In energy efficiency land they’re really busy

31 March  2011 – Busy? That isn’t the word for it, says Paul Bannister,  highly regarded building engineer,  managing director of energy efficiency experts Exergy and a key author of the original NABERS Energy rating tool.

“It’s the biggest lolly scramble of the year. Every man and his dog has put a bid in for the Green Building Fund,” Bannister says. Days to go and the urgent message is: “we have to get a bid in.”

The reason? Building owners have figured the last round of the GBF could be the last of the easy government money to help retrofit old B and C-grade buildings

Recent industry scrutiny of the promised green tax breaks for buildings have led many owners have concluded the breaks won’t deliver on the early promise. (See our coverage from Leon Gettler and Nicola Woodward.)

As Bannister sees it, “Everyone has been thinking, ‘Whoa, the tax break scheme won’t be as good as we thought: not everything will qualify, it will take years after the event and you can’t get the money upfront … we’d better get moving while there’s some money left.’”

Exergy has been involved in 10-12 applications, “including people ringing up in March and saying they need to get a GBF application in, so could we do the proposal and put it in … the whole shooting match,” Bannister says.

Bigger than the GBF
But this movement is bigger than than the GBF. The uptick in inquiry for energy efficiencies is across the board.

Could it be that it’s time for old, energy-guzzling B and C-grade laggards to shuffle out of the shadows and have their day in the sun? That their owners are starting to  put their hands in their pockets?

Yes and yes, says Bannister.

“We’re doing everything from retro-commissioning work to a major overhaul of one project where we’re spending $20 million,” he says.

Bannister declines to say what the building is, but concedes it is in Sydney, and that it’s being taken on the whopping journey from zero NABERS Energy stars to five.

Other major work he is doing is to upgrade the portfolios for Colonial and Dexus with “strategic improvements”.

Colonial had reduced the emission in its clan of 28 buildings by a net 29 per cent and Dexus is on a similar path, he says.

Retail therapy
The next major stomping ground for action, Bannister says, is the retail sector. As a sector it’s about where the office sector was 10 years ago.

“Most major clients are doing reviews of their NABERS ratings,” he says.

One of his company’s other directors called him from a site recently and said: “Talk about VAV [variable air volume]; in 10 minutes it’s varied from eight degrees to 30 degrees,” Bannister, rather alarmingly, retells. Where? A major shopping centre.

It’s no real surprise, he says, [referring to the low priority energy efficiency has had in the retail sector] and his team is “still trying to get our heads around how much it will cost to upgrade”.

At the level of improving basic controls, “it’s pretty straightforward. You spend about $10,000 to work out what’s wrong [with the building controls] and about $50,000 to fix it.”

But building controls improvements alone can save 20-25 per cent of energy costs.

Hotels: great at front of house
In the hotel sector it’s worse. Some hotels – even the very best – either have very no controls, or systems that need to be thrown away and fully replaced.

“Doing anything with controls is expensive,” Bannister says. “And hotels are a funny bunch. When we put together NABERS they were fantastic to work with from a benchmarking perspective.

“They have an entire culture of measurement because they are such marginal businesses that they measure everything to the very last dollar, to the level that would surprise [anyone]. They are obsessive skinflints.

“They might have this lovely marble in the foyer, but scratch the surface of the mechanical system and you see that all the money goes on the front of house.

“I’ve seen quite swish four and five-star hotels with two chillers, one dead and one dying, and they say they can’t replace them until they go altogether … it’s an extreme mentality.”

Minor office portfolios stepping up
In offices, Bannister says: “We’re starting to see action in the minor portfolios. We’re finding they are beginning to surface as a potential new client base.”

He agrees it’s probably the CBD (mandatory disclosure) program starting to kick in. However, there is concurrent evidence of some people improving their portfolios by “flicking” secondary properties.

There is more than one company that specialises in buying low-grade buildings, “smartening them up, then putting them back on the market”, he says.

Another big area for growth is the regional centres, which Bannister says offer great opportunities.

Evidence of this growth can be seen in the fact that Bannister’s company, based in the ACT’s Belconnen, has ballooned in the past year, predominantly in the last six months, when it expanded by half a dozen people to 22.

We’ll be keeping in touch.

The Fifth Estate would love to hear about your stories in building retrofits. Send us a note, or a whole case study to editorial@thefifthesate.com.au

And in late breaking news the CB program today said it it would release the Tenancy Lighting Assessment rules in late May as a component of the CBD program.