Mark Harris

The green office Office politics: Mark Harris goes in search of the UK’s greenest workplace

Britons are getting the green message at home, with domestic recycling rates quadrupling over the last decade, and low energy light bulbs, energy-efficient appliances and standby-savers growing in popularity. But that all changes when we step out our front doors, according to energy efficiency experts at the Carbon Trust.

They estimate that UK businesses waste over £2 billion annually as result of energy inefficiency – that’s the equivalent of needlessly pumping out 73,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every day.

Peter Hambly of the Carbon Trust says, ‘While people react to high energy bills at home, that doesn’t translate to environmentally-minded behaviour in the workplace.’ Robin Oakley, Senior Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace agrees: ‘We take responsibility within our own homes but at work it can be less clear where the responsibility lies.’

A glimpse at our cities’ glittering evening skylines reveals the scale of the problem: lights and computers that are left on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Oxford University estimates that up to 70% of all office computers and printers never turned off.

Research by the Carbon Trust suggest that two thirds of employees want to help reduce their company’s emissions – and that less than a fifth thought their bosses were doing enough to fight climate change.

Peter Haigh, a director at energy group E.ON (owners of Powergen), is adamant: ‘Businesses in the UK must take more responsibility to reduce their impact on the environment.’ E.ON is supporting this year’s 100 Days of Carbon Clean Up campaign (, starting on 12 September. The campaign is CIBSE’s (the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers) annual attempt to change energy use behaviour in the workplace.

CIBSE President John Armstrong says, “Having a set number of days allows organisations to plan their actions and keep to a time-frame, which helps to keep staff motivated. The 2006 campaign saw 560 organisations save as much as 10% of their carbon emissions over the 100 day period, on average each reducing their carbon emissions by 93 tonnes of CO2.”

This year, CISBE is sending out Low Carbon Consultants to provide free advice and training to help businesses reduce their carbon footprint. Armstrong says, “To move carbon savings on further this year, Action Packs will also contain a section on managerial initiatives as well the behavioural initiatives for staff.” (see 100 Days box out).

Of course, greening an office is about more than just turning off the lights on the way out. ‘Every new building is an opportunity to make use of the best available technology,’ says Robin Oakley. Wessex Water’s operational centre near Bath uses ventilation from prevailing winds to replace air conditioners, with south-facing windows that reduce lighting and heating bills.

And when Oxford University upgraded lights in the Radcliffe Science Library to only come on as readers approached book shelves, it slashed electricity use by over a quarter.

Going one step further is the new Innovate Office in Leeds, which gained the highest ever BREEM eco-rating from the Building Research Establishment. It’s made from pre-cast concrete panels using recycled aggregate, and is powered by efficient combined heat and power units.

Appropriately enough for Britain’s greenest office, it’s also smothered in plants. Rainwater is collected and used to water the landscaping outside and flush toilets inside. Even the roof has been seeded with plants to encourage native wildlife and act as further insulation.

Soon, all commercial buildings will have official notices that rate their carbon footprint. ‘Hopefully, just as most retailers now only stock A-rated fridges, companies that want to show they care about the environment will only rent A-rated buildings,’ says Peter Hambly.

‘Greenwash’ PR might spur some companies into action but Greenpeace’s Robin Oakley is more sceptical: ‘Interest from employees for green initiatives is usually bigger than a company’s response to it. It always comes down to the bottom line.’

In which case, figures from Npower are promising. It estimates that the average office can save £6000 a year with a few simple energy saving measures. Even expensive eco-friendly refurbishments can pay for themselves, with studies showing productivity rising by up to 15% after improvements to the work environment.

‘When employees take power for themselves for environmental issues, you very quickly see the results,’ says Hambley. So what are you waiting for?

100 Days of carbon reductions
Here are CIBSE’s top tips to save carbon
• Switching off the lights overnight in an empty meeting room throughout the year can save 440kg CO2
• Setting double-sided copying feature as default on the copier can save 1.5 tonnes of CO2 annually
• CRT monitors use twice as much energy as flatscreen LCD monitors, and all monitors use three times as much energy when turned on as in standby
• Switching off a photocopier at night and at weekends can save 20kg of CO2 a month and £35 a year
• Implementing a renewable energy system such as a solar water heating systems can reduce energy consumption by up to 5% and save on bills
• Recycling 1 tonne of paper is equivalent to providing heat and hot water for a home for a year, as well as saving 15 trees, 2.5 barrels of oil and over 30,000 gallons of water

The ultimate eco-office
England’s first Earthship, in Brighton, is designed to be a completely autonomous building. Made from a combination of recycled car tyres and local, natural materials, the Earthship aims to generate all its own electricity via solar and wind power, gather all water it needs from rain and treat of its waste – all within its own walls.

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