If you ask me

This issue looks at the changing requirements for office space calling for intelligent and green buildings and the 'harder' sciences are enjoying a revival among students.

Office specification redefined

Neil Pennell, British Council for Offices

This is a pivotal time for UK commercial property development. The last property cycle was driven by a robust economy, high employment and readily available low-cost finance. A generation of sophisticated, high-quality buildings has been delivered on the back of historically high capital values.

But as we all look out for 'green shoots', what will be different about the next generation of office buildings?

Recent weeks have seen the publication of the 2009 edition of the 'British Council for Offices Guide to Specification', the document which since its launch has become an accepted industry standard.

As occupiers seek to optimise their space, and the sustainability agenda takes hold, the new guide evaluates the steps that need to be taken to ensure viability.

New research commissioned to inform the 2009 edition covered subjects ranging from internal office temperatures to occupier densities and small power consumption. All the key design parameters have been revisited and updated to reflect best-practice.

The users of office space are people, and their needs in the workplace underpin the internal design parameters used to define performance requirements for building services systems - perhaps these should be redefined as "people services systems".

Fundamental to ensuring appropriate levels of specification is identifying the number of people likely to be in a given floor space at a particular point in time. The BCO's occupancy study of 249 UK properties comprising over 2,000,000 sq m of net internal office areas showed that space is being more intensively used than previously seen as occupiers seek to use their property assets as efficiently as possible.

Changes have been driven by a move from hierarchical to flat organisation structures, and from transactional and individual working to knowledge-based interactive and team-working styles. Rising space costs have also been a factor, as has technology with more computer-based work and less paper allowing smaller workspaces.

It is clear that the next generation of office buildings will need to work harder than ever before to meet the needs of their users, while minimising the use of energy and valuable resources. Designers will face many challenges, balancing the requirement for comfort, security, productivity, flexibility, adaptability and resilience with the need to minimise carbon emissions, water use, waste and the use of raw materials.

Successful buildings are sustainable buildings, designers who best meet the challenge will see their efforts rewarded through the longevity of the buildings they produce and the added value attracted in the marketplace. The next generation of buildings will be intelligent and green. The development of fully integrated building automation and management systems operating over common network systems will ensure that the building responds to the needs of its users using just-in-time provisioning and demand-led control, maximising its operational efficiency at all times.

The UK property industry is recognised for its innovation and refinement and the quality of its practitioners. The BCO Guide is unique in that it brings together the knowledge of industry professionals across the full spectrum of building design disciplines into one document and is underpinned by up-to-date research in the workplace.

For those who work globally, there are no readily available equivalent national publications and, in my view, there is future potential for the Guide's recommendations to be refined to suit local market conditions and customs, allowing it to be used to create international benchmarks to define what is best in office design.

Making the grade

Dominic Lenton managing editor

Education doesn't usually get an easy ride in the media, but the recent announcement of GCSE and 'A' level results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland prompted the annual frenzy of pictures of ecstatic teenagers celebrating yet another year of record-breaking grades. This was closely followed, as it is every year, by the sceptical questions about whether youngsters really are getting smarter.

Readers who know anyone who has taken exams in recent years can make their own minds up about the value of today's qualifications compared with previous decades. Or perhaps you've had to select interview candidates from a pile of A*-studded CVs and seen how useful they are for spotting who's going to make the grade in the real world.

One thing that's clear from this year's morass of statistics is that the science subjects which underpin engineering and technology are enjoying a revival in fortunes. Even as the number of teenagers slips into decline, more and more are shunning 'easier' options and combined science courses in favour of old-fashioned physics, biology and chemistry.

Entries for separate GCSEs in these three subjects - traditionally perceived as 'hard' options - were up by around 20 per cent. The story was the same at 'A' level, where maths and physics both saw more modest rises.

What's behind this sudden enthusiasm? The students who took exams this year will have chosen their subjects in 2007 or earlier, long before there was even the hint of a recession that could have made science a smarter option than media studies. So it's not really an indication that lean times are prompting them to think harder about how employable they're going to be on leaving school or university.

Maybe they're getting better advice? Not according to the Engineering & Technology Board, which has identified big discrepancies in how good this is depending on where you live. Citing a study suggesting that more than half of England's young people may not even get a single careers interview before they leave school, the ETB is campaigning for children to be assured of receiving guidance on the paths to the job they want from as young as nine.

Could it be a straightforward revival in the status of science and engineering in the eyes of the public? In a separate ETB survey, 88 per cent of those questioned said they would recommend a career in engineering to their family, friends or children, a massive increase on the 66 per cent who said they would a year ago. More good news for the long term, but it doesn't explain a two-year-old upturn in interest in related academic subjects. The real explanation may remain a mystery, but it is at least evidence that concerted efforts over a prolonged period to change perceptions of engineering may finally be paying off.

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