One of the most dominant themes in workplace design during the past several years has been the rise of the open office concept, which has been used by many tenants to promote teamwork and collaboration, as well as fitting more employees onto smaller floorplates.
However, compressing more employees and more equipment into existing space has created a problem – the core systems of many existing buildings were designed decades ago, and simply weren’t built to handle 20-35% more occupants than the standards of yesteryear.
There are 134 Class A office buildings in Boston and Cambridge, and the average age of those properties is more than 31 years old. It’s even more pronounced in the largest properties, with buildings 700,000 square feet or more averaging 35.6 years in age, and the 10 properties over 1M square feet averaging more than 40 years in age (the newest of which is One International Place – built in 1987).
As collaborative workspaces continue to evolve and occupancy numbers rise accordingly, owners will need to review their existing systems and maintenance processes to ensure larger issues don’t arise.
Higher Occupancy Strains Critical Systems
As a prime example, one of the systems most affected by increased occupancy is ventilation. Without sufficient ventilation, a building may be vulnerable to sick building syndrome, in which the building environment can lower production and actually cause negative health impacts for occupants.
Building codes dictate minimum levels of ventilation for different types of uses. For traditional office space, the current standard (ASHRAE 62.1-2016) is 17 cubic feet of air per minute, per person. In general manufacturing spaces, that standard is nearly doubled to 36 cfm/person, while in shipping and receiving environments, it is 70 cfm/person.
However, those standards are also designed using specific occupancy levels (in office space that baseline is five people per 1,000 square feet). And when the number of people in a specific area starts to exceed those levels, it can begin to create issues.
In modern buildings, ventilation is usually controlled via automated systems which use sensors to measure the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air to evaluate ventilation. Based on those levels, the building will either bring in more outside air, or recondition the existing air. If the levels are continually higher than projected, the system will need to work harder than planned and generate higher energy costs.
“Every building operates with a similar concept but they may have different combinations of systems, features and other factors which affect how well they may be able to handle the added loads,” says Mitch Mavroules, Regional Lead Engineer for Cushman & Wakefield’s Asset Services team. “It’s not just ventilation – it’s all the variables which make up the building systems.”
If the original building systems were designed in a way which allowed for excess capacity, engineers may be able to rebalance systems to accommodate the additional users, Mavroules says. However, in properties without that wiggle room, the ultimate solution might require making capital investments into the property – such as larger air handling units or other features.
The added workload on building systems also puts a renewed focus on preventive maintenance at their properties.
Ensuring comprehensive PM schedules are in place helps systems operate at peak efficiency, which is particularly crucial when those systems are near their upper limits in terms of capacity. While stricter preventive maintenance may require some adjustments to operating budgets, it may also help reduce long-term costs and extend the equipment’s life expectancy.
“Preventive maintenance not only keeps systems running, it also puts the engineers in front of each piece of equipment regularly, which can help identify concerns before they turn into larger problems,” says Mavroules, “We need to be pro-active in order to keep systems operating efficiently and preventing untimely down-time.”
Communication Between Tenants and Owners is Key
In an environment where there is such a connection between workplace layouts and building systems, early collaboration between both parties is an important aspect of a positive relationship.
If a tenant is looking to restack their space into a denser floorplate, it may be helpful to consult with a mechanical engineer and the building representatives to discuss the change.
If it is determined, through a feasibility study, that routine modifications to existing systems cannot deliver an optimal work environment supporting the occupant’s needs, additional infrastructure enhancements may be necessary to provide optimal comfort to the client. This can be achieved by designing and installing new systems which may be included as part of the lease or tenant improvement allowance.
To retain quality tenants, the focus and highest priority for owners is, and must be, on occupancy satisfaction, high productivity, and a friendly, interactive work environment.
If over-taxed building systems can’t deliver, tenants will see that impact in reduced productivity, decreased retention, and an unhappy environment. And that is a situation that no property owner wants to see.