Retrofitting a Melbourne icon – more than meets the eye

by FM Media
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Everybody loves new infrastructure. An ever-growing list of targets for improvement incentivises the creators of our cities to push the realms of possibility and lead the market towards net positive outcomes, as well as a more sustainable future. But can older infrastructure meet new targets?

That’s exactly what the state of Victoria is out to prove with the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC).

The MCEC is an exercise in architectural excellence. With its clean lines, contemporary features and grand open spaces, its reputation has been firmly established as a place for bringing people and ideas together, offering an inspirational backdrop for events and exhibitions ranging from corporate to creative.

Comprising two adjacent buildings – the Exhibition Centre, which opened in 1996, and the more recent Convention Centre, which was completed in 2009 – the MCEC has welcomed over 2.4 million visitors in the last financial year alone.

Despite winning many awards for design and architecture, the Exhibition Centre is affectionately referred to with typical Australian modesty as ‘Jeff’s Shed’, after former State Premier Jeff Kennett, the brainchild behind its development. But delving behind the façade of this Melbourne icon reveals a lot more cause for excitement in the sustainability space.

The MCEC is the first such centre to have been awarded a six-star Green Star environment rating by the Green Building Council of Australia, to add to its 2016 Gold EarthCheck certification. A recently announced $305 million expansion is set to transform the MCEC into the nation’s biggest convention and exhibition centre, providing a massive boost to the Victorian economy.

Without question, the MCEC is a world- class case study in sustainable architecture, and its effective design permits that features can continue to be tweaked and updated in accordance with new principles and technologies for decades to come.


In 2015, the chillers responsible for cooling the MCEC’s current 32,000 square metres of conference rooms and exhibition halls began to show signs of deterioration. The Centre’s infrastructure investor and manager, Plenary Group, was in search of a sustainable and environmentally conscious solution. Its search led it via on-site mechanical service provider MACT (Vic) Pty Ltd to Veolia, which retrofitted three chillers.

Where executed correctly, retrofitting sustainability initiatives in existing buildings reduces operation costs and environmental impacts, and increases building resiliency, adaptability and durability.

In keeping with the Australian naming convention and previous mention of ‘Jeff’s Shed’, the chillers were each given names
by the installation and maintenance team. A 550-kilowatt variable speed goes by ‘Grace’ and a 1440-kilowatt variable speed is known as ‘Charlie’. If Grace and Charlie are flat out and more cooling is required, ‘Robert’ the 4000-kilowatt ECTV HFO (hydrofluro-olefins) chiller can be called on for help.

Grace and Charlie can ramp up or down to provide high-efficiency part load performance during the cooler months, and Robert can provide highly efficient cooling during the warmer months and at peak occupancy. Working in combination, they give flexible cooling with maximum efficiency – integral to a building that has extremely variable occupancy and cooling needs depending on the day. It is estimated that the plant room will save $50,000 in electricity consumption and reduce its carbon dioxide output by 275 tonnes annually.

When considering the replacement of the ageing chillers, the capital expenditure for the project was based on replacement of like for like, with similar technology that was used back when the MCEC was first constructed.

Although the budget was set and that option was on the table, the team was open to explore other avenues that were more flexible (in meeting the varying needs of occupancy and weather conditions throughout the year), used less electricity, and contained refrigerants that were better for the environment.


When Veolia was approached, it reviewed the existing best practice in the Australian market, the changing regulations with a phase-out of HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) refrigerants, and what new developments were occurring at the leading edge of this discipline worldwide.

The proposed solution was the three chillers of various sizes and operating characteristics that provided large improvements compared to the proposed like for like replacement, and within the budget. Here are the key benefits:

  • new ability to vary the output of the two smaller chillers up and down via variable speed drives, instead of having them run 100 percent or not at all resulting in increased electricity consumption and wear and tear over time
  • greater operational efficiency at high ambient temperatures, so when the temperature exceeds 26 degrees Celsius, the large chiller consumes less power than at lower ambient temperatures for the same cooling output, and
  • reduction in emissions, since it was built with the latest environment-friendly technology.

Although the benefits were easy to understand, the fact the large chiller had never been installed in Australia proved to be a risk factor that required assessment.


There is always a risk involved in trying something new and unknown, and examples detailing highly successful installations
in Europe and the Middle East had to be referenced and studied. After a thorough review, it was confirmed that the common risks related to older style HFO refrigerants, such as flammability, presence of hazardous materials and other potential dangers, would not be an issue in this case.

The use of new HFO refrigerant (more ozone friendly and with much less global warming potential than their old chillers’ R22 refrigerant) meant they would meet Australia’s stricter legislative requirements.

This also mitigated the physical constraints of installing new equipment, while facilitating the use of existing power supplies and pipe networks. With the MCEC, Veolia needed to keep the convention and exhibition cooling operating continuously and working within the overall building management system while the new solution was being installed, with minimal disruption to the public spaces. When implementing a retrofit, it may be easy to select the best model or solution on a theoretical basis, but it has to be able to be implemented in practice. Consideration has to be given to the existing building systems with which the upgrades need to integrate and work.

Matthew Lee is regional energy manager, Solutions and Growth – Veolia Australia and New Zealand.

This article also appears in the August/September issue of Facility Management magazine.

Lead image: manganganath ©

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