Modern office buildings are moving away from traditional designs. New layouts focus more on incorporating exterior lighting and free-form workplaces based on set activities, such as collaborative lounges and alternative workstations.
Moreover, in a pandemic-stricken economy, 92% of employees want a more hybrid workplace. This means companies need to think about designing their offices in more dynamic, flexible ways. Occupancy and overall business may fluctuate much more. This can put pressure on conventional HVAC systems.
Because the primary purpose of HVAC is to regulate internal air temperatures, humidity, and quality, changing how spaces are used means older designs are not as functional, especially when it comes to maximizing energy efficiency. Additionally, the spread of diseases like COVID-19 calls for a more adept HVAC system that not only regulates airflow, but also cleans and filters office air. Viruses and germs can use dust and other airborne particles as a transport system to extend their spread and survive longer in the environment.
As such, it’s important to understand how HVAC works and design a modern system that takes advantage of new layouts.
1. Improve Ventilation and Indoor Air Quality
The best thing building managers can do to optimize their HVAC systems is focusing on ventilation and indoor air quality. By improving these two aspects of your building, you can ensure your employees’ health, boost their morale, and also save money. Here’s how:
Poor ventilation can cause major issues in an office building. Most areas of the building have little-to-no access to fresh outdoor air, which means that the air in those rooms becomes stale, odor-filled, and imbalanced by carbon dioxide. This stagnant air can carry many disease-carrying germs and viruses that your employees may have tracked in. And with COVID-19 still a threat, exposure can cause serious risks.
There are several other side-effects to low oxygen levels in a building. A rise in carbon dioxide relative to oxygen can decrease the productivity of your employees, giving them headaches and making them drowsy.
Your building’s HVAC systems do far more than just keep your offices cool or warm. By moving stale air out and fresh air in, ventilation can help rebalance your office building and improve indoor air quality. Many modern ventilation systems are able to monitor indoor air quality status—temperature, humidity, oxygen—and then open or close vents based on the results.
Such systems can even help save your building money: by bringing in outside air when the temperature is right, they can reduce your office’s reliability on air conditioning and heating systems.
Indoor Air Quality:
Even with proper ventilation, your building may need further indoor air quality solutions, such as filters, cleaners, and other similar systems that remove odors, dust, and viruses from the air. The results are worth it: clean, breathable air inside your building will make your employees healthier, happier, and more productive. After all, no one wants to work in an office where they’re constantly sneezing because of dust, or getting exposed to dangerous viruses like COVID-19.
Additionally, modern air quality monitoring systems are now capable of sharing data across company personnel. Installing such a system hits two birds with one stone. The system (1) educates employees on the factors that bring down their air quality, and (2) keeps them updated and alerted to possible dangers and exposure to negative indoor air conditions.
No matter what type of office setup or building you have, make proper ventilation and air quality testing a priority.
2. Create Energy-Saving Floor Plans
Most designers will focus on how space will be utilized when creating an office layout, leaving HVAC as a secondary consideration. However, since the HVAC system will most likely consume the most energy, it behooves architects to incorporate additional energy saving techniques aside from traditional insulation methods.
Here are a few energy-saving tips:
- Incorporate lighting sensors into each room. Automatically turning off lights ensures lower energy usage since illuminating spaces can increase heat and thus require more cooling. In a hybrid workplace, this fixture is most beneficial to the company, as not every space will be utilized because of the reduced number of employees in the workplace.
- Compare under-floor ventilation versus in-ceiling designs. In more open office spaces, higher ceilings severely limit the effectiveness of overhead systems. Floor-based designs allow colder air to stay low, taking advantage of naturally rising heat.
- Add windows for additional lighting and energy savings. During the winter, windows can be a boon on heating costs but consider using low-E glass to conserve energy during the hotter months.
When remodeling office spaces, many of these design decisions can be incorporated into the existing architecture as well, lessening the need for drastic and expensive renovations.
3. Look Into Zoning and Controls
One of the most difficult aspects of HVAC efficiency is zoning since it seems more intuitive to have fewer controls operating more areas. Ideally, each space should have its own sensor systems because separate zones may have vastly different requirements, such as:
- Computer and server rooms have specific humidity needs.
- Specific times of day will draw different energy loads in a variety of areas.
- Kitchens, restrooms, and comfort zones are higher traffic areas that can generate more heat than offices and individual workstations.
- Conference/meeting rooms have varying temperature requirements dependent upon usage.
- Zones along the building’s exterior are more affected by outside temperatures.
In addition to having separate controls based on zoning, simple thermostats cannot handle all aspects of HVAC. A room with specific humidity requirements cannot be tied to air conditioning units alone as compressors will fail to manage both humidity and temperature levels effectively. Specific dehumidification detection and regulation equipment are necessary to properly regulate the space.
Using Building Automation Systems (BAS) is often seen as the perfect balance of control and high performance. Unfortunately, the innate complexity of these systems is often a detriment to efficiency. BAS uses a generalized approach to building regulation in lieu of individual sensors that can regulate each zone based on specific needs.
Our advice: use individual sensors that have a centralized monitoring system. The sensors should be attuned to the specific needs of each area/workspace. Then, the data collected by each sensor should be collated to a central dashboard where the responsible personnel can monitor room conditions. Additionally, personnel should also be able to share these data and insights to other employees in charge of that area, where they can fix issues as needed.
Rise to the Challenge
Optimizing office space starts with bettering employee working conditions, but it doesn’t end with a creative layout. Modern architecture makes for new HVAC challenges, and professional designers need to consider floor plans, zoning, and ventilation requirements to maximize functionality. Finding an HVAC expert to work with architects may result in a design that is both comfortable and energy-efficient.
Lisa Davis is the HVAC senior content creator at ABC Cooling, Heating and Plumbing, a professional HVAC service company located in Hayward, CA. Lisa has a Bachelor’s degree in Construction Management and has been working within the home services industry for more than 10 years.