Energy use in a shared office: who is responsible?

                                                            Faye Wade & Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute

We decided to write this article because this is a tough question that not many people talk about. Our department, UCL Energy Institute, moved into a refurbished office about a year ago, and a couple of research projects have been following the refurbishment process. Therefore we will use a combination of our experiences and the way things are generally done to talk about the main things that influence office energy consumption and whether there’s anything you as a building user can do if you’re stuck with an energy-inefficient office. In this article we assume that you’re an employee, as opposed to a cleaner or building manager.

1.  Who is involved in setting up and using an office?

To the left is a very simplified version of how an office comes into utilisation. In reality, such a diagram might look more like spaghetti than a linear process; we’ve made it more straightforward so as not to frighten anyone. We just wanted to show that before occupation, decisions have already been made by various parties about the nature of the heating, air conditioning, lighting and other energy-consuming installations. Any design and installation decisions made at this stage should make sure that the building will comply with the minimum efficiency standards given in the Building Regulations but don’t assume that they have been! It is only the building owner or occupier who (potentially) worries about the energy bills, or in your case the billing might fall on whoever manages each floor.

In terms of what actually gets put in, very rarely do the future occupants get consulted even though they will be the users. It didn’t even happen in our case – and we study energy in buildings for a living!

The handover stage, and commissioning, could both be valuable opportunities for the building owner or occupier to raise concerns about the installed systems, for example how they are controlled and their energy consumption. However, this process still doesn’t necessarily involve those that will actually use the building.  In our case, we just moved in and started working. For us, commissioning happened in several stages, with the building managers having to address several snags and missing bits here and there. In other words, there are lots of defaults set before occupation which, if not challenged, could result in high energy consumption.

We have been lucky enough to be able to provide feedback to our building owners and managers. A couple of members of the Energy Institute researched the lighting and the heating from energy use and occupant satisfaction perspectives and have been able to relay the results and suggested improvements to the building managers. An example is that originally the lights in the office came on automatically, regardless of whether they were needed, Faye raised concerns about this after commissioning and now we’ve got that changed, hopefully saving some energy. As part of a ‘living lab’ we are also getting some smart meters installed so that we can really keep track of our energy use.

But let’s assume that you’re not in the middle of a refurbishment and are set in the ‘occupation and maintenance’ stage. Let’s look at the different types of building ‘user’ in more detail, suggesting how they might influence energy use and how you as a tenant might be able to change things…

2.  More on the occupants

The boss: If you are a boss, you might be subconsciously influencing your employees’ energy behaviour. Jenny once worked in an office of a sustainability consultancy where, to decide whether it was acceptable to switch the air conditioning on, we went and had a peek in the boss’s office – and lo and behold, he had it on full blast. We advise bosses to use their influence for the benefit of energy saving, and to tell employees where he/she notices waste. We also appeal to you to communicate and represent employees in front of your boss (employees might not have access to building manager).

Visitors: People coming for meetings, etc, are also ‘users’ of the building, and even though it is unlikely that they can influence energy use, their view of the building might influence the bosses and building managers to take action. A big display energy certificate in the entrance makes sure everyone that comes in the building knows how it performs energy-wise. Also, as a visitor to other buildings you can have influence – my colleague who goes to the Institute of Physics a few times per year for meetings managed to get the wasteful halogen lighting in the lobby changed to LED lighting by sending several letters.

Cleaner and Security: What about people that come into the building after the 9-5 day is over? Even if you switch all the lights off, the cleaner might well come along and switch them all on again. We don’t think it’s part of current cleaner instruction to turn everything off. Could it be? And what about security? Do you have someone on site after hours that might be using additional energy? Are they using any required energy in the most efficient way possible?

Building Manager: The building manager decides how everything is run – this is the person controlling your building! If you’ve got problems with the building, this is the person you need to feed back to. Our building is one of many owned by UCL, and UCL Facilities and Estates manage it. We have a Building Management System (BMS) so Facilities and Estates can remotely control our systems; this is the same in many office buildings.

Employees (us!): Let’s face it: when it comes down to it, energy is used in offices so that we can do our work. The employees are the people that spend the most time in the building, so we can do the most to reduce its energy use, here are a few tips for how…

4.  What to do if you’re stuck with a sub-standard building

Now, you may have individual control, shared control or no control over certain energy services like lighting and heating…

Individual control

Even though you may think you have none of this, you probably do – for example, turn your computer off at the end of the day and disconnect other things on your desk like the phone, and if you have the guts, ask others to do the same.

Shared control

There are a few problems arising from shared controls, for example:

–          The ‘Everyone-leaves-it-to-everyone-else’ problem (this happened to us this week: I came into the Energy Institute on Monday morning to have someone tell me that the heating had been on all weekend)

–          The ‘peak-trough’ problem, which is as follows: Jenny wants the heating at 26 degrees, so turns the heating up to that. Faye comes past and prefers 18 degrees, so turns it down. Jenny turns it back up, perhaps because she is in a bad mood from excessive programming and wants to exert authority over the office. Faye turns it down. Hence, the system has to work harder.

Our solution, simple as it sounds, is not done very often: talk between yourselves about shared preferences. Perhaps it is not done very often because people don’t want to challenge each other’s actions, opting instead for changing the settings themselves. Also, this could help the everyone-leaves-it-to-everyone-else problem as you could vocalise the perhaps-held assumption that the last person needs to turn the lights and the heating off!

No control

Many systems are flexible, e.g. lighting can be put on different settings such as: default on, default off, go off after 20 minutes of no occupation… It is the building manager who is in charge of these settings. However, if the occupants have no idea of the existence of the different settings or the identity of the building manager, they are thus unlikely to be able to ask for less energy-consuming settings. Your boss should know who the building manager is, so we advise getting the support of a little group of you then going to the boss to request access to the building manager, to see what can be done.

If you do have no control, that might be a contravention of the Building Regulations – did you know that the following exists in the Non-domestic Building Services Compilation Guide (2010 edition):

Be aware that something called “Post-Occupancy Evaluation (POE)” exists. Although it’s not regulation at the moment, some buildings undergo one.  It’s basically a way of finding out whether the building is performing as designed, in terms of usability, energy efficiency and a range of other indicators. More information here:

5.  Conclusion

Although you maybe weren’t involved in the design process or the running of the building, know that you can influence its energy consumption – it’s important to take actions as an individual, to talk about the energy consumption of your office as a group, and to try to influence key people like the boss, the cleaner and the building manager.

It would be great if you could post a comment about your situation, things you’ve tried, what has succeeded or failed…

Happy Green Office Week from both of us!


2 thoughts on “Energy use in a shared office: who is responsible?

  1. Pingback: Green Office Week 2012 | | Optimising business by green means.Optimising business by green means.

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