Designing efficient office buildings with visual appeal

Office buildings can be highly complex, with complicated features and advanced technology. Experienced engineers share advice on how to handle these structures and identify trends impacting such structures now and in the future.


Jason Gerke Mechanical & Plumbing Group Manager, GRAEF, Milwaukee. Courtesy: GRAEFJames Hansen, PE, BEMP, LEED AP, Principal and Senior Mechanical Engineer, GHT Ltd., Arlington, Va. Courtesy: GHT Ltd.Tyler Jensen, PE, LEED AP, Senior Associate, Environmental Systems Design, Inc. Chicago. Courtesy: ESDJohn Yoon, PE, LEED AP, Lead Electrical Engineer, McGuire Engineers Inc., Chicago. Courtesy: McGuire Engineers Inc.



CSE: What's the biggest engineering trend you see today in office buildings?

Jason Gerke: Many of the projects we are currently designing include no or very open ceiling systems. This deviation from a more traditional lay-in ceiling system has caused us to rethink the layout of ductwork, locations of variable air volume (VAV) boxes, and potential HVAC breakout noise. While this is not an engineering-specific trend, it does require all of the building engineers to be more thoughtful in the design of their respective systems. Without ceilings, the layout of ductwork, piping, conduit, cable trays, and the building steel and concrete must have an aesthetically pleasing aspect to it, besides being functionally sufficient for the building. This is a trend that some engineers have an issue with because they do not feel it is their responsibility to create a design layout that works with the architect's plan for the building's visual appeal.

James Hansen: Providing tenants with a customizable building experience is becoming increasingly important, from an architectural and engineering standpoint. In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan-area office market, tenants are now taking ownership of their utility consumption, thoughtfully managing their waste streams, and demanding controllability in their building's operations. Property owners and developers have responded to tenant demands by requesting that, we as engineers, design HVAC, lighting, and plumbing systems that can respond to unique tenant requirements. As one of the leading consulting engineers in Washington D.C.'s very active commercial real estate market, we are also responding to these demands by specifying systems that have monitoring, ongoing accountability, and increased controllability, as opposed to maximizing capacity and providing over-redundancy.

Tyler Jensen: The biggest trend I see is that clients are looking to use their office buildings to differentiate themselves and create a competitive advantage. Office buildings are no longer just a place to house employees, but a means to attract and retain top talent and increase employee productivity. Owners want office buildings that provide access to daylight and views, proper ventilation and thermal comfort, and a healthful environment for their employees. I also have seen more intelligent building systems employed that create a positive, interactive experience for employees, guests, and operators of office buildings. End users want to be able to use their smartphones for access-control credentials, to reserve amenity space, to modify light levels and temperature of their space, and to interface with their office building.

John Yoon: Not an "engineering" trend per se, but there are significant trends in corporate office design that can have a dramatic impact on the supporting mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP) systems that we specify. A major driving force in office design is a need to use space more efficiently. There is a real cost associated with that space and the resources needed to support the employees using it.

The elimination of a standard workstation in favor of bench-style seating allows significantly greater density and is commonplace in "tech" companies. "Hoteling," where employees aren't permanently assigned desks or offices but rather move around on a day-to-day basis, also isn't a new concept. It is regularly employed where a significant percentage of the workforce works remotely. Hoteling helps "rightsize" the quantity of workspaces to more closely match the actual need. Technology is enabling the hoteling concept to go to the next level. It is still standard practice to assign offices/workstations/benches to permanent employees who generally don't work outside the office on a one-to-one basis.

However, in very large corporate environments, it is understood that there is always a certain percentage of the permanent workforce that isn't in the office for whatever reason (sickness, vacation, etc.). Also, many employers recognize a need for flexible seating to accommodate grouping employees together on a temporary basis for certain projects. But there is always a level of uncertainty regarding how many workstations/offices are actually needed. To address these issues, we're seeing the deployment of computerized "seat-management systems" that use statistical analysis of employee-attendance patterns and project staffing requirements to dynamically assign seating on a day-to-day basis and put more people in a smaller quantity of work areas.

The traditional diversities that are often factored into our MEP system designs for office buildings are quickly eroding. The combination of benching and automated hoteling concepts creates office spaces with unusually high population densities and little to no diversity. As such, the engineered factor of safety in our MEP systems has to be reconsidered for these types of office environments. This can be a challenge when renovating older office buildings in which the original engineers never anticipated this type of usage.

CSE: What trends and technology do you think are on the horizon for office building projects?

Yoon: Building owners are always looking for a way to gain a competitive edge and distinguish their property from the competition. For Class A, multitenant office buildings, the market for tenants remains unusually competitive and finding that special something to set a building apart is something of a holy grail. Unfortunately, this usually devolves into a "me too" attitude, where every building has to offer more or less the same feature set to attract new tenants. Often, there is minimal consideration as to the actual value of what's being installed. For example, you would be amazed at how many fireplaces we've designed for new shared-tenant lounges just because another building had that particular feature. The office building market is cyclical, with major trends developing at intervals of roughly 5 to 10 years. Not surprisingly, this interval mirrors the lease terms for most tenant spaces.

In the era of the late 1990s to early 2000s, having extremely robust base-building MEP infrastructure with high levels of power and cooling capacity was that holy grail. Then, when the U.S. Green Council's LEED v2009 was introduced, we saw a frenzy of LEED CS- and EB-certification activity to make buildings stand out from the pack. But eventually, after several years, the markets that we worked in reached saturation; it became more or less an expectation that Class A properties would already have LEED certification.

In the last year or two, the "next big thing" was to offer increased building amenities to prospective tenants. These shared amenities took the form of Wi-Fi lounges, party decks, fitness centers, restaurants, etc. However, it is expected that this too will quickly reach saturation—and may not be sustainable in the long term. The capital expense associated with constructing the supporting MEP infrastructure and the ongoing operational expenses (that may or may not be recoverable based on how the tenant leases are structured) are not insignificant. With the new norm being ever-increasing density in commercial office buildings, the primary question is when will we reach that critical threshold where it becomes detrimental to employee productivity? The expectation is that the next major trend will be a renewed emphasis on the health and well-being of building occupants to help offset this eventuality.

While the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI)'s WELL Building Standard is still in its infancy, it appears to foreshadow these next major MEP design trends. Expect to see increased requirements for indoor-air quality well beyond ASHRAE 62.1: Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality, an emphasis on the quality of illumination, and numerous other criteria that are incorporated into the WELL Building Standard.

Hansen: We're seeing the Washington D.C. market grow increasingly saturated with Class A office buildings. Energy efficiency is very important in our area. Ultimately, the office buildings that get (and stay leased) are the properties with highly efficient, customizable HVAC systems. Typically, the systems also have negligible aesthetic impact and low first costs for installation. We're seeing variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems satisfying these requirements for a variety of owner and project types.

Jensen: Forward-thinking owners will look beyond minimum energy code requirements and consider highly sustainable and even net zero energy office buildings. Net zero office buildings can create a powerful story around strong corporate values for employees and the public.

Gerke: There are so many networked communication systems in buildings today that it is surprising that companies have not developed a breakout technology that combines cabling systems. While some companies do offer project-development services to consolidate communication systems (ranging from HVAC controls to lighting controls and security/surveillance to servers), there is no one disruptive technology solution that has combined all these systems on a single cabling backbone linked to a single networked control system. Today's solutions still include multiple controllers to individually handle most systems.

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