In sustainable construction it has become commonplace to focus on carbon footprint. We cleave to the metric of kg CO2e / m2 for both operational or embodied carbon. This has clearly grown out of the practice of valuing buildings by floor area. Yet this measure of sustainability is largely meaningless to the leaders of businesses that will occupy our buildings.
Businesses have their own measures of performance and success. In commercial enterprises these are likely to involve profitability and productivity ratios. Schools will measure their performance in terms of learning outcomes, hospitals by recovery rates. None of these measures relates to floor area.
A business leader choosing premises needs to evaluate many criteria. It is well known that location is a primary consideration. Design, as in the overt appearance, may also play a role. However, since assessing performance against building carbon footprint quickly becomes complex, it is rare that sustainable design gets sufficient consideration.
By sustainable design, I of course mean design that addresses the social and economic performance of business, not just the carbon footprint of buildings. There is plenty of evidence that well designed workplace leads to happier and more productive staff. This should be of immediate interest to a business leader, as the cost of staff dissatisfaction and absenteeism is likely to far exceed the cost of energy in offices.
On the other hand, less tangible design features should also feature in property decisions. Workplace designs with higher carbon footprints, such as air-conditioning, may actually permit higher occupation densities, in other words more staff in the same space. These considerations should also be critical in the choice of premises if only the benefits could be made explicit.
The simple metrics of construction cost and carbon emission by floor area do not reveal any useful information about the true benefits of a building’s design. Imagine instead metrics for office buildings of construction cost and carbon emission per workstation at design occupancy. These give direct measures of the efficiency of the design in terms that are meaningful to the occupier.
These metrics allow true comparison between naturally ventilated out of town offices with low occupation and a densely occupied, air-conditioned, city-centre offices. These metrics would allow a business leader to immediately relate productivity to resource consumption via the vector of staff. This is a compelling tool for property related decision-making.
It doesn’t end with commercial offices. If we understand the end user businesses a little better we can develop metrics for cost and carbon efficiency appropriate to any business sector. We would measure the efficiency of a hotel by bed space and a distribution warehouse by the number of pallets of goods accommodated. It will require some work to establish suitable measures at the outset, but this will lead to better business outcomes for us as well as our customers.
The recent RIBA survey of chartered practices revealed that the majority do not have a business plan nor set themselves business performance targets. We would probably also find this to be true of consulting engineers and other related professionals. This lack of familiarity with business issues could be limiting our ability to communicate with our customers in language familiar to them.
If we want to see substantial change in sustainable construction we may need to start by changing ourselves a little. A bit more business savvy would not go amiss. Not only would we be more successful in the business of making buildings, but we could learn the language of business to better communicate our skills and ideas to our customers. Measuring the cost and impacts of buildings in terms that are evident and compelling to business leaders has to be a good start in the transition to a new paradigm.