Co-op builds the future

8th July 2013

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The Co-op's new head office is a landmark for sustainability and is inspiring staff who work there to reduce their carbon footprint

Ethical trading has been at the core of The Co-operative’s business model since its inception 150 years ago; more recently, a commitment to sustainability has also become a vital part of the organisation’s brand and ethos.

In February 2013, The Co-operative Group opened its doors to receive the first influx of employees to its new Manchester head office, One Angel Square.

Situated on a site that is considered to be the birthplace of Britain’s industrial revolution, the new office is an inspiring testament to the sustainability values of The Co-op.

The largest commercial construction in Manchester, One Angel Square is also one of the most sustainable offices in Europe and is currently the highest scoring BREEAM building in the UK, with an “outstanding” rating and a score of around 95%.

The 30,500m2 structure brings 3,500 staff under one roof in a building that has been designed to deliver a 50% reduction in energy consumption and an 80% reduction in carbon emissions compared with the organisation’s old office complex.

“In 2008, we undertook a review of our existing estates in Manchester and knew that only a new building could fully embody The Co-op’s socially responsible values,” says Nigel Holden, head of energy and environment.

“The building is stunning but functional, and should serve as a catalyst for change – its design will transform how people work, as well as the organisation’s impact on the environment.”

One Angel Square is the first visible result of “NOMA”, a 20-acre, £800 million redevelopment scheme for North Manchester. It is a 10-year regeneration project, through which The Co-op is working closely with local government, transport companies and other organisations to create a new neighbourhood for the city.

Building blocks

The foundations for One Angel Square were laid in summer 2010 and the project finished on time and on budget just over two years later. The new office represented a mammoth project, with more than 4,000 people involved in its design and construction.

The project awarded around 100 contracts to local businesses, delivering on a commitment by The Co-op to strengthen local communities and help reduce the embodied carbon of the building at the same time. A project of the size and ambition of One Angel Square required The Co-op to work in partnership with experts in a number of fields. These included:

  • architects 3DReid;
  • building company BAM Construct UK;
  • engineering consultancy Buro Happold; and
  • project management firm Gardiner and Theobald.

The scale of the project and the number of key partners meant that close working relationships were essential. “As well as our main commercial partners, we worked closely with a large number of organisations. For example, developing effective partnerships with Manchester City Council and local transport companies was vital,” explains Holden.

“The location of the building involved moving a section of the city’s ring road, which was a massive undertaking, and encouraging staff to adopt green travel plans is a core part of our sustainability vision for the building, which meant ensuring good local transport links.”

The Co-op’s brief to the architects was straightforward, as Holden comments: “We were very clear about what we wanted; the building had to be built to the highest possible sustainable standards, but it also needed to be commercially viable and replicable.”

According to Holden, the architects and multidisciplinary team that brought the plans to life did not have to compromise on any of the design’s more aspirational sustainability features.

“It may surprise some people to know that the majority of the state-of-the-art innovations and technology incorporated into the building are not necessarily less cost-effective than less sustainable building features,” he adds.

Greater than the sum of its parts

There is no one determining factor that is responsible for One Angel Square achieving such unrivalled sustainability status, as Holden explains: “The outstanding BREEAM score was made possible because the design takes on board every little detail and its potential environmental impact; it is the unique incorporation of so many sustainability features and how they work together, as well as how we use it on a day-to-day basis, that creates such a low-energy building.”

The first point to note about the building’s design and construction is what’s missing – namely, four storeys of office space. One Angel Square has two below-ground and 14 above-ground floors, but the organisation would have needed 20 storeys to accommodate additional paper and people if The Co-op had not launched a massive cultural change programme more than two years before the relocation.

The change programme included a new flexible working policy, encouraging staff to work remotely, and a digital storage policy to reduce the amount of paper records retained by the business.

Holden estimates that the addition of another four storeys would have increased the building’s carbon footprint by around 30%, so their absence represents a considerable saving in sustainability terms.

While the building’s exceptional environmental credentials are the culmination of attention to every little detail, some architectural features are on a grand scale. For example, a soaring open atrium faces south to collect heat from the sun and a diagonal slice faces the same direction to allow light to radiate into the upper floors.

This is a prime example of how the orientation and layout of the building have been designed to optimise the natural benefits of solar heat and light. Any risk of overheating in summer is mitigated by “brise-soleil”, a system of sun shading that runs around the building and prevents strong glare and the large amount of glass from overheating.

The convex three-sided shape of the building and a double-skinned façade also help to create natural heating, lighting and cooling. Holden describes the façade as acting like a huge thermal blanket, trapping air in the gap between the inner and outer walls, but allowing the air to escape above and below.

