16 April 2013 — Some two-and-a-half millennia ago, Chinese philosopher, Lao Tze wrote something that we now translate as:
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
It is worth asking – if we take a journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step, what if that first step is even just a centimetre off-course?
Where would we end up?
Such is the way with the current model of energy auditing in our industry. On several occasions in the last year we have been asked to carry out and/or critique a number of energy audits that had been undertaken on a range of existing buildings in a diversity of places – educational campuses, multi-residential apartments, public buildings, commercial complexes, and retail centres in the Northern Territory, New South Wales, the ACT, South Australia, and Queensland. Whether we were reviewing previous audits or helping clients assess their own historic energy consumption, we have almost consistently found that there was a gulf between what the client thought they wanted compared to where they thought they were.
We began to question why.
What do the Standards tell us?
If we look at the Australian and New Zealand Standards for carrying out energy audits (typically AS/NZS 3598:20001F), minimum requirements for commissioning and conducting energy audits are set out, with the purpose of identifying opportunities for cost effective investments to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the use of energy2F.
We see that there are three levels. These vary significantly in their level of accuracy (from +/- 40 per cent to +/- 10 per cent), and accordingly in how much they cost a client to commission (ranging anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 for large buildings or complexes).
When we were reviewing previous audits undertaken by others, we discovered two things. Firstly, that there were cases where the scope of resulting recommendations for a certain building differed little, regardless of the level of detail to which the audit had been carried out.
Secondly, that the scope of recommendations as a result of our own audits often differed widely from what others had suggested to the very same client for the very same building. The former seems to suggest that it didn’t matter what level of audit was carried out, given that the recommended upgrade measures were typically the same. The latter made us question how it was that we were coming up with such different answers.
As it turned out, we were asking different questions.
The differences that we kept finding between our recommendations and those of others before us could simply have related to the accuracy of the data or its analyses upon which those recommendations were based, that is, our audits were either more or less accurate than the audits done by others. This turned out to be too simplistic a reason.
We found that all the audits to the same building had equal access to data – whether it was half-hourly Time-of-Use energy data, utility bills, an itinerary of installed equipment or an idea of occupancy during the audited period. It appeared that all audits were similar in that they had the same final kilowatt-hour or megajoule figure for annual consumption. Where they differed greatly was how much energy was being used, by what equipment, and when. How could these be so different? It was simple: very rarely did we see anyone ask why energy was being consumed ‘by the building’.
This is where the people come in.
Diagnosing problems before suggesting solutions – and not vice versa
In one example we reviewed a large multi-residential building that had previously had two energy audits undertaken. The main recommendation that the auditor had made with the fastest payback was to replace the building’s gas domestic hot water system with a gas micro-turbine, owing to annual energy for hot water being almost 300 megawatt-hours (just over 1 million megajoules) – equivalent to 40 per cent of the total annual energy consumption of the building. Our first reaction was naturally to question why this much hot water was being used in this building. We looked at a number of audits, each with different responses to the simple question: Why is this amount of hot water used in this building? These are the answers we uncovered:
Why is this amount of hot water used in this building?
This question was never asked.
Water in this building is used for washing clothes, cooking, cleaning, bathing and irrigation.
As for how much for each of those things, we don’t know. We just got the quarterly kilo-litre figure from the water bills.
Follow this process:
1. Get the water bills which should show a total amount of usage
2. Measure a selection of fixtures to determine flow rates
3. Estimate how much of this is water is heated as opposed to being cold
4. Estimate how often and for how long each of these fixtures are used
5. Use the energy bills to estimate how much energy might be required to heat that amount of hot water
6. Estimate whether there are any leaks.
If one reviews these responses and thinks about the question “Why is this amount of hot water used in this building?” ANSWER #3 is a typically technical answer, which, aside from being potentially inaccurate (as each assumption is built upon the assumption before it), is devoid of context. It is like asking someone “Why are you eating those five rocks?” and getting the reply “Because I’m hungry”.
Furthermore, whether or not the methodology adopted and the resulting figures are accurate, we may know no more about whether any figures given are good or bad.
