Planning for Perfection

By John Magliano, P.E., Chairman and CEO, Syska Hennessy, New York October 1, 2005

In 1991, seven Syska Hennessy engineers defined the perfect office building (see “Planning the ‘Perfect’ Office Building,” CSE, June 1991). Fourteen years later, new chairman and CEO John Magliano and other current Syska experts took some time to evaluate the predictions from the previous article, uncover today’s trends and look into their crystal ball to find out just what will make the office buildings of the future tick.

“The perfect office building is not a concept that is easily quantifiable. It is one of those notions that conjures up different pictures in each person’s mind, just as one person will see a Dalmatian when you say the word “dog” and another will see a beagle…

A perfect office is one in which the engineer uses his or her talents to bring innovation to the building. Innovation, of course, should be thought of as the development of new ways to use existing products in a matter that enhances the project. It shouldn’t be thought of strictly as developing the newest method for saving energy or lighting an office…

The intelligent office building is one that intelligently applies technology to solve the problems it faces. I hope you come away with the understanding that no prototype perfect office exists. It is the consulting and specifying engineer’s responsibility to investigate and thoroughly understand the nature of a building’s goals and select and design the systems that enhance its ability to meet that mission.”

The preceding words are excerpts from the introduction of that 1991 story by then-CEO John Hennessy. Fourteen years later, John remains absolutely correct in his assessment that it’s really impossible to define the “perfect” office building since there is no such thing. In 2005, perhaps a better approach would be to ask: How can we bring “perfection” to a building, rather than calling the building itself perfect? The most effective way to do this is to meet the needs of the building’s owner and its user by matching their specific goals.

Today’s market is highly speculative; buildings are often bought and sold within two to three years. This significantly affects their design. An office building needs to be a chameleon so it can appeal to all potential owners.

Just after writing the 1991 article Syska Hennessy completed JP Morgan’s (now JP Morgan Chase) 1.7 million-sq.-ft. New York headquarters. This building remained at the top of the Morgan portfolio for 10 years until it was sold to Deutsche Bank. When it changed hands, much was renovated, including almost 200,000 sq. ft. of trading floor space. What made this building significant at the time was that its infrastructure was able to handle the system demands of the new client and accommodate significant system upgrades.

This is one example of how a building can meet the needs of its owners and users from its inception to the end of its life.

This flexibility, along with designing with an eye for sustainability and integrating physical security systems, are crucial objectives in today’s post-9/11 world.

Yesterday’s yearnings, today’s trends

Designing for a building’s lifetime is no different today from the past. As we wrote in 1991, “Anticipating the future demands flexibility.” With technology in today’s speculative market changing every 18 months, engineers must design with a certain amount of adaptability.

Up until the early 1990s, a major barrier was the fact that M/E/P systems were built in such a way that they could only communicate with other systems from the same manufacturer. These systems were a major challenge to an office building’s flexibility; they made designing for future changes increasingly difficult.

But by the mid-’90s, the “intelligent building” concept surfaced. The idea that systems could work together and communicate regardless of the manufacturer was truly a breakthrough. This led to digital building automation systems (BAS) that hoped to integrate mechanical and electrical equipment with lighting, plumbing, fire and life-safety systems, all in one. After 14 years of talking about it, these systems finally have the flexibility to communicate with anyone’s equipment anywhere.

Today the intelligent building is taken for granted. Most facilities have already converged their systems onto one communication network. M/E/P systems can be accessed at one station or even remotely via the web.

But in 2005, flexibility for the perfect office building also means providing building information modeling (BIM), a trend that wasn’t anticipated 14 years ago. It allows current and future owners and users to keep a complete composite model of the way the building was designed, including its architectural, mechanical and electrical systems together in a single model, leaving a coordinated and integrated understanding of the facility’s original design. What BIM technology has done for today’s market has been monumental.

When designing a client-specific building, Syska often looks into the future. The client may not own the building in 10 years, but they want to make sure it meets their uses today and is marketable and flexible should they want to lease it down the road.

