How to Design a Truly Sustainable Office Building

credit: Architype Architects/ My favourite low-carbon building

Here's a checklist for an extreme green dream office, courtesy of Dr. Peter Rickaby.

Dr. Peter Rickaby is an independent energy and sustainability consultant who shares my view that the Bloomberg head office building in London is not “the world’s most sustainable office building.” (I think the Enterprise Centre is.) In my post I suggested some alternatives, but Dr. Rickaby takes a different approach in Passivehouse+ magazine. He creates an extreme dream office building, much like I tried to do with my extreme dream healthy house.

It is a fascinating dream that actually covers much of the ground we have discussed on TreeHugger, and it starts with an understanding of the single biggest factor: transportation energy intensity.

First, it would not be big. The bigger the building the more people will work there and the further they will have to travel, so it’s a local office or perhaps a local work centre. The occupants live locally and arrive on foot or by bicycle.

Size and shape matter for other reasons.

If it’s too big it will have either a deep plan needing artificial lighting and air conditioning, or a complicated shape that will facilitate daylighting but increase surface area and heat losses. Or it may be tall, needing more structural material and lifts. I think our sustainable office building would be compact, not too densely occupied, and day-lit – small is beautiful!
Aluminum production

Aluminum Production/CC BY 2.0

Dr. Rickaby wants to use sustainable materials made without fossil fuels, so no concrete or steel. He gives aluminum a pass, as "most of it is smelted using hydropower, and almost all of it is recycled", but I disagree with him there. As I have noted previously, there is not enough recycled aluminum so we keep making new stuff. There is a lot that is dirty and carbon-intensive stuff happening before it even gets to the electric smelter, and the chemical reaction that happens when you put electricity through alumina (aluminum oxide) strips the oxygen and reacts with the carbon anode, making, you guessed it, carbon dioxide. So, nope, no free pass for aluminum.

CC BY 2.0. Cork is the healthiest insulation/ Lloyd Alter

Cork is the healthiest insulation/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Dr. Rickaby likes wood, and says, "Insulation could be cellulose, cork, flax, hemp, wood fibre, sheep’s wool or straw bales – there are lots of options! There would be no oil-based plastic insulation boards or mineral fibre (which involves melting rock)."

I have come to agree regarding mineral fibre like rock wool, which has a formaldehyde binder,[ed-Rockwool does sell a formaldehyde free version] and am totally in love with cork after a recent trip to Portugal, but am not convinced about sheep's wool. As Peter Mueller wrote in the pros and cons of sheep wool insulation:

That leads us right down to the basic issue of livestock farming and impact. Do we damage our environment by encouraging farmers to keep more sheep because they can sell the wool at a good price to companies that make insulation products?

Electricity would be from community wind and rooftop photovoltaics. "The power distribution system would be low-voltage DC, which suits both solar PV and computer systems, and minimises transformer losses. Diurnal and inter-seasonal energy storage would be provided by tanks and batteries."

We have been around this block many times. Every year it seems that DC makes more sense, and it is now really working its way into the commercial marketplace. I suspect that in a few years we will all be powering our computers and electronics through USB cords.

Bensonwood Factory

Bensonwood factory/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Overall, our sustainable office building would, of course, be a certified passive house and, by virtue of the renewables, an nZEB [Net Zero Energy Building]. It would also be manufactured off-site, delivered in panel form (because delivering volumetric buildings, i.e. transporting air, is a waste) and assembled on site.

YES! Delivering volumetric buildings also sets real limitations on form and increases the amount of material needed. And we do love Passivhaus.

Rows of dumb boxes in Munich

Rows of low dumb boxes in Munich/CC BY 2.0

Of course this building doesn't exist, and if it did, we might not even know about it. Small, boxy buildings don't get the clicks. I have had to write in praise of dumb boxes to defend buildings that aren't glitzy and glass.

But this is the way we have to start thinking about buildings. They have to be low carbon in their design and construction, and zero carbon in their operations. We are going to have to learn how to live with these limitations.