Unsatisfied with any of the above responses, we proposed an ANSWER #4, that is, to ask people who lived in the building. Below is a transcript extract from a conversation with one of the building’s occupants:
Heating water in this building accounts for quite a lot – around 40 per cent – of the energy consumed here. Why do you think this amount of hot water is used in this building?
I don’t know – that does seem like a lot.
What do you use hot water for?
Just washing really.
What about cooking?
Not really. If we want hot water for cooking we just boil it in the kettle, but we do a bit of washing up with hot water.
Do you use the shared laundry?
Ah yes – there is the laundry as well.
Doing which activity would you say you use the most hot water?
Well I can tell you that people in this unit take really long showers!
Do you take long showers too?
Yes – I guess so!
Well, I guess because we don’t pay the bills.
You do pay the bills though, don’t you? Indirectly, anyway.
Yes, that’s true. It’s included.
So how long do people in this apartment shower for?
It depends. I take probably 20 or 25 minutes, two of the people in this unit – not naming any names – sometimes take almost an hour.
Almost an hour?! Are you sure?
Yes – it’s a long time isn’t it? But in our defence, we shower to warm up!
What do you mean “to warm up”?
Because it gets really cold.
The water you mean?
No, the inside of the apartment gets really cold.
Why is that?
Because our heating doesn’t really work.
Finding out – away from the desk
Our conversations with 22 residents from 15 different units repeated themselves several times in this building – thermal comfort was by far the biggest complaint by the occupants. People were doing several quite unexpected, yet understandable in context, things to keep warm – taking long, hot showers was one of them. We returned to the previous audit to look at the heating system (which was electric) to find that there were no problems identified in the report. In fact, it suggested that heating accounted for just 2.3 per cent of the total annual energy consumption – and therefore any upgrades to deal with space heating demand would provide no payback.
Further investigation was warranted, so with the collaborative effort of the very engaged building owner we measured (not assumed) what people were using electricity and gas for, how much they were using, and why. The following is a microcosm of what we found:
- The heating system actually accounted for 8 per cent of the total annual energy consumption.
- 60 per cent of residents had brought their own plug-in heaters to replace the inadequate existing heating system, taking the real heating load account to 12 per cent of the total annual energy consumption – and yet people were still thermally uncomfortable.
- General plug loads accounted for 30 per cent of all the electricity consumed – with south-facing apartments consuming up to double that of the apartments which faced north.
- Half of all the mains water consumption in the building was being heated by the gas hot water system. The configuration of the hot water system accounts for some unnecessary gas consumption, as we found that around a quarter of gas used in the system was reheating a portion of hot water that kept getting sent around the circulation loop but wasn’t used.
- Across 30 occupants over the month of October, the average shower time was 16 minutes, with the longest recorded time being 41 minutes.
- Internal air temperatures in rooms without self-brought plug-in heaters tended to closely track external conditions, i.e. the building fabric was doing little to buffer external conditions.
- We discovered excessive condensation and mould in south-facing ground floor bedrooms. This was a result of low internal air temperatures (due to a thermally-poor building fabric and inadequate heating) and poor natural ventilation (due to the perceived security risk of opening ground floor windows)
- high relative humidity levels (due to low air temperatures, inadequate ventilation and a lack of clothes-drying space).
- The air permeability of the apartments was approximately 24 air changes per hour at 50 Pascals of pressure, explaining in-part why the apartments feel draughty and track external conditions. The test also uncovered a non-BCA compliant smoke shaft.
- In overcast conditions, natural light levels at occupants’ study desks reached 500 lux in the north-facing apartments and only 80 lux in south-facing apartments.
None of the data above was uncovered in any of the previous audits. One questions the level of benefit in assuming (or even knowing) how much energy different systems are consuming if people still weren’t comfortable. In many of the audits undertaken, even basic temperature logging was rarely carried out.
The lack of asking why in previous audits meant that very few of the subsequent recommendations made in those reports addressed the needs of the people occupying the building (for example thermal comfort). If the quality of decision-making can only be based on the quality of information on which decisions can be made, partial audit results will typically lead to potentially incorrect solutions whereas pragmatic audit results will naturally lead to pragmatic solutions.
