Offices change, accommodating new work styles

To appeal to various clients and work styles, office building design is shifting

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer January 10, 2023
Courtesy: Wind & Foster, HDR

Office building insights

  • Office building design is changing as owners and tenants expect more, especially flexibility.
  • Electrification, outside air and high-tech buildings are new trends in office space.

Miles Brugh, PE, Project Electrical Engineer/Manager, ESD, Chicago–Adrian Gray, C Eng, Eur Ing, Global Director – Commercial and Real Estate Sector, HDR, London–Matt Humphries, Associate Principal, Arup, Toronto–John Yoon, PE, LEED AP, Principal Engineer, McGuire Engineers Inc., Chicago



  • Miles Brugh, PE, Project Electrical Engineer/Manager, ESD, Chicago
  • Adrian Gray, C Eng, Eur Ing, Global Director – Commercial and Real Estate Sector, HDR, London
  • Matt Humphries, Associate Principal, Arup, Toronto
  • John Yoon, PE, LEED AP, Principal Engineer, McGuire Engineers Inc., Chicago

Creative engineering designs at London’s Art Deco 80 Strand breathes a new lease of life into an iconic building. The mechanical and electrical services have principally been designed to be fully exposed, creating a striking industrial style workspace and set out to complement the existing original structural grid. Courtesy: Wind & Foster, HDR

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

Miles Brugh: With people more aware of their time and specifically the time they spend getting to the office, we are seeing employers and buildings allocating more resources to improving their spaces. For employers, we are seeing them provide more flexible and comfortable spaces, increased collaboration space and improved technology, which all support the many changes that companies have seen over the past couple of years. For the buildings themselves, we are starting to see some movement on the building-provided amenity space including lobby improvements and added seating areas to provide users with alternative work locations. For new office buildings under construction, we are seeing these amenity spaces receiving much more time and attentional to provide an improved experience within these buildings.

Adrian Gray: Environmental and net zero carbon legislation. Many U.S. cites are applying legislation to policies that are already in place in Europe, with fines for noncompliance that increase at various gateways. This has been a driver for change in European cites as the road to net zero has been explored for more than two decades. In many cities in Europe for example, the allowable energy criteria have reduced to the extent that the standard practices for air conditioning solutions is no longer permitted. Mixed-mode and natural ventilation are now considered across most city center locations.

Matt Humphries: A key trend for clients is to build for the long term. The goal might be to build a permanent piece of infrastructure to incorporate that isn’t thought of with an end date in mind, but as a permanent, ongoing part of their portfolio. Clients have a better appreciation of the full life cycle cost of buildings. As clients they have a view to the long-term for operating costs, but are also mindful of incorporating what we are finding works well. Geo-exchange, ground-source heating for example and minimizing combustion. In terms of sustainability, the bigger trend is the focus on carbon and future energy costs.

John Yoon: Even a half-full building still needs to be properly conditioned. However, the load profile of most buildings typically doesn’t scale linearly with occupancy, resulting in unexpectedly high operational costs. As buildings continue to be half full while most tenants are still “work from home” or hybrid, I expect to see a continued emphasis on design solutions to minimize those operational costs — especially in existing buildings. The lowest hanging fruit seems to be retro-commissioning and similar programs that are often incentivized by utility company rebate programs.

What trends do you anticipate in the next year or two as hybrid work remains in flux?

Matt Humphries: The pandemic has created other drivers. A key driver is getting as much fresh air into buildings and keeping the air as clean as possible. Of course, it is true that developing mechanical systems that provide the healthiest air at lower energy costs is a “battle” against two different outcomes. Strategies we used include energy recovery on exhaust and filtration/treatment to reduce pathogen concentration in the airstream.

Miles Brugh: I expect that employers will continue to experiment with their spaces and move and adjust based on user feedback. Flexibility is going to be a larger priority in the decision making for projects so that the space is able to adapt to the changing workforce.

Adrian Gray: Environmental, social and governance, or ESG, requirements of building occupiers is an increasing trend toward new and refurbished buildings to meet the latest sustainability benchmarks. This in turn is driving a program of comprehensive refurbishment of existing buildings as older properties become less desirable. In London all new major development projects have to take account of the embodied carbon required in demolition and construction. At HDR we have developed digital twin modelling tools that can accurately predict the future energy savings of energy reduction measures, allowing our client to proceed with renovation with confidence that the targets will be achieved.

