Making open plan offices work – insulation, the critical ingredient
Open spaces have been a growing trend since 1990. But they are not always the most suitable option depending on where you are in the world. The sustainability, comfort and profitability of a business space or open space home will depend on insulation, climate and location.
A study back in 2014 found that nearly 70% of offices in the US were designed to be open plan. The trend for more open, shared workspaces has been the norm since the 1990s; a recent high profile example would be Facebook’s new Frank Gehry-designed headquarters with its campus-inspired space holding 2,800 engineers in a single room! Facebook, Etsy, Google, Apple… pretty much any modern, trend-hungry business favors the open plan office - a single main space that can be divided into separate areas for different uses.
The much-stated benefits of the open plan concept include the flexibility to change the space to the needs of the occupants, allowing interior designers a great deal of freedom. The open plan approach is touted with promises of natural light and better air circulation, and improved communication and interaction between employees.
However, some recent studies have suggested drawbacks to the open office, with employees saying that it actually decreases productivity, is associated with high levels of noise and stress, and brings additional costs due to energy inefficiency, primarily due to poor lighting schemes and incorrect insulation affecting the use of HVAC systems to keep the space warm or cool.
All the same, many still argue that open-plan offices bring a level of togetherness, proximity, and teamwork to a company which increases employee engagement and collaboration between departments. Homeowners in America and Europe are also increasingly keen on open floor living.
Home or business, the sustainability and cost effectiveness of an open floor layout always depends on location, climate and insulation.
As you might imagine, keeping a large open space at the right temperature can be a challenging and potentially very expensive task, especially if it isn’t properly insulated. Some even argue that properly insulating buildings are a more effective means of reducing greenhouse gas concentrations than planting trees!
The truth is somewhere in the middle. Open floor plans make total sense in temperate, sunny climates such as the Mediterranean or, to name a specific example, Atenas in Costa Rica, where the minimum of insulation can guarantee a stable indoor temperature throughout the year. Looking beyond Costa Rica and the whitewashed edifices of the Mediterranean coastline, insulation has a great deal to offer in terms of energy efficiency and modern acoustic challenges.
Insulation is an ancient best practice we have inherited from the times of our Egyptian forebears who created thick bricks made of mud which together could block the desert heat during the day and retain its warmth after sunset when the desert temperatures dropped considerably. Another best practice comes from the Greeks; they were the first to use cavities and air pockets in walls to provide better insulation. So, insulation may not be the newest nor the sexiest technology, and yet there is no possible argument against the results it produces towards sustainability. Properly installed insulation makes the difference between a building meeting the 2030 European energy goals, or not.
What is the best insulation practice for open plan spaces?
Basically, the thicker, the better. Good thick insulation will save you money, increase the occupants’ thermal comfort, and reduce the risk of mold formation due to dampness. Also, by properly insulating a building, one is saving energy and reducing CO2 for the community. The better the insulation, the less an HVAC system is needed to maintain the building’s temperature. And of course, ultimately, keeping our energy consumption to reasonable levels will slow down climate change.