Could a green office increase productivity?

Building green has entered the mainstream in New Zealand and incorporating sustainability into buildings is becoming standard business practice. And it seems a green building is something that will make your employees more productive too.

As the New Zealand Green Building Council (NZGBC) marked its 10th anniversary last year it noted that “it’s clear that incorporating sustainability into buildings is becoming standard business practice”.  It said, at the time, that Green Star (an independent rating tool for commercial buildings) had certified more than 734,000 square metres of quality, lower-impact floor space across offices, schools, industrial buildings and other projects.

In turn, NABERSNZ (which is used to measure and reduce energy use year-on- year) had rated the energy performance of more than 522,580 square metres of office space “leading to greater efficiencies and cost savings”.

NZGBC’s CEO Andrew Eagles told Management that energy efficiency can actually help increase productivity pointing to Harvard University 2017 research which found  that better performing buildings significantly increase productivity and reduce absenteeism. 

The study found people working in green buildings think better in the office and sleep better when they get home, according to media reports. 

As Eagles points out for most businesses in New Zealand employees are the single largest cost and where employees are more effective and present more often this provides very tangible benefits to businesses.   

While much attention is given to the sustainability of new buildings, Eagles says  what is more interesting than new build is how older buildings can be made more efficient since there is a far greater stock of them in New Zealand.

 He highlighted a 2016 Royal Society of New Zealand report Transition to a Low Carbon Economy which notes that the buildings sector is indirectly responsible for around 20 percent of New Zealand’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions and which says that the majority of buildings that will exist in New Zealand by 2050 have already been built. “Therefore improving the energy efficiency performance of the current building stock by retro-fitting is an important action,” the report says.

Green Star Design and Built is the standard for new build buildings in New Zealand. It’s a tool that rates and communicates the sustainability of commercial buildings and can apply to any non-residential building. There are specific tools to rate office, industrial and educational buildings, as well as interior fit-out projects. Green Star can also be customised for other building types, such as hospitals and libraries. 

A building can achieve a rating of 4 Green Star – Best Practice; 5 Green Star – New Zealand Excellence; 6 Green Star – World Leadership. To rate a building’s overall environmental impact, the tool awards points across nine categories: energy, water, materials, indoor environment quality (IEQ), transport, land use and ecology, management, emissions, and innovation.  

Eagles says Green Star is becoming standard.  So far one commercial building in New Zealand has achieved six star status – Christchurch’s civic offices.

With existing office buildings Eagles says that the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) was adapted for New Zealand as NABERSNZ.  This, he says, is a really useful tool because it measures energy use of offices, providing a star rating system. Government Property Group requires this when it takes out a lease. 

Eagles points to Te Puni Kokiri House in Wellington as a good example. With a 4.5 NABERSNZ energy efficiency rating, last year Te Puni Kōkiri House’s win at the 2016 EECA Awards “demonstrates that even New Zealand’s oldest heritage buildings can get a new lease of life and be transformed into high performing green buildings, when comprehensive energy efficiency ratings are used. The property already has a 5 Green Star Built rating, so the recent upgrade to a 4.5 NABERSNZ energy rating puts it in a unique position in the commercial property landscape,” according to a NZGBC media release.

With partner Argosy Property, Te Puni Kōkiri House underwent a major internal retrofit, which resulted in a 30% reduction in energy use. 

Highlights of Te Puni Kōkiri House’s retrofit include:

• $80,000 worth of energy savings now goes back into the public purse each year as all eleven floors are occupied by Te Puni Kōkiri.

• Energy audits before and after refurbishment showed energy use had reduced from 205 kilowatt-hours of energy per square metre annually to 138 kilowatt-hours – an improvement of more than 30%.

• 90% of construction waste was re-used or recycled, and water use has been reduced by 29%, according to the NZGBC media release.

