How do we Achieve Net Zero in the Workplace?

Heather McLean


How do we achieve Net Zero in the workplace?

That was the question Morag Dearsley, Associate, and Andy Sives, Design Director, of Form Design Consultants have been asking themselves. To help answer the question we invited a group of respected property professionals to a round table event, to discuss this complex issue.

Representing JLL was Director of National Office Agency, Craig Watson. Craig has been advising property companies, pension funds and individuals on how to get the most out of their portfolio for two decades. As someone who is involved at the front end of a project, we were delighted that Craig could join us.

Yasemin McClelland is an Asset Manager for Property Investment and Development company, Ediston. We invited Yasemin for her passionate support of cost-effective, sustainable, design solutions and asset management knowledge. We also love her ‘no holding back’ opinions!

XBuro is a mechanical and electrical services consultancy. We were delighted to have Sarah Peterson, Energy and Sustainability champion, and Head of the Edinburgh office, in attendance. Sarah is the chair of the Association for Consulting and Engineering (ACE) and was previously awarded Net Zero Advisor of the Year.

Offering a different perspective on sustainability in the built environment was David Shaw, Director of Edinburgh based cost consultants, Torridon. David experiences first-hand the financial challenges building owners and occupiers face meeting Net Zero targets.

Finally, we asked Managing Director of MPact Group, Dean Stevens, to join us. MPact is a leading commercial fit-out and maintenance contractor based in Edinburgh and Glasgow. They work on both CAT A and CAT B projects, and pride themselves on their approach to sustainable construction.


To kick off the discussion we asked everyone,

Who is driving change to achieve Net Zero, and where are the blockers?

The aligned opinion was that the Private Sector was leading the change process, and that Government could, and should, be doing more to facilitate this. Sarah explained that the government tends to focus on building Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) ratings, and this was a poor and inconsistent way to measure energy efficiency. For example, England and Scotland have different methods for calculating an EPC, which confuses the validity of the result. This lack of standardisation has seen the widespread adoption of building accreditation schemes such as BREEAM, LEED, and WELL AP.

However, this is having both a positive and negative impact. On the positive side, accreditation is driving forward sustainable design solutions. Dean suggested accreditation would ensure the better maintenance of buildings because many certified schemes require continued assessment. Many ‘green’ buildings now demand that tenant fit outs meet the same standards provided in the base building specification.

On the downside, like most accreditation schemes, the process can be time consuming and add additional expense, straining already tight budgets. Nevertheless, for many businesses, the cost associated with accreditation is worth it, providing the best environments for their people and helping to attract and hold on to the best talent. International law firm Pinsent Masons’ WELL Certified™ Gold Edinburgh office, design by Form, being a case in point.

The demand for more sustainable buildings is growing. Craig reported an increased requirement for greener buildings, with many tenants willing to pay more for properties with good sustainable credentials. He also provided an interesting statistic from a recent JLL survey. In 2022, 33% of 18 to 24-year-olds stated they have rejected a job offer because of a company’s poor ESG policy. This can only be viewed as a positive for the future.

So, what are the blockers?

For building owners and landlords, both cost and logistics are factors. Many existing multi-tenant offices have dated building services that cannot be upgraded in isolation. Major building services upgrades require the whole building to be vacated. Craig and David highlighted several buildings that are partially occupied but hold long lease agreements, which run to 2029. This presents an obvious problem when trying to plan for Net Zero in 2030.

Another key consideration is whether landlords are prepared to invest in building refurbishment, or whether they would prefer to demolish and re-build, which is often an easier and more profitable option. This question moved the debate to new versus old buildings and which option is the most sustainable.

Should we be demolishing buildings that are deemed to be end of use, or should we be finding new uses for them?

David shared his view that new buildings will be better, operationally, however the embodied carbon to build them, and even demolish what was on the site previously, has to be measured. Yasemin made a further point –

Who can judge whether a building is at ‘end of use’ when perhaps a change of use would be the answer?

It was collectively agreed that this question is one for industry experts and professionals, and should be supported by Government and Planning Policy.

The question around new or old building and Planning Policy led the discussion onto the topic of home working.

Were there any environmental benefits to be gained through the adoption of widespread homeworking?

The answer is clearly, yes.

Reduced commuting means less cars on the road, etc. It is evident, on a Monday and Friday, that the roads are quieter. Craig questioned whether the Friday office was a thing of the past, noting he had not done a Friday viewing in a long time. He backed this up with the fact that he represents clients across several sectors, and this was consistent across them all.

If we were to close our offices on a Friday, would this allow floors, or entire buildings, to be powered down?

Would this help old buildings without the technology to control individual floors?

Would we all end up burning more gas to heat our individual homes?

What happens to the hospitality industry who used to thrive on our Friday custom?

Many questions with no simple answers.

Technology in the workplace will play a significant part in helping us achieve Net Zero. ‘Smart Buildings’ are the future, but what are the main issues? David felt that many older buildings have the potential to be more sustainable. It’s sometimes the case that building users don’t fully understand how to control their environments. Dean raised the point that systems are often poorly maintained and become less efficient as they have an increased reliance on human intervention. The move towards AI, and improved predictive maintenance, will improve this.

One of the advantages of smart enabled buildings is that they allow data to be gathered through sensors. Occupancy, room use and air quality can are monitored so services can be adjusted to reduce energy consumption. Unfortunately, as Dean explained, many buildings are moving towards closed protocol systems. Effectively, the technology is in place, but requires to be ‘unlocked’ at a cost to the occupant. This trend needs to change. At a time when businesses are experiencing financial pressures, we need to avoid unnecessary obstacles.

To round off the evening, we discussed the circular economy in relation to construction. Attendees agreed that the approach to CAT A fit-out had to change. Dean was concerned about the number of CAT A landlord fit-outs that are stripped out to accommodate the tenants’ fit-outs. As a project team, we need to embrace technology such as Virtual and Augmented Reality to promote office space. This will reduce non-recyclable waste such as metal ceiling grids and tiles. Where there’s no option, we should look to re-use, re-purpose, or look to manufacturer ‘take-back’ schemes. Form Design Consultants has been working with a developer to remove suspended ceiling grids for one of our clients. The developer has now installed these ceilings in another local property. Not perfect, but considered.

After almost two hours of discussion, we concluded that broad collaboration was key. Hearing the thoughts and opinions of a property agent, an asset manager, a cost consultant, a contractor and other design consultants was very insightful. We must strive for the early appointment of professionals, such as sustainability experts and cost consultants. This will allow us to educate and help our clients with important decisions. 2030 is just around the corner.

The question is...

Will we be ready?

(report by Andy Sives, Aug 2023)