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Can you cool an office without air conditioning?

Nobody likes air conditioning, so is there an alternative? Steve Gale is hot on the trail.

23/07/2021 3 min read
Bloomberg HQ, London. image credit: nigel young

While many of us are still working at home, how do we stay functional in the blistering heat of the British summer? With air conditioning? Extremely unlikely in your home, as it’s not really needed. At home we open a couple of windows to enjoy the breeze, and change into summer clothes – but can you open windows in your office? Usually not. With very few exceptions, new office space has sealed windows with mechanical ventilation and cooling.

As new offices come on stream, the percentage of air conditioned space will soon surpass 70% in the UK, with older buildings shrinking to 30%, while only about 0.5% of domestic buildings have any cooling whatsoever.

So why do we need to cool offices when the ambient summer temperature is so modest?

Commercial office design has been slow to react to environmental pressures. Just walk around the City of London or Canary Wharf to see how curtain wall glazing remains the snazzy way to clad a tall building. This means that both occupants and designers use every trick they can think of to reduce the glare and solar heating caused by the baseline inefficiency: internal blinds, external solar shading, vacating the sunny side of the building and, of course, expensive cooled air from the HVAC system.

Max Fordham, the legendary engineer, has consistently pressed for a better way during his long career, and I often think back to a lesson he delivered 20 years ago on the benefits of natural ventilation, and what a waste of energy air conditioning is in this (usually) temperate climate, where we already expend more than 10% of our energy on cooling.

As vehicles become electric, city air will be cleaner and quieter, and the demand for natural ventilation is sure to blossom, and not just to reduce carbon emissions.

His point then was, and presumably still is, that we can deal with the moderate warmth of a British summer by simple changes in behaviour and building design, and forgo the expense and complexity of air conditioning.

We can design buildings to restrict solar gain, use thermal mass to limit heating cycles, and allow air to circulate through vents, windows and convection stacks (which is, accidentally, the format of many traditional brick houses). However, it is rarely done in big cities, partly because of the noise and particulate pollution from the streets. There are examples that use some of these techniques, such as Portcullis House in Westminster for MP accommodation and Bloomberg’s European HQ in the City of London, but they are as famous for their extremely high cost as much as their green credentials.

As vehicles become electric, city air will be cleaner and quieter, and the demand for natural ventilation is sure to blossom, and not just to reduce carbon emissions.

The COVID virus, like many other pathogens, is recognised now as a predominantly airborne threat, which becomes rapidly diluted in the open air and degraded by sunlight.

Outside air is COVID safe, while conditioned air needs to be carefully managed, and people are suspicious about its quality. Occupants are already demanding the safe option, and developers will need to look carefully at carbon reduction with some very basic physics.

Steve Gale is Head of Workplace Strategy at M Moser Associates. SteveG@mmoser.com

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