Internal air quality: It starts with lease negotiations

by FM Media
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There are a number of approaches to ensuring more consistent indoor air quality performance. But, this requires upfront planning and negotiations. RODNEY TIMM of Property Beyond discusses internal air quality and how to ensure a facility’s internal air quality meets the user’s requirements.

In commercial offices, the most frequent complaints from tenants and users are about air quality and air-conditioning – it is ‘too hot’, ‘too cold’, ‘stuffy’, ‘toxic’, ‘noisy’ or ‘draughty’. The problem is exacerbated by the different needs and perceptions of occupants due to a difference in gender and varying shapes and sizes.
Facilities managers have to respond to these never-ending complaints, particularly in under-specified or poorly designed buildings that are not able to respond differentially to sun heat loads on the various aspects or changing seasons. Occupants seem to believe that a magic wand can balance airflow, change temperature settings and open or close dampers to accommodate their air-conditioning whims.
The internal air quality challenge is now even greater because of new trends in office accommodation design and use. Environmentally conscious design means that old energy inefficient systems involving design principles that included reheating chilled air at the point of entry have been replaced by modern systems, which are less responsive to individual requirements.
In addition, the move to open plan layouts assumes that human beings of all shape, sizes and sexes each require airflow and temperature within a very tight band. New workplace activity-based accommodation models with varying use densities and patterns also place new demands on air-conditioning design, although new technologies and electronic controls can now be deployed to meet these challenges.
But, who is responsible for a facility’s internal air quality – the landlord, who is in control of base building performance, or the user’s facilities manager, who is in control of the internal fitout?

FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES
The debate on the responsibilities for internal air quality needs to begin with the consideration of a few fundamental principles. First, air-conditioning services are part of the base building design and services. As such, the landlord is responsible for delivering an appropriate level of airflow and chilling and heating capacity to all floors based on the design density of the building.
Second, tenants need to customise the floor space by fitting out the premises leased to meet their operating requirements. Third, landlords usually insist (as they should) on the right to have any tenancy layout design approved by their own design and technical teams.
Generally, the approach is that no service infrastructure should be touched in the ceiling or floor plenum, although it is usually accepted that the air outlets in the ceiling may be moved from the standard grid. In some cases, landlords may even insist that their appointed air-conditioning engineers and specialist contractors be used to undertake the design and implement the air-conditioning changes that the tenant may require.
Although these principles are generally sound, problems arise because of diverse and often conflicting objectives between landlords and tenants. In a lease agreement for office accommodation supported by appropriate building services, such as maintenance, common area cleaning, air-conditioning, lifts and similar, it may be expected that there will be detailed lease clauses defining service levels. Ideally, these remedies should be noted as material breaches of the lease terms and, if the standards are consistently breached, should be linked to appropriate rent abatements.
Considering that consistent late rental payments by a tenant will likely entitle the landlord to a whole range of remedies, including penalties and interest charges, similarly, the tenant should be compensated for negative productivity impacts on workforce productivity resulting from consistent non-performance of air-conditioning and unacceptable indoor air quality. But, clearly defined building performance standards linked to tenancy remedy processes are usually absent or vague, breaching the key principles stated previously.

DESIGN STANDARD COMPLIANCE
As a result of the approach to the design of office accommodation, arguments between the design consultants may result. The base building consultant is unlikely to guarantee design changes made by the tenancy fitout consultant. At best the base building design engineer will likely only provide superficial commentary on the fitout design, such as compliance with airflows and chilled air capacities.
Obviously tenants need to comply with base building density and design standards and cannot expect the required air-conditioning performance standards if the density standards are exceeded. There may be some areas of the layout with high densities or meeting rooms that need supplementary air-conditioning capacity. Tenants cannot expect the landlord or their engineer to guarantee the performance or provide the maintenance services for this supplementary air-conditioning – even though the design and installation will need to be approved by the landlord.
In some buildings, the landlord may be insistent on the use of the base building engineers and specialist contractors, possibly extending the performance responsibilities to a more comprehensive outcome. This may be a good result for all concerned. The trade-off, however, is that the fee structures that the tenant is obliged to accept may be excessive and the engineers may need to endure a steep learning curve to obtain a detailed understanding of the tenant’s real needs.

PLANNING FOR PERFORMANCE
There are a number of approaches that tenants can adopt that will likely provide more consistent indoor air quality performance. But, this requires upfront planning and negotiations.
First, don’t neglect the office accommodation indoor air quality performance discussions during the initial lease negotiations. Once the deal is done it is unlikely that there will be any concessions agreed to by the landlord. Make sure that the landlord understands that the performance of building services, and in particular the air-conditioning, is a key criteria in the building selection and lease finalisation.
Second, during this negotiation period, don’t simply accept the standard landlord lease conditions as these relate to building services. Make sure that the performance specification is understood and have it modified – within reason – to meet your expectations.
Third, ensure that your technical services engineers review the base building design specifications in detail and certify that these standards will meet your accommodation and design density requirements. Then, make sure that the relevant building performance specification as agreed with the landlord is noted as a material component of the lease agreement and that suitable remedies are available if these standards are consistently or regularly breached.
The negotiations should include a rent abatement option, even though this may be a tough call and ‘no go’ area for many landlords. Success in this aspect all depends on the stage the negotiations are in when it is introduced, as well as the negotiating leverage that may exist in the transaction.
Next, make sure that the design layout is approved by the landlord and have the base building design engineers certify that the proposed fitout design layout does not breach the air-conditioning design, airflow or temperature constraints of the base building. If the fee structures are not excessive, it may be wise to use the landlord’s base building engineers. Lastly, do not make design or use arrangement changes that breach the approved design plans.

Rodney Timm is the director of Property Beyond.

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