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Kevin Ager, the Technical Sales Director of DAS Business Furniture, discusses how occupational density in our place of work, and the quality of the air that we breathe as a result, can have a lasting effect on our health.

The universal use of flat computer screens and laptops coupled with the greater application of new ways of working and pressure to cut property costs have meant that the density at which buildings are occupied has been rising dramatically over the past few years. One of the most immediate manifestations of this is the ongoing pressure on space allocations for employees. In its 2009 Guide to Specification, the British Council for Offices (BCO) reported that the average occupational density of a British office had increased by around 40% since 1997. As a result, the BCO increased its density standard from the previous advisory 12-17 sq m to 8-13 sq m per person. The new average benchmark for the office environment has been set at 10 sq m. Just two years on, even this is now generally seen as high especially in sectors such as financial services. The BCO launched a fresh research project in September of this year to bring its guidance up to date, and it is expected to find another significant leap.


Health and safety legislation is playing catch-up with these trends. For example, when it comes to providing a productive working environment in terms of air quality, most of the existing regulations are related to dated guidance and especially the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Display Screen Equipment regulations of the same year.

Both sets of regulations are clearly outmoded. The basic idea from the former is that you should allocate around 11 cubic metres of space within the building per person, which we know is not always likely nowadays, is based on old technology and is also determined by ceiling heights. The DSE regulations are based on people using cathode ray tube monitors and desk based working with a single fixed PC, which we also know is no longer the case for the majority of people. While there is also a general duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 which covers pretty much everything

without going into specifics, there is still a problem in that they ask for things like ‘a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air’. Well, define ‘fresh’ and ‘sufficient’. The regulations also fail to take fully into account other factors such as humidity, airborne particles and chemicals, heat, air conditioning, planting, smells and so on. In many cases, it is up to facilities managers to set their own parameters.

It is estimated that even in a typical office each person and their computer equipment will generate some 1,500 watts of energy per hour, the equivalent of a fan heater. The problem can be significant in certain types of environments, such as dealer rooms where people typically use multiple flat screens in large open plan areas with occupancy densities above 7 sq m per person, and where work can carry on around the clock to meet deadlines and to take full advantage of the globalised financial markets.

In these circumstances, the thermal output of hardware

can easily exceed the capabilities of the building’s cooling systems and air- conditioning systems, or even produce localised hotspots that are uncomfortable to work in and potentially harmful to people and equipment alike. In addition, most forward thinking organisations are eager to provide workplaces that are as efficient as possible in order to meet their own environmental targets as well as keeping costs to an absolute minimum. These objectives frequently go hand-in-hand and companies are invariably keen to take advantage of any opportunities.

There are other factors that play an important role. For example, in recent years, the UK has seen a shift in Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system energy-consumption patterns from a winter peak to a summer peak, indicating that people are increasingly more concerned about being too hot in the workplace than too cold.

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