The Australian built environment: Where is our culture today?

by FM Media
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How we hold ourselves back from innovation and where the opportunities to achieve greater results from investments in green technology lie are revealed by BOB SHARON, founder and CEO of Green Global Consulting and Total Facilities 2013 speaker.

Why do investors and building owners settle for less? Is it that they don’t know what’s going on, or is it that they are taking ultra-conservative advice from those they trust?
I’ve spoken with senior executives from large building firms and facilities managers. The results of discussing potential sustainability upgrades with these executives were staggering, with 100 percent stating that they knew best how to design a retrofit for their respective buildings.
In most cases, this meant the typical ‘band-aid’ approach – that is, to fix or replace something when it breaks, such as an old chiller or fan coil unit/s. And, in most cases, the return on investment (ROI) takes five or six years, which from a business bottom line perspective is totally unacceptable.
Moving back to the practical side of sustainable upgrades, it’s evident that change is an opportunity to continually strive for excellence by constantly looking at new technologies. Rather than being ruled out due to the lack of an installed base in Australia, new technologies must be accepted if they have been proven in Asia, Europe or the US and are fully supported by reputable organisations here in Australia. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, with most consultants opting for the safe, tried and proven, and installed 1000 times or more in Australia option.

A holistic approach, rather than the litany of band-aid solutions that can be seen for miles around, is key to a successful retrofit. One instance comes to mind from late last year, when a client from a substantial office building in the Sydney CBD wanted its cooling towers replaced.
After some preliminary research, I offered to do a full level three audit and NABERS assessment on the building. I also told the facilities manager that we could replace the entire ageing HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) system throughout the building, and provide much better insulation for the windows and roof, while delivering a complete, holistic, energy efficient solution that would save 50 to 75 percent of their energy bill, guaranteed.
As part of the assessment, I offered a minimum of a three-year ROI or the client would get the audit for free, and if they were CAPEX-constrained, I would introduce them to various funding options, including the NAB’s EUA (environmental upgrade agreement) facility. But, even with all of that reassurance, they still said, “No thanks” and just replaced the two cooling towers and some of their lighting. This is such a common story, and it’s something that needs to be turned around unless we intend to champion the cause of mediocrity.

So, I will suggest one of many ways that we could achieve world’s best practice or better. Before exploring the internals of a building, it is recommended that a thorough check of the insulation fabric of the building takes place.
Most buildings have large windows that could easily be coated with excellent insulative film with a rough two-year ROI. There are also some excellent roof and basement ceiling coatings available that can assist in insulating the building fabric.
Then, the office kitchens/tea rooms come into focus, as these quite often have old heating elements to heat the hot water. It is recommended that these be replaced with central heat pumps that use reverse refrigeration to heat the water at a greatly reduced cost.
Lighting, elevators/escalators, HVAC, building management systems (BMS)/energy management systems (EMS) and much more then need to be looked at. Rather than looking at just one item, such as fan coil units or chillers, it is recommended to look at the system as a whole, and then analyse the merits of the old system versus a total system-wide replacement. More often than not, a system-wide replacement comes with a much better ROI.
I tend to prefer chillers that use turbocor compressors, so that in winter, their power usage will be substantially reduced. This, coupled with internal units as well as the use of outside air, will make for a very efficient system. If possible, a quad-generation system for minimum base load running a set of micro-turbines will add even greater efficiencies.
There is a wide array of intelligent software that is designed to manage the various mechanical systems and pumps, so that they operate as a well-integrated entity, delivering the most effective heating and cooling for the lowest cost – EMS and BMS systems are critical.
There are also new systems that can dramatically improve the efficiency of elevators, and the infamous old server rooms that pervade our built environment landscape. With the NABERS Energy for Data Centres rating tool that was released in February 2013, big changes are afoot.
Given all of the options just listed, there is the possibility of using renewables, such as solar panels, tri- or quad-generation systems, hydrogen fuel cells and geothermal cooling; however, this requires a new generation of thinking that can and will generate ROIs well below three years in many cases, while dramatically reducing our carbon footprint.

It’s not uncommon to see a five- to six-year ROI on building or data centre retrofits that have been designed in a traditional manner. From a business perspective, I find these ROIs to be totally unacceptable. Without renewables, it’s not worth proceeding unless there is a carrot of a maximum three-year ROI; with renewables, a maximum of five years should be allowed for. If the incentives aren’t there for business, it makes it extremely difficult in the current climate to move ahead with such major projects.
When sustainable profitability can, and should be, a practical reality, cultural change will become the norm, rather than the exception. The ‘dinosaur’ or ‘Neanderthal’ thinking that pervades the Australian built environment landscape today must be killed off and buried if we as a society want to move forward to make our planet a better place for our children, and theirs.
What bemuses me most is that many consultants make promises on numbers, efficiencies and so forth, which are rarely attained in practice. It would be interesting to know the real percentage of those promised numbers that actually come to fruition.
Having said that, with a bit of customer care, a holistic, well-designed retrofit, and ongoing monitoring and performance guarantees, the industry should be held accountable, which would be a great thing. I say, “Bring it on!”

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