Can buildings increase productivity?

26 Oct,2010

The last two decades have seen a frenzy like none other to put up commercial office buildings. Fuelled by the revolution that the presently $80 billion IT and ITES industries brought along with their insatiable appetite for world-class buildings, many sensed a gold rush. Fresh graduates, who till then had led modest middle-class lifestyles were suddenly led from one lavish city lifestyle to another. With this came world-travel and as a result increased exposure and most of the IT workforce in their late twenties and early thirties refused to accept anything other than ‘world-class’. Ask any HR manager and out would come tales of employees spending more time crafting complaint letters about office work environment when they should have been ideally writing code. But then, one cannot truly ignore the workplace related concerns of an increasingly global workforce.

The glass rush

Recently, architectural evolution stopped evolving when it came to elevation design of the modern office buildings. Burdened by ever tightening timelines and budget constraints amidst increased clamour from clients to look ‘international’, glass and aluminium, two humble materials from yore, became the modern facility manager’s mojo. By insisting on using a glass façade dolloped generously by slabs of aluminium composite paneling (ACP),  one hit upon the recipe of the instant office elevation. Buildings could be decked up overnight, almost literally.

Not only were glass and ACP manufacturers laughing all the way to the bank, another set of enterprises blossomed on the back of these. Sun-control films and shades were suddenly in demand. Now something seems amiss here. Wasn’t getting light in the priority in the first place? Well, employees found another reason to complain – too much glare. Pray, why create a problem and then use more resources solving it.

Actually, the problem is deeper than it seems. No one really has answers to why people have suddenly started developing so many health-related problems, and especially those related to the back and the neck. The answer to all these and several other unseen problems may be closer than we think.

Smart buildings
Smart buildings are office spaces built with technology, the best of design and a lot of commonsense. Who builds these buildings? To begin with, Patel Realty India limited (PRIL), for one. On the subject of smart buildings, says Pravin Malkani, President, PRIL, “Employee productivity is still an unseen and underestimated domain. The key to Indian IT industry’s transition to services and products higher up the value chain lies in driving up employee productivity. Office buildings certainly contribute significantly to employee productivity, more than we have ever estimated”. Malkani is a trained architect and brings the common sense to the science of buildings.

As an example, consider two types of building facades, one built with glass and the other with a smart concrete ‘live’ wall, where plants can grow vertically. Glare in the glass façade building forces companies to invest on blinds and adjust lighting systems to create “ergonomic” work spaces. On the other hand, in the solid wall façade, light is controlled and diffused, thereby having greater throw and reach. The quality of light is diffused and produces less glare on computer screen.

Smart thinking saves energy
Glass facades bring in more than just light. A substantial amount of heat filters into the office interiors and this results in mini greenhouse-effect scenarios each day. The strain is felt not only on the building’s AC systems but on the wallets of the tenants or owners. Glass buildings are intrinsically not suitable to the extreme weather which most Indian cities experience throughout the year. They bring in heat during the extreme summers, especially in modern buildings where almost no thought is spared to climate-based design.

‘Live walls’, a concept being included in building design at PRIL involves fabricating walls out of modular-compacted material which is suitable for live plants to grow on. “Not only would the walls themselves block heat and glare, the plants would provide vertical lung spaces in a relentless concrete jungle”, says Malkani.

Energy will soon emerge as a bone of contention in the future. It is in the hands of building managers and planners to plan for energy-efficient, ergonomic and smart buildings, since buildings are commodities with long-shelf lives. Once omission of these critical factors takes place in the design and planning stage, there is little one can do when the building has come up.

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