Everything totally under control

Arguments with colleagues about whether the office is too hot or cold, or too bright or too dim, should soon be a thing of the past. In our increasingly automated world, systems have already been developed that can look after each individual employee according to their personal preferences. And it also means lower electricity bills

High-rise offices function like isolated habitats that are only connected to the outside environment via central ventilation systems, while also being artificially lit, heated and cooled, and insulated from air pollution. All they need is an energy supply, but this naturally means costs for each tenant as well as costs for the environment. Fortunately, energy usage can be controlled and we are getting much better at doing so. ”For many years, the standard way of controlling such systems as the ventilation was with an hourly work schedule – during the day a set amount of air that had been calculated by relevant experts was supplied to a given floorspace, but during the night, weekends and holidays the installation switched to a reduced setting,” recalls Sylwester Marchewka, the EMEA senior regional technical manager for asset services at Cushman & Wakefield. “The installation settings were largely dependent on certain assumptions, rather than on data gathered in real-time from sensors. The number of people in a building had no bearing on how the central ventilation system and the VAV [variable air volume] regulators worked,” he points out.

Ever since the outbreak of the pandemic, the usage of offices has become a great deal less predictable. The hybrid work model has become much more common, with the result that on one day there might be a hundred people in the office, but the next only ten. With such variability, it is not easy to work out an hourly schedule. “These days, automated systems provide us with the most flexibility and allow us to adapt offices in real-time. With such systems we can avoid generating additional costs, so that offices are as cheap as possible to maintain,” explains Anna Rębecka, the senior creative architect at Tétris. “All offices run on electricity – we can’t get away from that fact – but by using automated systems in a smart way, along with sensors and regulators, we can generate operational savings of 20–60 pct,” she adds. She also points out that with a well-designed system, individual users do not need to alter the settings. The system simply already knows what to do. “It’s more worthwhile to automate the office than to allow users to change the settings – sometimes the feeling of being too hot or too cold is either subjective or related to the air quality, such as the moisture levels being too low. An automated system should be set so that users feel comfortable and do not have to change the settings themselves,” argues Anna Rębecka.

The unseen spy

Automated systems process data gathered by sensors installed in the office space, “For example, Demand Control Ventilation (DCV) is a system that adjusts the ventilation to the current needs indicated by many different sensors,” explains Sylwester Marchewka. “CO2 sensors are some of the most common, but apart from those it is also worthwhile considering presence, temperature and moisture sensors. Combining all the data, you can create an algorithm for the expected ventilation levels,” he elaborates, while going on to say that in Poland we are only just starting to learn about such systems: “In Poland, a DCV system is generally used locally – for specific rooms in a building and these are normally conference rooms. But you can already see the trend emerging for using DCVs for open plan areas,” he adds, giving as an example the Warsaw Hub, a building managed by C&W.

Presence detectors are very similar to motion detectors but are much more sensitive. There is no need to move around or wave your hand, as the slightest body movement is enough for the sensor to register and count how many people are in a given area. “In this way we can avoid ventilating or heating empty rooms, while on the other, it won’t allow twenty people to gather in a room without having anything to breathe,” reveals Anna Rębecka.

She also goes on to provide other advantages of office automation, for example, self-adjusting artificial lighting levels using information from sensors. “The term for this is ‘daylight harvesting’. The more we use natural light, which changes from hour to hour, the more we will profit. It’s also important to manage the heating levels. For example, if there are many people using an office it becomes warmer, which needs to be taken into account,” she explains.

Sensors can also help organise offices and adjust space to meet current needs. “In this new age of hybrid working, sensors can tell us which areas are really being used by employees. Being able to check this in real-time is invaluable. I might see that throughout the day I have occupied rooms, but some of the desks are empty and nobody is sitting there. Then you can move these desks into storage and replace them with meeting booths,” suggests Anna Rębecka. “In just a few years of its operations, the needs of a company and its offices will naturally have evolved. The solution for this is data-driven design, which involves collating data on the small changes to the interior layout that are constantly made,” adds Anna Rębecka.