In the above multi-residential building for example, there are very many different approaches to reducing hot water consumption. One of the previous audits made no mention of any action, in part because there was no assessment of whether the audit results were good or bad. An alternative approach we suggested introduced the idea that if the apartments were more thermally comfortable to live in, hot water consumption might be reduced.
This could be done by efficiency measures alone, such as insulating the walls, installing draught-stripping and removing the ill-placed solar shading on the south side of the building, before re-assessing the inadequate heating. All of these initiatives could complement more typical approaches, such as improving water fixtures. As for Indoor Environmental Quality, there was no mention of its measure in the previous audit, and subsequently there was no suggestion to improve it.
Post Occupancy Evaluation: taking us beyond energy?
Post Occupancy Evaluation is a loosely-understood term which everyone at a meeting table nods at when it is mentioned, but in reality its meaning can be rather hazy given that its practical implementation is so bespoke. Very often we will see the extent of POE limited to being not much more than a management review entailing a set of vague questions to which different members of senior management self-rate their own sustainability performance. This may be in terms of understanding the potential of energy savings, or accountability for energy management, or training and awareness in energy. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that this kind of POE can be near-meaningless and at the same time dangerously meaningful in that whilst answering this type of question does stimulate some level of self-reflection from those in senior management, it can equally result in complete inaction, as senior managers are understandably reluctant to give themselves a less-than-average rating.
If this is the level to which we engage then it’s easy to see how the auditing process can be somewhat disengaging for clients and building occupants. Too often we see an energy audit being commissioned and then carried out (with the majority – if not all – time spent in the process being the remote review of data rather than spending time in the building finding out how true the data is), resulting in a report with an executive summary that begins with recommended building retrofits (built mainly on assumptions) rather than the results of the audit itself.
These reports land on the desks of building owners and managers and more-often-than-not the very people who use the building are bypassed or at best given a tokenistic mention. It seems that many audits are undertaken because clients are told that is what they have to do, without understanding what they are asking for, nor what to do with the report once they get it. The resulting report, designed to impress with lots of detailed numbers, graphs and technical jargon, naturally gets shelved, as the recommendations in it are often not grounded in human context and provide insufficient information upon which recommendations might be implemented. Unless the client and the people in the building are technically-apt, then a dry, technical report is going to be difficult to penetrate. It has become too easy to assume that clients won’t want to understand the very technical content, and so recommendations are made for them. It’s easy to think that clients want to be told what to do. In fact, they often end up needing to be told what to do because they don’t understand the technicality of the content they are given.
We have to communicate better.
The subject of energy is exciting, dynamic, and engaging. Why don’t many of our industry’s audits buzz with those characteristics too?
It is important to recognise that to begin to understand energy, we have to understand how people live, work and play in and between buildings – and this is altogether a more engaging exercise. To understand people, we have to look well beyond energy. Water consumption and IEQ factors have already been mentioned, but there are a myriad of critically important other issues that should be assessed if we want to understand energy consumption and the things affecting it. For example:
- the site itself – it’s ‘carrying capacity’, its resilience to climate change, the surrounding acoustics, or the local mobility options
- the use of materials – whether the building is de-constructible, flexible in its use and can appropriately accommodate future changes
- equity and educational aspects – whether all kinds of potential users can be accommodated, or whether how the building is performing is shared.
In other words, whilst energy bills and carbon pricing may currently be two of the only ways of leveraging financial savings, we do not, and cannot rely on the auditing of energy in isolation if we are to understand energy consumption. Energy auditing for want of a better word, needs to be conducted as sustainability auditing. In the parlance of AS/NZS 3598, perhaps we are talking about a Level 4 audit here…
Value ? Cost
I’ve attempted to articulate how the limitations of what is assessed in the energy auditing process can lead to some rather limited upgrade recommendations. There is clearly a further reason why limited building upgrades are suggested – the notion of payback.
As practitioners, we struggle to value improvements in any other way, and for the majority of clients, payback (and it’s more detailed buildings blocks such as net present value and internal rate of return) might be the only parameters relied upon to make decisions, despite the chances of those paybacks actually transpiring. Even if they do, they are hard to measure or never measured in the future.
There are of course, many other ways to make value judgments, which if we dare to be more creative, can be both socially and environmentally profitable and pay back financially. For example, several years ago I was in a design team meeting on a European project for a national public health service, which was in the process of master planning one of its major hospital sites.
