Adaptability and sustainability important trends in office building design

Key trends in the design of office buildings encompasses environmental regulations, the “flight to quality” and the evolving nature of hybrid workspaces

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer February 20, 2024
This office building rendering demonstrates the modern look and amenities owners are often looking for. Courtesy: Visualhouse for Skanska


Learning Objectives

    • Identify how top trends in office building design are impacting engineers and building owners.
    • Understand which codes and standards are important when designing office buildings.

Office building insights

  • Environmental and net zero carbon legislation around office buildings drives a focus on sustainability, energy efficiency and compliance with regulations to address climate change impacts.
  • The “flight to quality” trend emphasizes the importance of amenities, wellness options, flexible workspaces and outdoor spaces for office buildings.

Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology


  • Mark J. Richter Sr., PE, LEED AP, Client development leader, Principal, HDR Inc., New York
  • Peter Syntax, PE, LEED AP, MEP Practice Lead, Kimley-Horn, Phoenix
  • Mark Walsh-Cooke, PE, Principal, Americas east property business leader, Arup, Boston

What’s the biggest trend you see in office buildings?

Mark J. Richter Sr.: Environmental and net zero carbon legislation is a significant trend around the world. As we address the impacts of climate change, it will increasingly become central to the narrative of how the global community shapes the built environment. Many U.S. cities and states are enacting or initiating legislative policies built upon similar European policies already in place. These policies regulate and enforce annual greenhouse gas generated level compliance metrics through severe noncompliance fines. As such, design professionals will need to consult and lead their clients to cost-effective building solutions that will provide long-term regulatory compliance and sustainable results.

Mark Walsh-Cooke: One of the biggest trends I see is the “flight to quality.” The office buildings that have many amenities with options for wellness, food and outdoor space tend to lease well. Recently completed, leased examples in Boston include One Congress and Winthrop Center.

How are engineers designing office facilities to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs?

Peter Syntax: A lot of office space designs include more adaptable lighting controls and daylight harvesting at a local level. There’s also a trend to design more open office spaces toward the interior. This allows more natural light to enter the space, which conserves energy. Giving individual employees the ability to control the lighting in their office locations without impacting others has been difficult to navigate. Working with building owners, Kimley-Horn has developed standard control systems that can be used in a multitude of spaces to allow the flexibility tenants need.

Mark Walsh-Cooke: Many of the cities we work in have goals either around zero net energy, operational carbon reduction or requirements for full electrification. To help meet this need, one tool we are using is parametric energy modeling. This analyzes of thousands of options, which helps the owner make a more data-driven decision on which design options to proceed with.

As the technology develops for cold weather climates, one solution that is becoming more popular is air source heat pumps for both space heating and domestic hot water. For commercial life science projects specifically, this strategy can offset over 90% of the annual carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Mark J. Richter Sr.: COVID-19 had a significant impact on the corporate real estate market, specifically in the reevaluation of the workplace space model for corporate office buildings. This has resulted in adjustments on multiple fronts, including hybrid work schedules, hoteling coworking environments, lower-density workplace programs, communicable and dynamic amenity-driven program spaces, occupier health and safety concerns and employer and employee environmental stewardship. Unlike owners of newer offices, iconic and class A buildings, landlords of older, less desirable offices find themselves facing significant challenges due to aging infrastructure or a lack of new technologies and upgrades.

Therefore, the landlords of older buildings will require engineers to evaluate options regarding plant, distribution and energy conservation upgrades. They must weigh overall building investment operational savings versus installed costs. In addition, as the demand for tenant occupancy potentially reduces, building owners may need to modify their building program for a mix of tenures that is future proofed and resilient. For tenant occupiers, engineers need to find solutions to maximize workplace benefits.

What should engineers target when designing office buildings with a focus on long-term adaptability and resiliency for future technological and societal changes?

Peter Syntax: Flexible workspaces are the top priority. For example, walls and cubicles need multiple configuration options. Buildings also need to use interior walls for offices. In other parts of the office, engineers need to leverage open spaces with natural lighting and lighting controls. They need to manage the climate of open spaces to be consistent and demand-oriented. Some days spaces will be empty, while other days spaces could hold an all-team meeting. For energy efficiency, systems will need to operate based on demand rather than continuously during typical working hours.

Figure 1: This office building rendering demonstrates the modern look and amenities owners are often looking for. Courtesy: Visualhouse for Skanska

Figure 1: This office building rendering demonstrates the modern look and amenities owners are often looking for. Courtesy: Visualhouse for Skanska

Mark J. Richter Sr.: For new building developments, sustainability will be the primary driver in the engineering of office buildings. As with all sustainability approaches, regenerative design should be a consideration of building components as the engineers focus on minimizing the impacts of elements including embodied and operational carbon, triple next zero, health, wellness and resiliency.

Increasingly, the design community will take a more holistic approach when considering newly defined values for installation in buildings — from initial costs, operational costs, long-term building valuation and impact on the environment through its life cycle. Essentially, the industry will focus on the viability of green buildings. An engineer’s job requires looking past a building’s initial costs to provide operational efficiencies and value beyond the noticeable benefits to the owner and occupiers. Regarding building systems, optimizing both the reduction and elimination of greenhouse gas emissions, while still complying with local and/or state building codes will remain a primary goal of for mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) engineers. This will expand renewable energy source integration into conventional building plant model considerations.

