For many years, the property industry has been concerned with sustainability and the need to translate intention into action – but as the race towards net zero gathers pace, the stimulus for change is now being driven by investors and occupiers demanding assets and workspace with strong ESG credentials.

Lee Treanor

Lee Treanor

Hitting net zero by 2050 will be a challenge and early adopters could be subject to higher costs until new technologies and techniques bed in and gradually become the norm. Many office developers – HBD included – are already some way down the road in designing these new-generation net zero buildings, such as Island, our 100, 000 sq ft office scheme at the heart of Manchester city centre.

We know that the buildings currently on the drawing board will be vastly different to those that exist today in terms of sustainability; designed to not only limit embodied carbon, but with the inclusion of new technology and systems to minimise operational carbon generated by those using the space.

However, the industry is missing a vital piece of the puzzle if developers fail to bring occupiers on the journey with us as we bring these buildings to life.

Without genuine occupier buy-in and a commitment to rethinking how an office building should be managed, maintained and operated, net zero targets would be virtually impossible to meet – however smart the building.

The reality is that as soon as a building is handed over, the occupier will control 80% of the space and therefore at least 80% of the energy consumption within that building.

While design and technology have significantly moved the envelope in terms of what is possible, there will be operational challenges on the road to net zero and office space may need to be managed more closely than it perhaps has been in the past. That could include a range of measures, such as centrally controlled systems during a building’s main hours of operation, preventing inefficient use of heating, cooling and lighting.

Removing some of the individual elements of control may be necessary to maintain energy savings, but may prove unpopular with occupiers. Having those conversations at an early stage will help to manage any concerns and smooth the transition to a more energy-efficient way of working within an office space.

Even during the fit-out process, it’s important to monitor how the floorplate and systems are adapted to make sure that any modifications do not undo any efficiencies in the base building design.

Developers and investors can no longer simply hand over a building or a floorplate to an occupier with minimal further involvement – if we are to deliver meaningful results, a building’s energy efficiency must be monitored continually and assessed within a fixed framework to enable any fine-tuning in performance and pinpoint any elements that need to be improved.

Data will also play an important role, arming businesses with evidence of how their space is performing. Where a building is occupied by multiple occupiers, those analytics will allow benchmarking between those different companies, helping to enhance the community and bring people on board; a powerful tool that will improve the performance of the building as a whole.

Collaboration is vital if we are to meet our net zero target, so engagement with occupiers should begin now – there is no silver bullet and, while developers can design and deliver a net zero building at the point of completion, it must be operated efficiently throughout its lifecycle to retain that status.

Honest, transparent discussion about the way we use space in a carbon-zero world is vital if we are to succeed.

Lee Treanor is director at HBD