Many building owners ask how they can spend the least amount of money and give the most flexibility to their users. About 12 years ago, Syska Hennessy designed an office building in Manhattan that would eventually need five generators for its power supply. At the time, however, only three were installed, with provisions for future needs. When the time came, none of the infrastructure had to be changed and the owner’s cost of upgrading was simply adding the extra two power sources. When flexibility is built into an office building from day one, its economic viability increases exponentially.

Green office machine

Interest in sustainable design has increased dramatically in the last 14 years. When the 1991 article was written, the focus of environmentally conscious designers was primarily energy and water conservation. Today, other factors such as materials selection and indoor environmental quality have also become critical elements of the perfect office building.

With the success and widespread adoption of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Rating System, sustainability is now mainstream and common knowledge among savvy building owners and developers.

In the early ’90s, engineers were designing office buildings with energy-efficient building envelopes, HVAC and lighting systems. Today, energy-efficient measures used in the perfect office building also include: insulated glazing units with low-emissivity coatings, floor-by-floor distributed air-handling units, VAV air distribution boxes, underfloor air distribution systems, variable-speed drives, flow-pumping systems, fluorescent lighting with T-5 lamps and automation systems with energy-management control.

Hybrid centralized utility plants that utilize multiple energies, including natural gas, electricity and central steam, also allow a facility to be more energy efficient and flexible. This up-and-coming green solution can save on energy costs while also providing an office building with redundant sources of energy.

Digital Addressable Lighting Interface (DALI) technology has provided energy savings and revolutionized lighting systems. Previously, multiple lights were run and controlled by a single circuit. With DALI, light fixtures are individually addressable. Each circuit has its own IP address that is accessible from a network. Facility managers can reconfigure lighting circuits and change the way lamps work together. This helps building owners reduce energy expenses by allowing them to measure the amount of energy used by each light and make adjustments accordingly.

Sustainability has emerged as a key aspect in the design and construction of office buildings since the early ’90s. The perfect office building will integrate as many of these green design elements as possible, ensuring the greatest amount of flexibility and longevity.

A sustainable project the firm is currently involved in is the 187,000-sq.-ft. renovation of a 10-story federal office building in downtown Chicago that will consolidate the offices of several agencies, including the Dept. of Justice and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The project is seeking LEED certification and will entail M/E/P, fire protection and security upgrades.

As an example, the following technologies demonstrate the kinds of systems and issues engineers need to consider in delivering sustainable buildings:

  • Adaptive reuse

  • CFC refrigerant phase-out

  • Daylighting and daylight-responsive controls

  • Underfloor air distribution

  • Occupant control

  • An HVAC energy recovery system

  • Dedicated outdoor air units

  • Modular power and telecom/network wiring

Physical security and fire protection

Besides greener buildings and spaces, today’s office owners and tenants are demanding a higher level of physical security than ever before, with each element of the facility’s infrastructure being taken into consideration. Unquestionably, since 9/11, each element of the office building’s infrastructure has been affected. This has resulted in the creation of new products, the enhancement of automation systems, the restructuring of office architectural design and a new way to look at fire, life-safety and HVAC systems.

As an example, let’s take a look at fire alarm equipment. In the early ’90s, it was hard-wired. Today it’s addressable, intelligent and multifunctional. For example, the same device can be a smoke detector in one room and a thermal detector in another, providing ease of use and uniform maintenance. Life-safety device sensitivity can be easily changed to match different building environments. Modern fire and life-safety systems have digital voice capabilities that can alert occupants and maintenance personnel when something is wrong or when maintenance or cleaning is needed.

Another great improvement since the early ’90s has been color graphics for both fire/life-safety and building automation systems. When a life-safety alarm goes off, instead of just receiving an alphanumeric printout, systems now graphically indicate the problem area and how to get there.

BAS are also being used to perform automatic ventilation system shutdowns with the detection of chemical, biological or radiological agents. Each fan in an office building can be automatically shut down, with the option to use local fans in specific building sections. This requires BAS and security systems to be working hand-in-hand, another major advance in systems communication since the early ’90s.

The perfect office building should also include audio-visual devices such as speakers and strobes that meet ADA requirements by providing user-selectable levels of light intensity. New speakers manufactured today are louder and use less power than ever before.