The client could not come to terms with the capital cost of planting the main boulevard with mature trees at a cost of what would have been just over A$1 million, despite the non-financial but less tangible benefits of improved air quality and aesthetics. The team went away and carried out some research before the next meeting, to be able to demonstrate to the client that:
- the health service’s own research figures stated that the planting of these trees would increase the chances of the hospital’s patients enjoying walking exercise by 15 per cent
- the health service’s own research figures stated that a five-minute daily walk could reduce patient time in hospital by up to around 10 per cent
- the reduction in the need for hospital beds would be an overall saving up to what would have been around AUD$200,000 a year for that site alone, that is, a five-year payback – deliberately from different government funding pots.
We were obviously delighted that the client took this into account and adopted the mature trees in the landscape strategy.
A mixed-use building we’ve been working on is another example of creative payback, and one where our recommendation was to actually increase (rather than save) the energy consumed in the building. Usually the true environmental impact of an object or process requires assessment of its fitness for purpose.
This building is in an area that is well-connected with public transport, infrastructure and amenities, and we found that a large amount of space within the building was being poorly utilised. Our suggestion was the relocation and space-optimisation of the shared laundry in the ground floor, essentially allowing room for extra lettable area.
The financial return of doing this from rental income alone was within a year, despite intensifying the use of the building and the number of occupants within it, thereby increasing energy consumption. This recognises the material value embodied in constructing the building in the first place.
Conversely, it is important to accept, recognise, and possibly even celebrate the idea that some initiatives just do not pay back in any easily-measurable way. Improving an inadequate heating system is an example where operationally, the same amount of energy may be used but people are thermally comfortable when they weren’t before. Equally, we should be fundamentally questioning whether payback should always be the decision-maker.
Throughout history, hugely successful organisations never used payback as a single decision-maker. We should accept that the rational decision is not always one that people will entertain – and nor should it be.
pick something out from the building’s design
and ask the project manager what the payback of that element is
– it might be a marble floor, or a tinted glass balustrade
Most (if not all) people make irrational decisions, and all organisations are of course, run by people. You can test this idea for yourselves: next time you are in a project, design, or services coordination meeting, pick something out from the building’s design and ask the project manager what the payback of that element is – it might be a marble floor, or a tinted glass balustrade.
If A = 1 and B=1, A+ B does not necessarily = 2
This status quo presentation of value – that is, payback – is not the only place where the making of recommendations in energy auditing falls short. One fundamental error that is almost always made is the presentation of single upgrade initiatives recommended in isolation of all other initiatives. Here is an example:
In case, an existing office building on was due for a significant refurbishment. The shopping list of recommendations in the energy audit suggested the following base building energy savings:
40 per cent saving from upgrading the chiller and associated pumps
12 per cent saving from upgrading office and car park lighting fixtures
10 per cent saving from filling half of the roof with solar photovoltaics
8 per cent saving from upgrading office lighting controls
5 per cent saving from installing a BMS
5 per cent saving from installing external shading
5 per cent saving from installing Variable Speed Drives on Air Handling
4 per cent saving from insulating the roof
4 per cent saving from replacing windows with double-glazing
3 per cent saving from installing solar thermal for Domestic Hot Water
2 per cent saving from installing Power Factor Correction
1 per cent saving from lift upgrades
1 per cent saving from upgrading water fixtures, for example basin taps, urinals
1 per cent saving from upgrading car park ventilation
Notice anything wrong with this picture?
All of the upgrade initiatives above could be undertaken without overlap (that is, they can all be done to the same building), yet, it’s not possible to add up all the savings because the result is greater than 100per cent. Does this mean that if the client did go for all of these options then they would be net exporters of energy from the base building rather than net consumers? No, this is not the case.
What has happened in this shopping list is that every upgrade item has been assessed in isolation from all others, despite many items having considerable effects on the others.
The resource hierarchy
Perhaps this is best explained by ignoring what is called the resource hierarchy.
In simple terms, the resource hierarchy is a concept that suggests that if we need to consume a resource that can have a negative impact (such as the environmental) we should do our best to recognise the precious value of that resource to mitigate that impact.
