Buildings, sustainability and challenges – boosting performance in the face of building vacancies and COVID-19

by Helena Morgan
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COVID-19 and building vacancies mean sustainability efforts are more challenging than ever. But what does peak performance look like and how do you get there?

Sustainability is a topic finding itself increasingly at the forefront of conversations today. NABERS is publicising and building interest in its new Climate Active Carbon Neutral Certification. Since its introduction, there has been interest from some major players to improve their building ratings.

Embracing sustainability and improving green ratings is not always a simple task; it  could require considerable investment and planning. Lately, it’s been particularly challenging, with so much change taking place in the property industry. Everyone has been affected to varying degrees by COVID-19. Many office buildings, for example, are experiencing vacancies due to uncertainty with leasing negotiations due to potentially reduced tenant staff numbers. For larger buildings, this could result in multiple floors being empty for extended periods of time, covering thousands of square metres of lettable area, which no longer need air-conditioning / lighting. The building manager’s goal becomes focused on ensuring their building is able to effectively ramp down, so that it operates as efficiently as possible despite the reduced capacity. However, the success of this task could depend on the design of the building. If the building’s HVAC system is not capable of actually effectively reducing its schedules and capacities to respond to whatever new (often reduced) operational configuration it has, this will be reflected with a poorer efficiency rating, and hence a lower NABERS star rating, for example.

This issue is usually more prevalent in older buildings. Perhaps they’re not designed to be as flexible in terms of their HVAC system. They may not have all the controls that your latest state-of-the-art building has, and hence these buildings may not be able to simply shut down their systems on a simple floor-by-floor basis. Some HVAC systems may instead control multiple floors at a time. If it’s not possible to shut down air-conditioning in areas not in use, they’ll be forced to ‘take the hit’ as part of their ratings, or attempt to find another, more complex path, of reducing consumption.

In many older buildings, some equipment in these systems may require manual overrides or control, which makes things more challenging operationally. It means you’ll have to know what specific piece of equipment is consuming energy when not in use, and sometimes, you’ll have to manually go and shut it down yourself. At some point you then have to manually switch it back on, which can be time consuming, and prone to human error.

But in any building, no matter when it was completed, there are things you can do to track, analyse and enhance operations. In an ideal scenario, all key building equipment is able to be controlled remotely, is thoroughly maintained and the systems controlling these are simple and thoughtful. You wouldn’t design your system to heat and cool an individual space simultaneously, for example.

The optimum level of control is the potential to be able to shut it down individual zones within floors. Some floors may have multiple tenants, so you need to be able to control HVAC tenant-by-tenant and floor-by-floor. Again, your ability to do this will depend on the building’s design. But, in theory, that’s what you want: to be able to control it zone-by-zone, floor-by-floor, and then be able to incorporate those individual settings into your core HVAC system to generate an optimal whole-of-building configuration that is best suited to your conditions.

Knowing someone who can identify opportunities and put building managers in touch with experts in particular fields for improved NABERS ratings and sustainability efforts can prove invaluable. You may need the guidance of a BMS contractor, or an analytics leader if you want to go in depth with the internals of your building’s operation. Not everyone you work with will play a direct part in actioning sustainability changes. Instead, they may help to put you in touch with the firm that can implement the solutions. So, seeking help is a great first step, in that case.

Building culture

The culture from building to building varies. Embedding a culture of measuring and validating your building’s performance is something we encourage. It’s really one of the only ways you’re going to know how your building is performing – measuring, validating, then together evaluating what you’re doing right or wrong. The appetite for this level of collaboration also varies from building to building, but it appears to be increasing overall. One’s drive to improve may not be just due to environmental concerns, or necessity, but may in fact be a reflection of our general desire to make things better. If your rating is poor, you will naturally begin asking, ‘What can we do to improve it?’ An array of solutions will begin to emerge as you explore deeper. As you do this, you will be able to lead by example, and encourage others around you to do the same. This will strengthen that culture of continuous improvement in your team, your building, and your company.

Jake Xerri, Sustainability Manager, NSW, at Grosvenor Engineering Group.

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