John Yoon: The greatest trend is uncertainty. While it hasn’t reached the same levels as the Great Recession of 2007-2008, the parallels are uncanny. During the Great Recession, companies disappeared overnight, dramatically driving up vacancy rates and cratering commercial real estate valuations. While the job market has been unusually healthy while recovering from the great pandemic, the explosion of working remotely has caused office workers to disappear from the central business districts in most cities, leaving half-filled office buildings in their wake. It isn’t clear when or if those workers will come back.

Uncertainty is bad if you need access to capital from lenders. Engineers often forget that office buildings are bought as investments with an expected rate of return. Traditionally, CRE has been perceived as a safe and stable asset class. However, the valuation of any CRE is dependent on net operating income. NOI is gross rental income less expenses. With many tenants underusing their office suites, requests for rent abatements, delayed payment and/or sub-leases has exploded. With less rental income and relatively static operational costs, the valuation of the building dips. When the valuation of the building dips, the building owners’ access to new financing for capital improvements and tenant buildout construction costs also goes away. And without access to financing for construction projects, the ability of the building owner to attract new tenants is diminished. This start a vicious cycle that is difficult to break out of.

Regardless of if a building is fully occupied or not, base building equipment still wears out and will need to be replaced. If traditional financing cannot be secured for these types of capital improvement projects, there are innovative financing methods such as property-assessed clean energy loans that may become more attractive.

What types of office building assessment programs are owners adding to ensure tenants are breathing healthy, clean air?

John Yoon: In direct response to COVID concerns, we’ve seen an increase in ASHRAE Standard 62.1: Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality compliance study requests. However, recommendations for increased ventilation often have a downside in increased operational costs.

Adrian Gray: During the COVID-19 pandemic, many building owners invited mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering consultants to identify upgrades to existing systems to prevent and/or mitigate the spread of the virus amongst building occupants. Many of the recommendations followed industry trends to improve ventilation and increase the amount of fresh air.

Matt Humphries: Overall, they are committed to getting as much fresh air into building and keeping the air clean.

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

Matt Humphries: The digital twin concept allows engineers to develop a model that you can use to analyze your current situation and adapt the way your building is being operated. Efficiency is now especially important. Since the pandemic, offices are not occupied all the time and we can’t make the same assumptions as before about the use of space and resources. We need to incorporate ways to know when lights are needed, for example, since knowing when a space is actually occupied can enable you to be more efficient.

John Yoon: Mention the importance of MEP systems to most building occupants, you’ll typically be greeted with a blank stare. When construction costs are fixed and they are given the choice between enhanced MEP system functionality and more tangible items, like nice furniture or fancy interior finishes, MEP typically loses. When that happens, the typical direction from the owner is to provide only basic code compliant systems. Conveniently, more stringent requirements associated with new energy conservation codes necessitate greater functionality anyway.

Adrian Gray: New buildings are being designed to reduce and or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions while also complying with local and state building codes. Additional measures may include enhanced building ventilation, energy recovery, airflow segregation and zoning, enhanced filtration measures and implementation of smart building applications. AT HDR we work closely with clients, using technical knowledge and expert modelling, to prioritize their requirements and develop the most economic building engineering services strategies.

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?

Miles Brugh: There is an increased emphasis on electrification; Chicago has mainly had the heating in building driven by natural gas. As we study the electrification options for our designs, we have to factor in larger electrical infrastructure from the utility company and how we distribute throughout the building. On the electrical side, we have to work closely with our mechanical engineering teams on their new strategies and approaches to provide more efficient spaces.

Adrian Gray: The move toward using cleaner electrical power has led to a more extensive use of heat pump systems as a replacement for traditional gas fired heating equipment. The use of clean electrical power is now considered for many new office development and refurbishment projects.

John Yoon: The first thing that comes to mind are dedicated outdoor air systems, known as DOAS. In the past, we’ve typically only specified DOAS for smaller buildings. It seemed like their use was set to explode with a proposed amendment to the 2024 International Energy Conservation Code requiring commercial buildings to have DOAS, but that was voted down. Regardless of the code, we’ve been specifying them more frequently on adaptive reuse of existing larger office buildings to maximize ceiling heights. Higher ceilings are another common owner’s request.