We would do so by following a basic hierarchy –
- reducing the amount we need in the first place, before
- efficiently delivering the remaining amount that we do need, and
- generating (using a low impact method) the remaining amount if we can – and in that order.
So to use an analogy, imagine a camper hiking through dry terrain, who plans to have a wash that evening when reaching her destination.
- The camper might choose a path which is less dusty and muddy so that she needs less water to wash.
- She might have brought a hose that releases small amounts of water in a controlled fashion, so that she doesn’t waste the water that she does need to use.
- Finally, she might have left a container out in the open to harvest any rainwater, so that she can use the water for drinking, and use any captured rainwater for the purpose of washing. If, where she was hiking there was an abundance of rainwater, then perhaps she may not choose to take as much care over the first two steps.
How does this affect the shopping list problem above?
Take for example an office building that needs 1 million kiloWatt-hours per year of electricity from the grid to keep it comfortably cool. The existing cooling system – System A – burns (for the sake of argument) 200 tanks of coal to meet this cooling demand.
An energy audit is undertaken, and a more efficient cooling system – System B – is recommended because it burns only 150 tanks of coal to provide the equivalent amount of cooling, therefore saving 50 tanks of coal per year.
If System B cost $1million to install but the price of each tank of coal is $2000, then the new system saves $100,000 a year in coal (50 tanks @ $2000 each). Aside from a myriad of potential future price changes and complex tariffs, installing System B would pay back in 10 years.
But what if we also upgraded the building’s fabric with insulation, draught-proofing and low-emissivity window film, resulting in an overall cooling requirement that is reduced by a fifth? The office building would then need only 800,000 kilowatt-hours per year of cooling energy. System A would now burn only 160 tanks of coal to meet that demand, and System B would burn 120 tanks. The difference between the systems is now 40 tanks and not 50, and the difference in annual savings is now $80,000 and not $100,000, meaning the payback period has increased to 12.5 years. If this dynamic relationship between upgrade measures was reflected in the shopping list, perhaps the client would not be so keen to install a new cooling system.
We have found similar examples repeated in many energy audit reports. This is not to say that a new cooling system would be the wrong strategy, but as suggested above, if upgrading a cooling system is done in conjunction with other measures that have an impact on cooling loads there is a risk that the new cooling system’s benefit – which may have been calculated as though it would be upgraded in isolation – is overstated.
A further consequence of not following the resource hierarchy and not accounting for this relationship between upgrade measures is that some initiatives are inaccurately prejudiced over others, in that some current initiatives result in future upgrades getting locked in. In this office building for example, by not optimising building fabric efficiency now means that the cooling system of the future will have to remain at its current size, although it could have been more cost-effective to reduce it.
This issue of timing works both ways. In this same office building, insulating the roof now (which requires careful removal and replacement of the roofing from the outside) instead of insulating it in three years’ time (when the roof needs replacement anyway) comes at a potentially unnecessary cost premium. The dynamism of these factors that affect different options over time need to be estimated and expressed.
“Doctor, I think my building is bleeding”
I understand that in the old China, doctors were paid when their patients stayed well, and were not paid when they got ill. This makes sense – doctors were paid to keep you healthy.
I often think of this analogy being extended to buildings. Every time a client approaches us with a version of, “Doctor, I just bought a building and I think it is bleeding”, I often wonder, could we find a way to not wait until a building gets ill, by encouraging a culture of keeping buildings healthy?
This culture of fixing rather than preventing is not only costly, but also seems to shift our starting point in the approach to building upgrades. When we are faced with the challenge of improving what could be an inherently bad building we can find ourselves trying making the building less bad, rather than making it good – a subtle, but important difference. In a similar way in which a doctor diagnoses the status of a patient, we are asked to identify the health of a building – initially, from an energy consumption point of view.
What we often find is this:
- •After years of different levels of neglect, the building is configured in such a way that it isn’t living as designed, but is unhealthy, redundant and cannot meet the present needs
- •That the building could potentially be left as is, due to its current state not being potentially fatal in the short term
- •That there is the option to introduce a regime of antibiotics to reduce the ongoing pain
- •That there are opportunities to remove many of the problems, albeit requiring major surgery.