Playing the role of the interpreter

For many of the reasons already given, interior design now goes way beyond aesthetics and comfort in the workspace. “Tenants are aware of the importance of the indoor environment and how it affects employee well-being, so the bar is being raised higher and higher,” comments Barnaba Grzelecki, the founder and owner of the BitCreative office interior design studio, who then goes on to outline what this entails for how his company designs offices: “We start our work from the shell and core state, so that we have all the basic installations in place required for when the building is handed over. We then decide on the right number of sensors, devices and installations during the design work on the interior and later coordinate them with the BMS,” he explains. “The technology is now so advanced that we can monitor CO2 concentrations in rooms with the BMS and control them with damper actuators,” he says.

According to Anna Rębecka, the growing awareness among tenants of the need to provide employees with the right working conditions does not always go hand-in-hand with knowledge of the technical details or what such systems can provide. “Our clients need an architect or intermediary who can grasp their needs and translate them into the language of an installation designer, because both sides operate according to different concepts.” she insists. “At the estimate stage, clients can often reject certain solutions whose names mean nothing to them. After all, we are talking about something that cannot yet be visualised by the user. And once the sensors are installed, they are not even noticed. They are small and hidden behind counters, or they are in the wall, the ceiling or an installation,” she points out.

‘Green certification’ also takes into account the indoor environment as well as the running costs of the building with regards to the carbon footprint. If the space features increased use of advanced automated systems that ensure the comfort of the user while at the same time reducing the energy usage, more certification points will be awarded. “As interior designers, we coordinate the entire fit-out of the interior. We have a say in the final selection of the finishing materials that have to fulfil a host of requirements demanded by Well or LEED certification,” reveals Barnaba Grzelecki.

Anna Rębecka of Tétris is of the opinion that although sensors have to be installed in certified buildings by the developer throughout the entire leasable area, the future lies in making better use of the smallest components of such systems. “CO2 sensors, air purity sensors, which can detect when the pollen count in the air rises above normal levels, temperature sensors and moisture sensors... these all make up the basic components of an installation. But I believe we can personalise systems even further for offices to make them work even better. Knowing how the office space is to be used and knowing the working culture of a given company, we can create a simulation to find out which sensors it would be best to invest in and where best to locate them,” she says, adding that suppliers’ estimates can show how automation can generate savings in the future running of the office.

Thinking of the future

But before any profits can be made, there are also costs to be paid – not only to install the sensors and regulators themselves, but also for their servicing. Sylwester Marchewka points out that sensors require occasional calibration and VAV actuators need regulating. “Saving energy and reducing emissions will only be possible with regular professional servicing, which adds to the maintenance costs – and those in charge of budgeting and users need to be aware of this. The responsibility for increasing this awareness rests on the shoulders of company managers and facility managers. However, the advantages generally outweigh the initial costs. Moreover, the good of the environment should be the higher goal,” insists Sylwester Marchewka. “Despite all that, I’ve never come across an office building in Poland that was entirely operated using a DSV system. Maybe this is a result of the fact that we do not, as a country, have the legislation in place for such an approach. Technical requirements and standards do, however, specify the required number of air exchanges for a given type of room and the airflow rate in cubic metres per hour for one occupant for a given area. However, the permissible CO2 levels are not explicitly laid down in the standards,” he admits.

Nonetheless, Sylwester Marchewka is convinced that in the long run such automatically regulated systems will become de rigueur. “Fully automated control of the working environment is the future. We are slowly running out of other ways to reduce energy usage and we have to reach for the latest solutions, including those based on AI. BMS analytic layers – apps that adjust the heating, ventilation and air conditioning to the weather forecast – are certainly becoming more and more popular,” he points out. Anna Rębecka also feels that using data for optimisation has been applied with some success in production plants. “We only need to introduce the same systems to offices. We don’t have to rediscover America and think up something entirely new. We just need to look around and employ the most effective solutions that have already been developed. Every experienced architect should have many successful projects under their belts and the same must be true for installation designers. If we work together, then designing and implementing innovations will be much easier,” she insists.