office building into a smart building. One of the guest speakers is Scott Penno from Allied Telesis in Australia, whose job it is to think beyond architecture to all the systems inside – heating, ventilation, air conditioning, security, lighting, sensors, switches, cameras, computers, printers. And the coffee machines. In future-proof buildings, all those things that are deployed over a network can be controlled by smartphone. Penno’s firm has been operating in New Zealand for 15 years and also handles projects such as motorway cameras for NZTA. He says essentially the company is a glorified plumber, installing technology. 

Penno says New Zealand and Australia have fallen a long way behind Europe when it comes to adopting smart technology. Part of that reason is that Europe doesn’t have easy access to hydropower (NZ) or coal (Australia) so there’s more urgency to look to a green future. “Our governments are pretty slow on this – they don’t have that motivation,” he says. “Europe has the population density and industry driving this. Here, the government needs to take the initiative with policy changes. If you leave it up to the market, they will always be dragging their heels. It’s got to be the government saying ‘This is the way it’s going to be’.” 

European new builds now have DC-powered distribution grids inside the building – digital equipment, solar PV, storage batteries, electric vehicles and other end-use devices all require DC power. “We are not likely to see that technology here for five to 10 years,” says Penno. The European Commission has dictated that new commercial builds must be nearly zero energy rated – which means they must generate as much energy as they consume – by the end of 2020, and for public buildings that deadline is by the end of next year. 

“Technology and sustainability fit together hand in hand. You can’t make a building more sustainable without technology.”

As an example of an energy-efficient and technology-driven building, Penno quotes Amsterdam’s ‘The Edge’, held up as the world’s greenest office.

The building, designed for and occupied by Deloitte, is fitted with 28,000 sensors which track movement, lighting levels, humidity and temperature. When they detect that areas are not being used, power-sucking heating, air conditioning and lighting can be adjusted or switched off. Every desk has natural light. Workers are connected to the building via a smartphone app, which helps them find parking spaces, a desk for the day, and find out where their workmates are. The app can also be used to adjust temperature and lighting levels around them. 

But a BBC report has highlighted the hole in this brave new world. Employees have to actually use the app. When The Edge opened in 2014 about 20 percent of workers checked themselves in using the app – now it’s at one percent. Not everyone wants to hot desk – they like going to the same place each day and sitting with their mates. 

Penno says other challenges of hotdesking include the time required at both ends of the working day to unpack and repack lockers, and lockers not being big enough. “The biggest challenge is to ensure that the employees gain as much as the employer does from these working arrangements. When this is imbalanced then things are likely to fail. It’s important that flexibility is not just about what desk I work from, but also where I work from and what hours I work. Obviously this can’t apply to everyone, but this is much bigger than just desks and space.” 

Asked if there were privacy issues with workers effectively being tracked by their smart phones, Penno says there is always the potential for abuse. “It comes down to policy, and who has access to the systems,” he says. But basically, that horse has bolted. “You could say the same about social media. People are quite happy to give (their privacy) up … a lot of people know it’s happening and they don’t care.” Penno says most people are prepared to trade it in for an enjoyable work environment. Also, to a certain extent you don’t get a say in it – that will just be the environment you work in. 

Installing smart technology is far easier in a new build – retro-fitting is always more expensive. But a 12-storey 1970s office block in Wellington has become the poster child for energy efficiency in the commercial property sector after a major makeover. Aorangi House in Molesworth Street has been refurbished with a raft of energy-smart features that gave it five out of a possible six stars in the NABARSNZ rating scheme. NABERSNZ assessor, Ben Masters, said the result proves that age does not impede making a building commercially and environmentally sustainable.

“It shows sustainable refurbishment is a viable option to the carbon-hungry alternative of demolition and replacement.” The refit cost $7.9 million but resulted in 30 percent energy savings.

Penno says most of the buildings his company is involved with are new builds however, with energy efficiency best handled from the foundations up. 

“Technology and sustainability fit together hand in hand. You can’t make a building more sustainable without technology and the use of technology (ie smart lighting) will make a building more sustainable.” 

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