Like the new breed of automobiles, our recently launched Tower Bridge Road building will run solely on electricity.  We have filed a planning application for a 110,000 sq ft, forward-thinking office here, which we are proud to reveal will be Zero Carbon in operation, consuming no fossil fuels.  Electricity will be either produced locally or sourced from 100% green supply from the grid.

In addition to reducing our carbon footprint, going 100% electric will save on capex costs, reduce operating expenses, and we believe will drive greater occupier interest – all leading to better investment returns.

You might think that charging headlong into creating a workspace that runs only on electricity ought to be easy.  But if it was, everyone would be doing it.

Fossil fuels are used in commercial buildings for winter heat, and sometimes also for hot water.  However, rather than a traditional boiler, Tower Bridge will incorporate heat pumps using air-to-air heat exchangers.  This system will take heat from the air outside the building and pump it inside, effectively working like an air conditioner in reverse.  Through some physics wizardry, you can extract heat from outside air even in cold winter months.

Heat pumps have a lot of things going for them.  Although they are not often used in commercial buildings, they have been around for decades.  They are so good, in fact, that the UK Government has mandated that on the residential side, all new builds will be banned from using gas from 2025, making electrical heat pumps the de facto way forward.

Other than the electricity needed to power the pump, they consume no fuel, so they can produce no carbon emissions and no pollution.  Heat pumps are about 50% more efficient than the gas furnaces used in most offices and 75% more efficient than oil furnaces.  There is a lot less pipework required, they are tried-and-tested machines with relatively few moving parts, they are long lasting, reliable, very quiet, and low maintenance.

So what’s the catch?

Heat pumps don’t produce as high temperatures as gas furnaces so they take longer to heat up a big commercial building from cold.  And heat pumps require a different type of equipment on the roof that can often take up more plant space, always in short supply.  Ground source heat pumps involve costly drilling of holes beneath a building, which may not be practical.  And air source heat pumps – like those we are using – tend to be less efficient than their ground source siblings since air temperatures are much more variable than ground temperatures.

But combined with recent innovations in building materials that greatly reduce thermal loss in winter, the heat pump really comes into its own.  You just don’t need to heat office buildings that much anymore.

There is one more obstacle to overcome: ironically, it’s government building regulations.  To determine the CO2 emissions for buildings and generate Energy Performance Certificates, regulations assume that you use the same mix of energy types (gas, coal, renewables) that the national grid produces on average.  This is the so called “National Calculation Methodology”.  Until recently the grid efficiency was around 0.55 kg CO2 per kWh, making it marginally more carbon efficient to burn gas to make heat than it was to run a heat pump, and gas was a bit cheaper to boot.  A steady downward trend since 2012 has seen the grid efficiency half to 0.214 now with the removal of coal from the grid and the big addition of wind and solar.

There are some good examples of heat pumps in use for commercial offices.  The Mayor of London’s office for one uses ground source heat pumps.  WWF’s office, completed in 2012, is all electric, anticipating the reduction in carbon intensity of grid supplied power that has now happened.  And most recently, the University of California system and Stanford University are making all-electric buildings the default in new construction.  This followed their successful Stanford Energy System Innovations pilot project, which saw a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 68% and potable water consumption by 18%.

So at FORE we are up for the challenge.  We believe deeply in our mission to lead the built environment industry bravely into a zero carbon future.  This is no longer a choice or a nice-to-have but an existential imperative.  The climate emergency demands action.

Working with our architect Stiff + Trevillion at Tower Bridge Court, we will strip back the building to its frame and sensitively redevelop it into a service-driven workspace fit for the future.  By creating a 100% electric building, our aim is to create a low carbon workspace that promotes the health and well-being – physical and mental – of its occupiers.  A development that better reflects the way people live, work, and interact with one another.  Eschewing fossil fuels will help create a building that is future-proofed for the next generation.

This is what we call Building FOREward.  It is a responsibility we take very seriously – and one everyone across the built environment should follow.

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