What types of products or systems are you importing from the design of other building types, such as outside air, combined heat and power or other technologies?

Mark J. Richter Sr.: Although each building has unique load profiles, some common high-efficiency denominators can be established and compared with other typologies to identify synergies. For example, the building engineering services design for data centers has now been adopted and implemented for other types of buildings. Typically, we undertake robust energy modeling to identify multiple system types that can be quickly evaluated based on economic factors and sustainability targets. Renewable energy options should be considered, providing sustainable benefits to support more conventional, high-efficiency MEP systems on the market. In addition, as building source plant design approaches become optimized, engineers should shift their focus toward distribution efficiencies within the building.

Please explain some of the codes, standards and guidelines commonly used during the project’s design process for office facilities. Which codes/standards should engineers be most aware of?

Mark J. Richter Sr.: MEP-related work must comply with state, local municipal and, in some cases, local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) requirements. Typically, most building codes use International Code Council (ICC) and reference NFPA standards for life safety and fire protection. The ICC codes vary from state to state and municipality to municipality, specifically in which ICC code editions have been adopted in building and energy construction codes. Local AHJ requirements usually relate to life safety requirements and primarily focus on additional fire alarm and fire protection system requirements. These codes include NFPA 70: National Electrical Code (NEC), NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, NFPA 780: Standard for the Installation of Lightning Protection Systems and NFPA 110: Standard for Emergency and Standby Power Systems.

Select federal requirements are mandatory based on specific building program requirements, usually where federal and/or state government jurisdiction is involved in the development approvals. In addition, there are standards that are typically referenced either within respective codes, owner requirements or owner insurance underwriter or design consultant recommendations. These include the ASHRAE, NFPA, NEC and International Standards for Sustainable Development.

Mark Walsh-Cooke: The biggest change we’re seeing in ordinances, codes and standards is the move toward full electrification with a goal of zero carbon — in many cases before 2030 — such as the building emissions reduction and disclosure ordinance and the building energy use disclosure ordinance in Massachusetts and Local Law 97 in New York.

What are some best practices to ensure that such buildings meet and exceed codes and standards?

Mark Walsh-Cooke: We would recommend using parametric energy modeling from the earliest phases of design to optimize the façade and building systems. Another consideration is the design of the façade to meet passive house standards. This is regularly considered for multifamily housing projects, but we’ve also seen examples of office buildings adopting this technology.

Mark J. Richter Sr.: State and local building and energy codes mandate the minimum requirements for development and construction compliance. MEP engineers should focus on best practices that improve life safety, fire protection, energy efficiency, sustainability, high-performance buildings, resiliency, maintenance and operations. This can be accomplished through feasibility and code studies at the early stages of project development and through discussions with the clients to identify areas that will have a significant impact on building performance, operating costs, tenant occupier satisfaction and future building valuations.

How are codes, standards or guidelines for energy efficiency impacting the design of such buildings?

Mark J. Richter Sr.: Across the industry, it is commonplace for a brief to be developed within the parameters of a client’s budget. Codes, standards and guidelines provide the framework for the development of a building’s minimum requirements. However, I hope that design professionals will push the boundaries in these briefs, based on industry trends, best practices and innovation. This requires a proactive communication process where advantages and disadvantages can be weighed against owner concerns.

Mark Walsh-Cooke: Unless a district energy option is available, the push for full electrification requires more roof space to be made available to incorporate air source heat pumps. In some jurisdictions, it also requires the provision for future photovoltaic panels to generate power on-site.

Additionally, we are seeing some locations start to put a focus on embodied carbon in the building construction. Mass timber is now often considered as a viable structural option for smaller and midsized office buildings, particularly now that the new code will allow increased height.

What are some of the biggest challenges when considering code compliance and designing or working with existing office facilities?

Peter Syntax: Some of the biggest challenges are the cost associated with upgrading building conditions to meet current codes, while still providing the environment that is expected or wanted. If you go into an existing building, the architecture or structure may not allow to design for a fresh environment.

Mark Walsh-Cooke: Previously, the challenges were renovations potentially driving seismic upgrades, but a new issue is renovations potentially driving upgrades in the façade of the building. International Energy Conservation Code 2021, requires comparison of the proposed design with the existing building. If the energy cost exceeds 110%, then the code performance requirements come into effect.

What are some of the challenges that exist between what the building owner wants, how the building needs to accommodate occupants and complying with particular codes and standards?

Mark J. Richter Sr.: COVID-19 significantly impacted the corporate real estate market, specifically in the reevaluation of the workplace model for office buildings. Due to a now accepted hybrid work model, there is a significant supply of corporate tenancy space available — resulting in competitive leasing structures to draw remaining potential tenants to buildings. As tenants and corporations seek to lease offices that have strong sustainability credentials, many buildings that have remained static will continue to see low or declining leasing rates.