Sustainable space provision

Space efficiency has long been a central concern for building owners and tenants. Now, pressure to make buildings comply with sustainability criteria is forcing the pace of change. There is a need to look beyond immediate concerns about space utilisation and efficiencies in the workplace to the provision of space based on what is affordable and sustainable into the future.

Space efficiency

The need to justify available space is obvious and few organisations would seriously hold on to any they did not need or for which there was no likely future demand. Space efficiency is a key factor in the success of an organisation’s use of buildings and has implications for its wider business interests and financial wellbeing. Buildings that fit exactly the needs of an organisation confer an advantage in the marketplace, because of higher productivity and lower operational costs than would otherwise be the case.

Current practices should rightly concentrate on squeezing greater efficiency out of existing space by building-in flexibility and adaptability into the internal design. Measures such as re-configurable space have proven popular over decades and have helped to boost space utilisation rates. Similarly, the incorporation of features to support different activities at different times and providing space, fittings and furniture capable of adaptation for a range of purposes raises efficiency and utilisation leading to higher returns on investment.

Considerable research has gone into the design of more productive workplaces. Commercial offices are a prime example, but not the only one. In the UK, a huge effort has gone into school building where investment runs into billions. Increasing the use of modern IT and related concepts, such as flexible working, have also generated worthwhile gains and will continue as technology converges and becomes even more pervasive. Yet, despite the often impressive results, it should be self-evident that it is possible to increase space efficiency only so far. Efficiency is not without limit.

In parallel with these concepts, commercial imperatives to right-size the organisation – a euphemism for downsizing and de-layering – have reduced net demand for space. This pragmatic action is a common form of restructuring and more evident in the past two years than at any time in the previous decade. The overall result is leaner, meaner organisations with a sharp focus on the present. For this reason, many will unfortunately lack an informed view of the medium to long term, seeing it as far enough away not to be a pressing concern; besides, all will become clearer in time or so the thinking goes.

Drivers for space

The deployment of new and more advanced forms of technology can release the workforce from rigid structures and re-equip them with more flexible and responsive, customer-focused practices. Yet, most of the gains are not from smarter technology, but smarter thinking. Through programmes of managed change, organisations can respond to shifting and consolidating markets and tougher legislation by altering the ways in which work is organised – for example, outsourcing, co-ventures and strategic alliances. These are some of the drivers that impact on the organisation and its space.

The planning of space required by the organisation is also affected by trends in those drivers and the total cost of providing the required space. There can be many drivers and so a basic objective is to identify the key drivers for space and to determine if they will apply over the medium to long term. Plans must then reflect this understanding as well as provide some degree of flexibility and adaptability.

The drivers for space into the future have therefore to be understood, with a balance struck between what the organisation needs and what it can afford: it has to be realistic. This concept is the organisation’s sustainable space provision. The idea is not new and applying the principles ought to be an automatic, integral part of the design process for all new buildings. A greater challenge lies in dealing with the enormous stock of existing buildings that will increasingly fail sustainability criteria and render themselves obsolete.

Affordable space

Sustainable space provision is synonymous with sustainable building. The functional and operational requirements of occupants, users and other stakeholders must be balanced with affordable space, taking into account environmental impact, energy use and long-term operational costs. Sustainable space provision therefore replaces the practice of right-sizing with a longer-term and more developed understanding of what is needed. Allowance for growth and/or reduction in the demand for space and its phasing over the lifetime of the building is part of the assessment of sustainable space provision.

Space is rarely, if ever, provided for free, even if some organisations choose not to charge for its use. Evaluating total cost, which includes facility-related services, is necessary for identifying those spaces offering best value and those that do not. Organisations with a geographically-dispersed portfolio have looked at where they generate best value and have acted accordingly. In some cases, it has meant large-scale restructuring and moving operations from one continent to another.

Despite the limitations, many organisations will continue to measure space utilisation and use it as a benchmark; perhaps, it has some value after all. Knowing that certain space is utilised, on average, 69% of the time is a measure of value received; but what else is it telling us? If the aim is to drive up levels of utilisation then comparing like with like within and outside the organisation – a simple form of benchmarking – should help to pinpoint issues worth investigating. The trouble with this approach is that it is bottom-up and saying this is the space we have and this is the extent to which it is used. The bigger questions of do we really need it and can we afford it are not addressed.

Act now, benefit into the future

If an organisation does not align its space provision with its strategic plans then it is bound to come unstuck. For strategic read bigger picture and for plans read longer term. The problem is, more often than not, the wrong kind of space for intended functions and activities. Buildings designed for a purpose other than their present use is commonplace and the only way forward is to dispose of them quickly. The questions that have to be asked therefore are what do we need to sustain us into the future and what can we afford? The answers will go a long way towards turning anxiety over what must be done into a more agreeable what we would like to do.

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