NABERS and COVID-19: How the pandemic is changing the way we use buildings

by FM Media
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The pandemic has changed forever the ways we occupy our commercial spaces. A combination of modern technology and better tenant relationships can ensure efficiency in the flexible future.

For much of last year, there was a period when virtually nobody was in offices or shopping centres. And we may continue to see such lockdowns regularly. It was, and remains, a challenge for the facilities, which were basically shut down overnight.

Especially in Melbourne, shopping centres closed their doors, but still had to leave essential service vendors like supermarkets and pharmacies open. That was the challenging part. A shopping centre designed to run at 100 percent with massive systems like air-conditioning and lighting all of a sudden had to try and run at ten percent occupancy. Commercial offices saw similar challenges.

2020, then, was a time to identify how flexible, how adjustable, your building was. Offices had maybe four people on a floor that would normally hold 200 and had to figure out how to adjust their systems. It was an identifier of who could do it fastest, who could actually reconfigure their building quickly enough to adjust to new loads. A lot came to the surface, about who could communicate well, who could utilise new technologies to manage the energy and water consumption shifts, and who had a good relationship with their tenants.

Ongoing changes

The market is wide. If every single person who worked in the office full-time pre-COVID decides to now work one day a week from home, that would equate to 20 percent vacancy across the Australian office sector. National occupancy rates have historically been very high, close to full, and we’re talking about dropping down to 75 or 80 percent; it will have a massive impact.

So, how efficient is your building when running at half capacity? How efficient is it at 75 or 80 percent?

NABERS is a simple star-rating system to benchmark and track the sustainability performance of built environments and it covers energy, water, waste and indoor air quality. NABERS ratings give some strong baselines to measure against during transition periods – times when it is usually very difficult. 

Building managers that Grosvenor’s Sustainability Engineers spoke to felt encouraged by their energy and water reductions. One in particular was proud of his five percent reduction year on year, until it was pointed out that 20 percent of the building had moved out. His boss thought it was great too, but they weren’t looking at the right metrics. Based on that vacancy, it should have been reduced much more.

Old measures like ‘this is how much I used last year’ all go out the window when things change; it’s harder to make accurate comparisons when the baseline fades away. Now, though, FMs have access to developed building metrics that look at not only energy use, but occupancy rates and hours, to give comparable data. This is crucial when a building is in a constant state of flux. Sustainability Engineers have the capacity to take all of a client’s building, energy and water data and give a true rating, daily.

NABERS ratings are delivered independently, and audited and verified by the government. The system and criteria are repeatable, so if a different assessor rated a building that a Grosvenor Engineer rated yesterday, they would follow the same rules and get the same outcome.

Monitoring the flexible future

A mixture of AI and machine learning is used to monitor high-performing buildings today. We work with algorithms to look over built environments, gathering data that supports clients in tuning to the new normal, striving for better NABERS ratings and making the most of reduced and disrupted occupancies. In 2020, we shut down fans, we shut off areas, we changed start/stop times, we did everything to achieve extremely effective energy and water reductions.

It wasn’t easy; if you’ve got four people working in a space where there were previously 40, you still have to provide those four with a comfortable workspace. But the tech we have today has come a long way in addressing the challenges of change and equipping FMs with the tools to track and tweak in real time – such as IoT (Internet of Things) and smart buildings. Fully connected buildings can be monitored using data and algorithms from individual meters. We can compare and detect failures or overuse, flag them and have them addressed quickly. This data is combined with sensor data and energy data to paint a holistic picture of a building’s performance, every minute. This technology is already in use in premium spaces and will filter down through all buildings over time. Pairing these new capabilities with better client relationships is the only way to provide the flexibility needed and maintain efficient spaces when the next lockdown could always be just around the corner.

Better relationships

The most important thing is always people. Getting people on board, qualified people to help run the building – if you give them a little bit of information and a little bit of feedback, and they know what’s going on? It’s amazing what they can achieve.

Communication is the key to massive reductions. Even before assessing building data, some of the reductions our Sustainability Engineers were able to achieve last year, just by sitting management and occupants down in a room (or video call) and discussing solutions, was extreme.

Tenants are the ones who pay for the electricity and water, so it’s in their best interest to support building tuning opportunities. It was highlighted during 2020: who could adjust their building best and quickest to suit the new load norm? Buildings that did it effectively are well prepared now to cope with the realities of staggered schedules and people working from home.

How well do you work with your tenants? Be aware of what they’re trying to achieve in terms of flexibility and occupancy. Who’s coming in, how many and when? Tenants don’t usually tell FMs this information, but with it you could make a massive difference; for example, by reducing utilities to empty floors.

Take the hit

In the absence of a solid baseline on which to compare your building’s performance, NABERS ratings are more valuable than ever. 

The simple star rating – even if it’s low – lets you say, ‘Well what can we do about this? Can we make it better?’ 

There’s no point in waiting around for a good rating. Getting addressed sooner is more useful to you – ‘Take the hit, get a bad rating’, as they say – because then you can track your progress. 

Supporting customers in improving their rating is some of the most rewarding work for the Grosvenor Sustainability team. There’s nothing like watching people’s progress from two stars up to five stars, being part of the work they’ve done and their learning process as they meet each goal.

To learn more about Grosvenor, building monitoring and NABERS ratings, visit gegroup.com.au

 

Photo by Nolan Di Meo on Unsplash

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