Eagles says that following NABERS becoming mandatory in Australia in 2009 there has been significant uptake and support from the property industry in New Zealand. He said that independent research commissioned by the Australian Government found that mandating NABERS in Australia achieved cumulative benefits in excess of costs along with potential benefits associated with workforce productivity gains. 

Eagles acknowledges that NABERSNZ, which encourages builders and owners of property to improve the efficiency of the buildings, is useful and may be mandated at some point.

The Green Star Performance standard is being piloted in New Zealand at present.  This means all other buildings (retail, education, health, industrial) will be able to measure and report their performance. Take up of this tool was eight times faster in Australia than the uptake of Green Star design and build (for existing buildings).  


The international scene

Internationally New Zealand is hardly a leading light in green building. Eagles says that the United States has mandatory reporting of energy ratings in the majority of states;  in EU countries they will have near zero energy buildings by 2019 and all 27 countries in Europe have had Display Energy Certificates for buildings for at least a decade.

In the Philippines, the Government’s Green Building Act provides developers and landlords tax breaks and other benefits if they comply with the green building standards; in Singapore the Building Control Act mandates environmental sustainability standards for new and existing buildings, as well as monitoring of overall energy performance of the building stock and in Japan the Energy Conservation Law obliges building owners to submit a report on the energy conservation measures prior to construction. And over in Australia Building Energy Efficiency Certificates are required on sale, lease or sub-lease of office space of more than 1,000 square metres.

Eagles says that in New Zealand we have none of the above and a low building code relative to much of the developed world, according to an OECD report, along with no trajectory or even discussion of how it should be improved. In turn we have no mandatory ratings of buildings of performance and only a small number of NABERSNZ ratings which are done voluntarily.

So how high is the bar globally? The building claimed as the most sustainable office in the world is the new head office of dryer and cooler manufacturer Geelen Counterflow in Haelen, The Netherlands.

The company says it’s deemed as the most sustainable office in the world, receiving a 99.94 percent score in the BREEAM certification system. (BREEAM is a leading sustainability assessment method for buildings and projects. Globally there are more than 540,700 BREEAM certified developments.)

Geelen says that in building its new office for 50 employees where possible, the building materials are “cradle to cradle” certified, which means that they do no harm to the environment and that they can be re-used at the end of their lifetime.

 Geelen says on its website that the main reason for the high BREEAM score is the fact that the entire office is built out of massive timber, without adhesives. Walls and floors consist of 36 centimetre thick wood from the Black Forest. That wood contains 2000 tons of absorbed CO2 as a result of which the office has a negative CO2 footprint. 

Rainwater is collected and used to flush toilets and to water the green wall in the heart of the building. 

Around the office a natural garden has been created using a variety of native plants and flowers. The landscaping also includes nesting sites for birds, bugs, bats and amphibians.

A media release from Geelen, at the time of construction, said that by building according to the “passive house” guidelines and thanks to the 330 solar panels on the roof, the office will produce 50 percent more renewable energy than the total energy consumption for heating/cooling, ventilation, lighting, copiers/printers, servers and PCs. 

“This is achieved thanks to the thermal bridge free detailing, wide and tall window openings with triple glazing, southern orientations with external sun shading, day light controlled LED lighting, air-tight design with balanced mechanical ventilation, Ba-Opt climate control, geothermal heat probes and solar energy collectors. 

“The excess of solar power will be used elsewhere on site for, among other things, charging of forklift trucks and laser cutting of stainless steel. 

 “Design and selection of materials are aimed at a comfortable and healthy indoor climate with plenty of natural light and a minimal risk of evaporation of harmful substances. Every effort has been made to minimise the risk of health problems and to ensure a work environment that stimulates the communication and cooperation between all departments of the company.”

Geelen Counterflow is the world market leader in counter-flow dryers and coolers for the food and feed industry. The family company with 90 employees develops all the technology itself and builds the machines entirely in-house at its plant in Haelen. More than 80 percent of the sales are exported outside of Europe.

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