Clients often respond to the news of their energy-unhealthy building with a mixture of wanting to leave it as is, injecting a dose of antibiotics and/or commissioning some level of surgery.
Whichever option they take, there is a need to understand that doing nothing should be as much of a consciously-made option as taking any action, and that there is a difference between less bad and good. What would a person’s response be to being asked by their doctor “would you rather be healthy or less unhealthy”.
Medical advances rely on dissecting (sometimes literally), analysing and publishing work that examine historic medical failures. Given that we should all share the same vision, that is making positive impacts and reducing negative impacts of the built environment – our industry can learn something from this. It is a common occurrence for large organisations to design and construct new buildings that don’t address the problems that their own existing buildings give their occupants.
Why could this be the case? We find that either the clients don’t ask their own staff and/or the building designers don’t ask either. Yet, if we are not designing for people, then who are we designing for? As an industry, the skills developed in retrofit/refurbishment/upgrade works to old buildings inevitably lead to better skills for building new. We should apply effort to make sure that we do not repeat mistakes, which may require new models of communication.
A summary of suggestions
1. Looking at a building’s energy use in isolation might be the wrong way to understand how energy is used in that building. We must enhance the practice of energy auditing to be holistic sustainability auditing – to the assessment of the inter-connected issues of water, the site itself, materials, education, equitable access, and of course, health and wellbeing – and we must include meaningful and engaging POE. At present, nowhere in AS/NZS 3598 does it ask how occupants feel. This needs to change. Buildings are living, breathing manifestations of how we run an organisation. Buildings don’t use energy. People do.
2. Problems should be diagnosed before suggesting solutions. We can do this by first asking the right questions – these will naturally lead to the right answers.
3. There is a big difference between value and cost/price, and understanding it will better serve our clients, whose highest-priority might not be cost. Even if cost is the primary driver, then more imaginative ways of thinking about and presenting it are sometimes needed.
4. If A = 1 and B=1, A+ B does not necessarily = 2. In short, unless the client is intending to carry out a single building upgrade measure exclusive of any other measure then the single-line item shopping list approach may not always work and the associated savings can be overstated. Whilst it seems natural to give a client a ‘shopping list’, we at least need to bring attention to (and exercise caution in) the expression of dynamic relationships between upgrade measures.
5. Retrofitting existing buildings improves our ability to design and construct new buildings. Assuming that this is the case, we need to be more open about our mistakes and improve our platforms for learning. This ties in with the need to thoroughly measure – using a multitude of methods – the before and after of upgrade works.
6. Finally, when we have the opportunity to be part of a building upgrade, we should aim for good instead of less bad. We need to think wider, go deeper and make fewer assumptions. And, we need to demand more – of our clients and of ourselves.
Hopefully the thoughts written here have made you ask the same question that I have been wondering about, which is – does our current auditing approach really achieve what it sets out to?
The present answer seems to be not yet, but let’s hope we have the mindfulness and the bravery to move in the right direction.
So what if our journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step that is just one centimetre off-target?
Well, the answer depends on many things, such as where you are aiming to be, or how long one of your single steps is. For me, aiming to attend The Green Cities Conference in Sydney, and knowing the length of my stride, starting my journey where my first step was just a centimetre off-target would result in my ending up just West of Parramatta when I was heading for Darling Harbour!
Fortunately (or unfortunately) for us, the original quote by Lao Tze has probably been incorrectly translated over the years.
Firstly, it is suggested that the mile referred to might actually have been a different distance measurement altogether known as ? (‘li’), likely to be only a third of a mile or half a kilometre (depending on the mode of transport!). That means my attempted journey to Darling Harbour would land me at a distance of Bondi Beach instead of as far as Parramatta – a reminder that if we are to go forward, we must try to do so with consistent units of measurement.
To look even deeper into the language of the original Chinese:
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”
might actually be more accurately translated as
“Even the longest journey must begin where you stand”.
Such should be the future of energy auditing in Australia. We – clients and practitioners – should be thinking wider, going deeper, demanding more, demanding to know as best we can, where we stand, even before taking the first step.
Stephen Choi is a senior consultant with Viridis