Commoditised or ‘play it safe’ design in the UK is regularly resulting in building systems with 50% more electrical capacity and 30% more heating and cooling capacity than is ever needed. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, if the industry learns to use data and analysis to design building systems in a better way, we could save £70m in capital expenditure and 23,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum – and that’s just on the systems of the buildings already under construction in London!

The industry is over designing

The industry is simply over-designing in its efforts to achieve technical compliance and is consequently installing too much capacity in building systems. Our analysis shows that in the UK, designing to current Codes and Guidance and pressurised consultants commoditising and re-using ‘safe’ designs, often with only minor adaptations from previous projects, is resulting in massive inefficiency. The reality is there are smarter ways to achieve, and indeed, exceed compliance standards without increasing capital expenditure.

We have studied the operational energy performance of over a hundred commercial properties within our clients’ UK portfolios using real life data. We’ve identified that often 50% of the electrical supply capacity will never be used, and 30% of both the cooling and heating installed plant capacity will never run. And of course, the space required for all this unnecessary plant will exist for the lifetime of the building and never be monetised.

Normally, designers will look to buildings codes, occupancy levels and the extremes in environmental conditions to inform design. But this is causing significant waste and inefficiency in plant operation. Our findings show that there is a huge gap between predicted performance and reality. The key to efficient design is to really understand how a building will perform, by simulating its operation early in the design development, allowing more informed decisions to be made, and so deliver leaner buildings. We have also learned from our work in extreme environments and applied it back into the UK to deliver leaner systems.

Whilst building owners and developers might make some savings on initial design fees and take comfort in having a building ‘designed to the codes’, they get a sub-optimal outcome for tenants, for users of the building, for the environment and, of course, for themselves. Over-design is wasting capital investment for building owners and driving higher energy consumption for building occupiers. Nobody wins. We need to break free from outdated delivery models and conventional thinking.

Procurement is stifling progress

It’s telling that most procurement documents look the same as they did 15 years ago. Price is of course still the key factor in determining contract awards, and so innovation is rarely encouraged or recognised. Is it therefore any wonder that the industry feels paralysed and plays safe by re-using fairly standard designs? The full capabilities of talented engineers in our industry are not being harnessed by the market and there is little prospect of improving industry productivity unless something changes.

But we are not without hope. We are working with several forward-thinking clients who think differently. They have trusted us to take their business further, faster, and are collaborating with us in partnership, not on a transactional basis. They are making the investment into greater upfront analysis and design, safe in the knowledge that they will gain greater returns for themselves and for their own customers. Such commercial gains are realised while also meeting, or exceeding, compliance standards, and improving wellbeing for occupants of the building.

Within our commercial portfolio, we estimate achievable savings to be in the region of £60/m2 in Cap Ex and up to 50% in both energy savings and carbon emissions. Scale this up to the 11.8 million ft2 of offices currently under construction in London and you see the scale of opportunity right now in our capital city alone – approximately £70m in construction savings and 23,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum. So, sustainable solutions do pay.

Driving efficiencies and saving money in the obvious and easy areas also enables those responsible for a building to dedicate a greater proportion of time and investment into priority areas, such as those identified in the Hackitt Review, to ensure a building works in the best and most safe way possible.

Learnings can be adopted from extreme environments

We have also learned from engineering in extreme environments where building solutions demand lean designs. By bringing these approaches back to the UK we can help show how we can avoid paralysing design professionals and unleash huge potential through the life cycle of a building by adopting ‘extreme for lean’ engineering principles, all underpinned by sound data analytics.

With the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the extreme environment makes designing differently a necessity! There are no codes to blindly follow for the British Antarctic region which forms part of the coldest and most remote continent on the planet, making safety and energy generation life critical. Working together, for the first phase of the Rothera Modernisation Project, Ramboll and BAS have developed a design that targets a reduction in energy consumption by up to 35%.

This was no mean feat. The site masterplan includes maintaining existing buildings and creating new ones and so we needed to assess the heating and electrical loads of all these buildings and numerous variables, simultaneously. With five million possible energy scenarios, finding the optimum solution would be like finding a needle in a haystack when using conventional iterative approaches. Instead, we incorporated a method for solving such a conundrum into a parametric modelling tool called the Evolutionary Energy Solver.

This solver mimics nature to identify the combination of inputs that will provide the best performing, or ‘fittest’ solutions – and ranks them. This approach reduced the time needed to identify these ‘fittest’ solutions by 88% and enabled Ramboll and BAS to quickly interrogate the options most suited to the needs of their organisation. Coupled with more efficient buildings and energy re-use, the end result provides a solution that will reduce energy consumption significantly in the first phase of the modernisation project.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, we employed our data driven approach at the UK headquarters of a global retailer to put employee health and wellbeing front and centre. We are delivering double the BCO minimum standards for fresh air per person without increasing plant capacity, but at the same time decreasing CO2 levels!

Through detailed collaboration with our client to understand how the building would be used in real life, we boosted fresh air in the areas of higher occupancy. At different times of the day, fresh air is moved from areas of low occupancy to areas that need it most. This approach resulted in a BREEAM Innovation Credit. Designing dynamic ventilation systems that respond to variable building occupancy could easily become the norm. It simply requires time and the commitment to collaborate, to analyse the data and to go beyond the code to seek better outcomes.

The industry is over-designing building structures too!

The challenge of over-design isn’t limited to buildings systems, the same holds true for structures. We’re participating in a really interesting initiative, led by the University of Cambridge, seeking to improve material efficiency across the construction industry.

So far, our research has demonstrated that design loading in offices may be more than double the loading that the building will ever experience in its lifetime. This stems from the notion of flexibility in office space. However, multiple occupancy surveys have shown that no office arrangement ever comes close to the design loads we are currently working to.

If you focus on office space under construction in London alone, we estimate that by challenging just the design loading alone, between 10,000 and 15,000 tonnes of embodied CO2 could be saved, as well as around £15m and £20m on construction costs through reduced slab thicknesses, column sizes and foundations. Add to this the time and workforce benefits, it’s obvious there is huge scope to significantly improve the efficiency of building structures. Look out for more on this from us in the coming months.

Why wait?

We are staring down the barrel at the impacts of climate change, resource efficiency, digitalisation, economic difficulty and extreme pressure on industry productivity. We have the tools, the know-how and more importantly, the data. We can turn design on its head and enjoy the fruits of more economical, sustainable, safe and comfortable and compliant buildings. So why wait?