Architects and engineers are also looking at emergency building exiting. The perfect office building should be able to exit its entire population quickly in the event of an emergency. It has wider stairwells, allowing a greater number of occupants to exit within the same amount of time. The structural integrity of the stairwells in these office buildings will be reinforced and fireproofed as well.

The next 14 years

Flexibility, sustainable design and physical security will continue to be central to the office buildings of the future. But, new trends will emerge as well.

A great deal of sophistication is on the horizon for high-density microenvironments. Office buildings will also include condo space; existing space will be subdivided into smaller office spaces under separate ownership. This means the building’s initial design will need to be increasingly flexible.

Syska Hennessy is already designing large, mixed-use buildings overseas, including hotel, condo, retail and office space, all in one. This requires a new set of rules and up to four different types of infrastructures under one roof.

Wireless technology has also taken off. GPS-level wireless systems with a wireless tent will be a reality for the perfect office buildings of the future. Managers won’t need to nail something to the wall to know where it is at all times or to reconfigure it. This is essentially what today’s hospitals are already practicing.

But, no matter what new trends surface in the next 14 years, Syska Hennessy will still be searching for the perfect office building design. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be around by then, or maybe the idea of the perfect office building will have evolved yet again.

5 Issues for Today and Tomorrow

Incorporation of building information modeling

Meeting security requirements—both physical and electronic

Meeting LEED/sustainability guidelines

Incorporation of hybrid utility plants

A dichotomy of power requirements ranging from as much as 15 to 25 watts per sq. ft. (to ensure reliability) to less than 2 watts per sq. ft. (to meet LEED guidelines)

A Different Set of Wires

Electronic infrastructure can be designed in a way to “future-proof” the perfect office building. As Syska Hennessy said in the 1991 article, “Designers and owners must be able to predict, as accurately as possible, short- and long-term demands that will be put on a building.” This is especially crucial when it comes to technology.

At Syska Hennessy, a client’s investment in technology is protected by designing for the technology superhighway: the next 15 years. This flexible infrastructure template allows building owners to take advantage of new advances down the road.

Some of the ways this is done is to design the cable management system in a way that accommodates future additions, moves and changes, implementing single-mode fiber technology in the infrastructure’s backbone and sizing the riser shafts and conduits in a way that supports telecom cabling. Additionally, ensuring that the facility’s infrastructure adheres to the latest industry standard is crucial. This includes making sure that the grade of horizontal cabling is consistent with industry standard recommendations, which are robust enough to support future bandwidth requirements.

In the 1991 article, independent telephone providers were the newest trend. Today, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP)—routing voice conversations over the Internet and wireless LAN—and the mobility of systems within an office space are both part of the perfect office building.

Another technology gaining ground is Power over Ethernet (PoE). This allows for the powering of network devices (COPI phone sets, wireless access points and more) to work over the same cable that provides network connectivity. Power is provided right off the network switch, eliminating the need for a separate device or additional outlets at the device.

Increased processing power has driven the need for more power and cooling as well. The coordination of M/E/P services, especially in data centers, is critical to maintaining the integrity of the network. In the early ’90s, data centers were approaching 50 watts per sq. ft. and trading floors were approaching 100 watts per sq. ft. Back then, the power a PC required was increasing. Today its decreasing. Data centers are approaching 300-plus watts per sq. ft. and trading floors 15 watts per sq. ft.

5 Issues in 1991

Clean power

Neat-appearing cabling

Incorporation of DDC and improved HVAC controls

Incorporation of UPS

Providing 6 to 10 watts per sq.ft.

5 Issues Then and Now

Energy efficiency


Reliable power

Greater employee comfort/work area control

System payback

5 Predictions That Have Been Realized:

Gray water reclamation

Underfloor air distribution

More ambient lighting

Non-chemical treatment of cooling tower water

Reclaiming condensate to pre-heat domestic water

Lighting Technology then and today:


Shielded recessed fluorescent troffers

T8s with electronic ballasts

Banks of manual light switches


Indirect, ambient lighting with daylighting

T5HOs with digital addressable ballasts

Occupancy sensors