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Take a walk down Avenue du Général-Leclerc, one of Boulogne-Billancourt’s central boulevards in south-west Paris, and you will be strolling along an ancient thoroughfare. The road is named after one of the first generals to enter Paris at the end of the Second World War but dates back to at least the 9th century when it was a key route for pilgrims on their way to Tours.
Over the centuries, the buildings along this street have had to keep pace with the shifting demands of Parisians, constantly updated and rebuilt to reflect how people work and live. Without evolving, these buildings risk becoming stranded assets, written off by renters and buyers alike. But what do the modern businesses and employees of Paris now want to see in a post-pandemic, sustainability-focused workplace? The newly renovated Le Prélude - an office for more than 800 staff - encapsulates the latest development of this medieval road.
Sustainability at the fore
The rapid crescendo of ESG has led to one of the biggest changes in how companies choose their office space. A building’s sustainability is now a critical feature for potential tenants, not least because of fast-changing regulation. Though energy efficiency would have been considered a “nice-to-have" only last year, now it is essential.
But it’s not just driven by tougher regulation. At the beginning of 2022, a global survey of around 14,000 employees across seven countries found that 83 per cent wanted to work in a more environmentally friendly office. A survey of corporate decision makers suggested four out of five were planning to improve their office’s sustainability to retain and attract the best employees.
This does not simply mean that an office must include a few green features such as LED lighting, heat pumps, or charging spaces for electric vehicles - although these are all considered must-haves by tenants. Rather sustainability is considered a core part of how a building will be used by the people working inside. For example, AI is able to control heating and cooling systems by monitoring occupation to maintain the ideal temperatures in different areas. AI can even react to weather forecasts to increase efficiency. Upgrades like this at Le Prélude will target a valuable ‘excellent’ rating under the BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) framework. While ratings boost the capital value, energy savings reduce costs. LED lights and the building management system have cut electricity consumption of the building by half. A hard cash benefit beyond the ethical and regulatory concerns.
The overwhelming majority of building stock in the EU needs to be upgraded to meet 2050 net zero targets. But knocking them down to start again would be counterproductive because of the vast amount of carbon embedded in the existing structures. Updating the existing building rather than tearing it down allows that embedded carbon to be preserved. Given that construction materials are some of the most carbon-intensive to produce, use, and dispose of - with the cement industry alone accounting for around 2.8 billion tonnes of carbon each year - these are significant savings.
Indeed, a sixty-year life cycle analysis of the building suggests that the carbon impact of the renovated Le Prélude is 3.28 kg per square metre per year, or 1.7 million kg of carbon. In contrast, a newly constructed office building of this size could expect to have a carbon profile of at least 18.3 kg per square metre per year, suggesting around 9.3 million kg . The difference between these figures is the equivalent of a jumbo jet flying more than 140 times between Paris and New York.
Happiness: the key to success
The pandemic dramatically transformed how we all work, although in the end predictions foretelling the death of the office turned out to have been grossly exaggerated. Companies still need headquarters to bring their employees together in real life and to host meetings with clients. But after repeated lockdowns across Europe, many staff are now working on a hybrid basis with at least a day or two a week at home.
With fewer workers coming in everyday, offices can be smaller. That opens opportunities to rent more centrally, which in turn is more attractive to commuters. The days of the out-of-town corporate campus are over.
The pandemic has accelerated the rise of employee well-being as a key metric for their bosses, meaning that features like a fitness and yoga studio, barista-serviced café, and smart lockers are increasingly must-haves.
In the case of Le Prélude, every potential tenant declared that outdoor space for employees was essential. The 1,200m2 of terraces, roof space, and gardens - which had not been well used before the renovation - turned out to be one of the most attractive features.
The details of these employee-focused amenities may seem soft and fuzzy, but the provision of such features are key to a building’s financial future. For corporate tenants, operating offices that prioritise employees’ satisfaction and physical and mental health can increase productivity, promote financial performance, and cut absenteeism. And as tenants increasingly demand these sorts of features, building owners must provide them to ensure they are able to demand maximum rents and to increase the liquidity of the property when it comes to market.
Back to the future
If you had walked down Avenue du Général-Leclerc back in 1191, you would have seen a newly built windmill on the site that Le Prélude now occupies. Back then, the Moulin de L'Amour was a pinnacle of technology that tapped into the most sustainable source of renewable energy while serving the basic needs of locals. Paris has changed just a little since the 12th century and so have the needs of its citizens, but the building now standing on this site continues to provide a high-tech, sustainability-driven, and financially-viable asset for people nearly nine hundred years later.
 Employees want “greener” workspaces as they return to offices, Essity, January 2022
 The Case for Office Space: How Buildings Need to Change to Suit a Climate Conscious, COVID-Weary Workforce, Next Energy, June 2021
 The glory of the grey stuff: the technology changing real estate’s carbon future, Fidelity International November 2022
 Google Mobility’s global study found that by October 2022 visits to offices in Paris were down only 8 per cent compared to the baseline in early 2020. Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, October 2022
 Impact of WELL certification on occupant satisfaction and perceived health, well-being, and productivity: A multi-office pre- versus post-occupancy evaluation, Building and Environment, October 2022