Open plan offices a thing of the past?

energy use, Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Jeremy Myerson, Naveen Lakshmipathy, open plan, open space, workplace As companies seek further ways to reduce their energy use, is the widely used open plan office layout a high energy consumption relic of the past, or does it have the potential to adapt itself to more environmentally friendly technology?

For decades, the open plan office arrangement has dominated workplace design in the western world. Even before personal computers were a common sight in offices, variants on the open plan design were heralded as an ingenious way of eliciting communication between colleagues and making senior employees seem more approachable.

However, as energy efficiency is coming increasingly to the fore, some are starting to question the suitability of open plan offices in meeting 21st century energy efficiency challenges.

With lighting accounting for over 20 percent of energy consumed in US commercial buildings, according to the US Energy Information Administration, investigating the ability of open plans to facilitate energy-efficient lighting seems a pertinent area of study.

Efficient lighting at Facebook

Naveen Lakshmipathy thinks open plans are up to the challenge. Lakshmipathy is part of a team of EDF Climate Corps fellows spending the summer at Facebook to improve the social network’s energy efficiency. Facebook has just opened the first buildings of its vast new 1 million-square-foot site in Menlo Park, California.

Lakshmipathy, who specializes in lighting, says the company wants to maximize the use of daylight, lighting controls and efficient fixtures without affecting the unfinished, slightly scruffy look of its premises.

According to the EDF fellow, during his time monitoring lighting solutions at Facebook, he has whittled the keys of energy-efficient lighting design down to three factors.

Firstly, efficient lighting, says Lakshmipathy, need not be to the detriment of design, provided solutions are planned ahead long enough in advance. This forward planning can include steps such as using appropriately colored paint to reflect light.

Secondly, is the use of ‘control narratives.’ Lakshmipathy claims it is one thing to have lighting controls in place, but quite another to ensure that a building’s occupants are well-briefed on how they work and that the system is adequately tested.

Thirdly, Lakshmipathy argues that lighting efficiency is positively correlated with occupant comfort. In other words, inefficient lighting, which is too bright, too dim, or with excessive glare, can cause discomfort to workers. He goes further in saying that reducing eyestrain can add 15 minutes of productivity per worker per day.

Failing to meet needs

However, not all companies are following Facebook’s lead in office lighting. According to Jeremy Myerson, director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art in London, modern office design often fails to match employees’ needs. Myerson says many offices have a high level of general illumination which is inflexible, rather than pools of light over desks:

“Many people tell us they simply feel overcooked in offices, like a light is burning a hole in the back of their heads, and that is due to centrally controlled lighting,” says Myerson.

He says inflexible lighting can be particularly problematic for older employees with more fragile eyes.

Listening to employees

Efficiency issues aside, employers must also take heed of their workers individual requirements when installing lighting. Last month it emerged that a charity organization in the United Kingdom was ordered by an employment tribunal to pay £21,000 ($33,300) in compensation to a former employee after refusing to change fluorescent lighting that triggered severe migraines in the worker.

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