SPIE UK: Can a building become its own ecosystem?

By Olivia Minnock
SPIE UK’s George Adams discusses the major impact commercial buildings can have by changing the way they use energy – not just...

SPIE UK’s George Adams discusses the major impact commercial buildings can have by changing the way they use energy – not just on climate change, but on health and wellbeing too...


From optimising concept and design right through to implementation and operation, SPIE UK provides smart engineering and technology-driven solutions for the built environment. Employing more than 3,000 people, the business is comprised of experts on design, electrical, mechanical and HVAC engineering, energy and communications and more.

Now, among its wider operations, a particular mission for SPIE UK is to help make commercial buildings – and by extension whole cities – function in a more sustainable, autonomous way in order to combat climate change and positively influence the health and wellbeing of employees.

“Design thinking is about a holistic view of what we need to do as engineers to improve the built environment,” comments Energy and Engineering Director George Adams. “SPIE UK recognises that we have to constantly respond to changes, and equally create change through design, engineering, maintenance, operations and energy efficiency.”

Adams has been concerned with climate change throughout his career, and has long been fascinated by the way buildings and the built environment can impact factors like carbon emissions. The full potential, he argues, has not yet been recognised. “I was embracing design for energy all the way back into the late 1980s – my eyes were opened up to the fact buildings need to focus on efficiency and sustainability, though back then we used to talk more about buildings being ‘autonomous’,” he recalls.

Central to SPIE UK’s corporate strategy is the smart city: a concept bringing together technology, energy, health and wellbeing to create better, more connected environments for people to live, work and learn in. Simply reducing carbon emissions, while vital, seems increasingly simplistic nowadays as wellness and a positive work environment take centre stage among the benefits of a more sustainable city.

Among several climate action and engineering groups, Adams leads the UK’s Resilient Cities Group, heads up the Construction Industry Council’s Green Construction Panel and is a member of the Trees and Design Action Group. “In London, we like to think we’re a green city,” he says, “but there’s actually only one tree per person in the whole city. We need to bring together the hardware of engineering, the functionality of making buildings more sustainable through energy conservation, and green infrastructure to help create a better environment.

“Globally, about 7mn people die per year because of poor air quality and a lot of that comes from cities. In addition, from a financial point of view, over $4bn is lost in productivity because of air pollution.”

While ‘sustainability’ reflects cutting down energy usage and waste, Adams’ overarching term of ‘autonomous’ also encapsulates health and wellbeing within a building that essentially becomes its own ecosystem. “Autonomous buildings can create the right air quality in order that people working in cities can get really good air quality, while outside the building we need to clean our act up,” he says.

In this way, Adams argues, buildings have the potential to be ‘mediators of climate’. “Buildings have a great opportunity to create an environment people can work in.” SPIE UK leverages technologies like IoT and data analytics, as well as smart FM platforms, to find out just how much more efficient a building can be made and to ensure a bespoke solution is found for each space.

“We get the data from a building, analyse it, and can see not only that the building can perform better in terms of energy efficiency, but also the levels and type of lighting, ventilation, air quality etc… we can also explain to the client how and why the environment isn’t conducive to people working as efficiently as they can,” says Adams.

SPIE UK can look at everything from the overall engineering infrastructure to individual pieces of equipment to pinpoint what isn’t working and what needs to be updated. “We can give a solution which doesn’t involve throwing the plant away – this recycling is important for us,” Adams adds. “We can show clients how to enhance existing equipment, make it work more efficiently, and save money over time in terms of life cycle cost, whereas eventually replacing the building would cost four or five times as much as an upgrade.”

Recycling and retrofitting are a keen focus. “We look at how the existing building can be improved in terms of fit-out, fabric and engineering content – how modifications can be made to not only reduce energy use, but improve quality of environment. We’ve done this for several clients.”

A key change most commercial buildings can benefit from pertains to lighting. “From a global point of view, lighting contributes to about 20% of global energy consumption created by human beings. If we can reduce lighting energy by 60-70% across the globe, we’ve made a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions.

“LED light requires so much less energy than traditional fluorescent lighting and equally gives a brighter, cleaner and clearer light. Lighting’s a very dynamic area that has massive potential to help us reduce carbon emissions.

“We are now also recognising the impact types of lighting can have on people – for example, lighting with a blue tinge can make staff more energetic. If lighting is poor, it can affect people’s emotions and attention to detail, causing them to make mistakes.”

It’s all very well to explain to a company their building needs an upgrade to have a more positive impact on people and planet, but at the end of the day the financial angle will always be top of mind. How can a CFO be persuaded to drive sustainability? “Something we’re driving at SPIE UK is return on investment – when they will cover capital costs, and then the life cycle savings, as well as added benefits of health, wellbeing and productivity,” Adams explains.

While many would balk at the prospect of bringing up these ‘softer’ benefits to the financially driven, Adams says this is becoming easier. “A lot of research has been carried out over the years in the industry to demonstrate that poor temperature control, humidity, air quality or lighting does directly affect the way people work.”

Wider economic impact must also be considered, with Adams citing that £1 of investment in the UK construction industry can contribute £2.60 of GDP. “Clearly the more efficient we make buildings, then that RoI for the whole construction industry becomes greater.”

For SPIE UK, this also involves working with schools to educate young people. “I prefer to talk about the built environment as a whole – this brings on board a range of skillsets such as ecologists, economists, architects, engineers… we give students a broader view; it’s not just about building a building.”

This education aspect is something SPIE UK believes should be at the forefront in developing the autonomous buildings and smart cities of tomorrow. “It’s all about transparency and knowledge sharing,” says Adams. “The fact is that the world, technology and challenges for society are all moving so fast that more and more people are realising if you have a piece of knowledge, keeping it to yourself is probably not the best thing to do.”


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