In the winter months, louvres on top of the façade work to keep the warm air in the building, while in the hotter summer months the louvres can open and expel hot air, helping to keep the building cool.

On the concourse outside the building’s entrance is what could be mistaken for a huge modern sculpture, but the three large concrete cylindrical structures fulfil a functional and sustainable role: they are geothermal earth tubes that passively heat or cool the air outside before it enters the building to help moderate the office block’s temperature.

Air is heated or cooled in a basement plant room before large fans push it through the building. The system is based on air/earth heat exchange and requires a minimal amount of mechanical power.

Another major sustainability feature of One Angel Square is its pioneering combined heat and power plant. The system comprises two 400kW engines fuelled by rapeseed oil from crops grown on The Co-op’s farms.

“This represents an end-to-end process and means we can track every aspect of the carbon emissions generated by this energy source, from growing the cold-pressed rotational crop to its transport and use as a fuel for the building,” says Holden. “Eventually, we will export excess energy back to the grid.”

The building has a vast number of other environmentally-friendly innovations, including:

  • low-energy IT equipment and systems;
  • water recycling and rainwater harvesting systems;
  • a building management system to control ventilation, heating and lighting;
  • an extensive LED lighting system;
  • high-efficiency lifts that recapture the electricity generated by their use; and
  • low-water consumption appliances.

Cultural change

One Angel Square has been designed to offer its occupants a flexible way of working, with new spaces, IT solutions and workstations that enable staff to choose how and where they want to work. However, the building’s remarkable sustainability credentials do not result solely from its design, but also from how it is being used by The Co-op.

Cutting-edge technology means that most Co-op employees do not need to be office-based and can work from home. The new flexible working policy encourages remote working and has reduced the amount of office space needed.

A programme to change behaviour and working practices began almost at the same time as the foundations for the new building were laid. One of the most important transformations has been the development of digital remote storage systems.

“In our previous head office buildings, working practices were often paper based, using up unnecessary space,” comments Holden. “By looking carefully at our use of paper archives and maximising our digital storage, we have been able to create the right size building for our needs.”

The design of the building has also revolutionised how people work. The layout of the office floors is predominantly open plan and makes better use of space to promote greater coordination and interaction between teams. There are break-out areas for meetings and informal working, as well as a restaurant and terraces.

The impact is not purely aesthetic – the new space encourages better communication and innovation, and the fact that every employee is allocated a locker and not a desk has drastically reduced the amount of paper that people retain.

The positioning of the building and its proximity to good public transport links was a careful consideration. Encouraging staff to adopt green travel practices is a fundamental part of the organisation’s vision to shrink its carbon footprint and, since moving to One Angel Square, the proportion of employees using public transport to travel to work has increased from 50% to 65%. There are also stands for more than 160 bicycles if people want to cycle to work.

Return on investment

The Co-op’s new head office has been occupied for a short space of time and is not yet up to full capacity in terms of head count, but Holden says he is satisfied that it is performing in line with sustainability expectations. The feedback from staff on their experience of working in such an impressive, energy-efficient building is also very positive, he says.

Research conducted by Holden reveals that a high proportion of the carbon reduction possible in the new building emanates from its leading-edge design, which has not cost more to build than any modern building of this scale. In addition, there are considerable year-on-year energy and financial savings.

The Co-operative has already achieved a return on its £100 million investment to construct One Angel Square, by selling the building at a considerable profit. It now leases the building and is able to invest the money made in other projects.

BREEAM ratings

The Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) is an international method for assessing the environmental credentials of buildings. There are now more than 250,000 buildings with certified BREEAM ratings.

The Co-operative’s One Angel Square has been rated as “outstanding” by BREEAM under its “new construction: offices” classification, which was launched in 1990 and was the first one developed in the BREEAM family of schemes. One Angel Square also won the 2013 BREEAM award for this category.

The assessment process uses recognised measures of sustainable performance to evaluate a building’s specification, design, construction and use. The assessment process awards points or “credits” against the following environmental impacts:

  • energy – operational energy and carbon dioxide;
  • management – management policy, commissioning, site management and procurement;
  • health and wellbeing – indoor and external issues (noise, light, etc);
  • transport – transport-related CO2 and location-related factors;
  • water consumption and efficiency;
  • materials – embodied impacts of building materials, including life-cycle impacts like embodied carbon;
  • waste – construction resource efficiency and operational waste management and minimisation;
  • pollution – air and water pollution;
  • land use – type of site and building footprint; and
  • ecology – ecological value, conservation and enhancement of the site.

The total number of credits gained in each section is multiplied by an environmental weighting factor that takes into account the relative importance of each section. Section scores are added together to produce a single overall score that is translated into a rating of: pass; good; very good; excellent; or outstanding.



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