How we work is changing, where we work is changing, and with that, the places we work must change too. The most sustainable place to work is often the building that is already built but there can be obstacles and challenges in achieving this, as explored in this article.
Sketch study in reuse. Image by Séamus Guidera
Within the development industry, we must see the opportunities in retaining, upgrading, and extending to help create the offices of the future.
Recent changes at all stakeholder levels in commercial construction have driven a charge in refurbishing and extending existing building stock rather than building new . Within the development industry, we must see the opportunities in retaining, upgrading, and extending to help create the offices of the future. The office has evolved over the past number of decades – client expectations for ‘floor-to-ceiling height’ has increased to allow brighter interiors and more openness on a typical office floor plate (e.g. the British Council for Offices (BCO) recommends a 2.8m minimum) ; servicing requirements have grown both in floor and ceiling voids (150mm and 550mm respectively); while design for fire safety, universal accessibility, and staff welfare facilities have prompted changes to the layout of a typical office core. Lift sizes have expanded, cycling facilities are paramount, while fire escape and combustibility are key concerns.
The expectations of office facades have also increased. Modern workplace facades must work harder to serve the dual purpose of communicating identity and integrating architecturally, while reducing the building’s carbon and financial cost going forward. Modularity, and off-site Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) have become a crucial part of early design consideration. An inability to meet sustainability targets has resulted in the demolition of some office buildings, and warranted justification for building new and better, albeit at an expensive up-front carbon cost. Through design thinking, architects must share our commercial design knowledge to help clients evaluate real estate opportunities where refurbishment can optimise strategic outcomes.
Take for example a recently completed project in Dublin by my own practice RKD: Baggot Plaza for client Kennedy Wilson. Originally an 8500m² 1970s office across three buildings in a prime Dublin 4 location, intensive study determined that the existing building structure was capable of being stripped back and extended on several sides, then fitted out to the level expected of the fit-out tenant market. Re-using and extending the primary structure gave the development a one-year head start on competing new build developments. The design solution doubled the square meterage to 17,000m² while retaining the existing building shell. A new facade was added, and double-height spaces were introduced to increase daylight internally. The project was completed in eighteen months, a significant programme reduction on a new build, while improving the BER from F to B1, and achieving LEED Gold in the process.
With this in mind, the recently implemented Dublin City Development Plan 2022-2028  now requests the justification for demolition of buildings as part of the planning process. This justification refers to both the retention of our built heritage, and the carbon implications of demolishing and rebuilding. This move toward retention mirrors what commercial clients are seeking – a building that is truly sustainable given the ESG (environmental, social, and governance) demands of tenants in the current office market.
Architects should work with clients to establish realistic and achievable sustainability targets at an early design stage and explore the benefits of retaining as much of the carbon-intensive structure in an existing building as possible. This might mean maintaining the structural grid and extending both laterally and vertically, looking at a new facade, or adding a new core that meets many of the modern building regulation requirements. Most often, many of these decisions help improve the performance of a building and keep the dreaded ‘stranded asset’ at bay. The benefits of retention can also yield more than sustainability targets. Good architectural practice should include a commercial design methodology which explores the potential for incorporating existing buildings as part of new development. This has both cultural and heritage benefits, more readily integrating new developments into existing urban contexts.
There is more to the Dublin City Development Plan 2022-2028 which impacts on our decision to build afresh. New office buildings over 10,000m² now must provide 5% of office net internal area as ‘Community Use’. This requirement is new to the Dublin office market and has added cost uncertainty to an already expensive construction process. Car parking allowance has also been reduced to zero in certain areas such as Zone 1, an inner-city zone served by more public transport. As this can still be seen as a risk in attracting certain tenants, an alternative approach might be to retain the building and a proportion of the existing car parking while omitting the 5% requirement for additional community space, thus incentivising adaptive reuse.
In summary, we must see the inherent potential of refurbishment, conversion, and extension in creating commercial developments that minimise embodied carbon and maximise the character of existing buildings. While admittedly not all buildings are appropriate for refurbishment to current standards and expectations, good commercial design practice and policy incentives should be focused on providing the knowledge and tools to help prioritise reuse in realising their strategic ambitions.
Architects should work with clients to establish realistic and achievable sustainability targets at an early design stage and explore the benefits of retaining as much of the carbon-intensive structure in an existing building as possible.
Present Tense is an article series aimed at uncovering perspectives and opinions from experts in their respective fields on the key issues/opportunities facing Ireland's built environment. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact email@example.com.
Present Tense is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.
Séamus Guidera is a registered architect and Director & Commercial Sector Lead for RKD Architects in Dublin. He has participated in numerous RIAI, AAI, and cross-sector forums, along with a role as a studio tutor in the UCD School of Architecture.
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