Steve Hennessy

By Tina Perinotto

15 July 2010 – Favourites: According to GPT sustainability manager Bruce Precious there are perhaps only six people in Australia he would trust with serious upgrades to his company’s prized assets. Steve Hennessy is one of them.

As head of operations for Steensen Varming, Hennessy is an insider’s choice: an engineer with a low profile and ambitious ideals.

His company has the pedigree: it came to Australia as part of Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s contingent to build the Sydney Opera House.

Here’s a note from the company’s website:

  • “Steensen Varming was first established in Australia by the Danish practice in 1957, following success in winning the commission to design the Sydney Opera House with Jørn Utzon. The Opera House architects and engineers were in agreement from the beginning that it would be unthinkable to construct a boiler chimney stack or a cooling tower, thus ruling out two usually necessary pieces of equipment for large-scale air conditioning. The solution offered by Steensen Varming was to use a heat pump system, utilising water from the harbour as the cooling agent: a truly elegant and efficient solution, even by today’s standards.”

(Note the date and the use of a heat pump system using the cooling waters of Sydney Harbour, still trumpeted in recent times as innovative technology.)

Today the company works on large commercial buildings and on specialised projects such as laboratories and data centres, but has kept strong links with its origins in Australia. At the top of its worklist is a swag of contracts dealing with iconic buildings such the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW, the National Portrait Gallery, the High Court, the Museum of Contemporary Art in NSW and, of course, the Sydney Opera House.

With this sort of experience, we thought Hennessy was an ideal person to ask for his views on sustainable buildings in general, but also on how highly specialised buildings such as art galleries, museums and data centres fare in the quest for greater sustainability.

Art of sustainabilty

According to Hennessy, the special needs of museums and art galleries are undisputed. After all these are  required to protect works of art and rare artifacts that are, as he says, sometimes “worth more than the building”.

“The Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery and Parliament House have special needs, and they’ve always been taken quite seriously, especially in arts institutions, because they are about preserving things,” Hennessy says.

But even though the energy demands are intense, squeezing better performance from them is no less important than in a typical office building.

“In the art galleries the environmental control is very important,” he says. Yes, it’s energy intensive – but you manage this as “inefficiently as possible or as efficiently as possible”.

Some of the more sophisticated methods used to save energy include heat recovery.

With lighting, a critical element in protecting sensitive paint pigments and other delicate materials in galleries, his firm has won major awards for work in the National Portrait Gallery carried out by in-house specialist Mirjam Roos, by introducing alternative lighting – and even daylight – to exhibition spaces, previously very much a no-no.

Not all the energy-saving effort is a recent response to environmental and sustainability concerns. Several years ago, the National Gallery of Australia installed an ultrasonic humidifier – at the time, the biggest such system in the southern hemisphere, and possibly the world, Hennessy says.

A steam humidifier, he explains, is not dissimilar to a kettle that injects steam into the air. The ultrasonic system basically vibrates at a very high frequency to atomise the water in the same way, but without requiring heating.

Humidifiers are also common in the pharmaceuticals industry and computer rooms in order to reduce the risk of static electricity that could damage equipment.
“But there are better ways of achieving the right environmental outcome without the excessive use of energy,” he says.

Data centres
Speaking of computer rooms, what about data centres, notoriously the biggest energy guzzlers of all property asset classes, which can require an entire mini-power station to be built alongside them. How do they fare in the sustainability stakes?

This is an area where Hennessy has less good news to report.

Sure, the IT industry has an image for keeping up a fast pace and it regularly throws out challenges for radical change in the business and personal worlds, he says.

But it’s a different story within the industry, especially when it comes to notions of how to protect its equipment.

“I think one of the ironies with IT is that we think of it as cutting edge and moving ahead of the times, but people in IT can be quite conservative when it comes to environmental conditions. So you talk to a computer manager and they want the temperature to be very, very low and the reason is because … that’s how they do it.”

In data centres, Hennessy says he often enters a computer room where the temperature is set at 20 degrees Celsius. He tries to explain it can be 24 degrees Celsius with no difference in performance.

“They say, ‘guarantee me that nothing will happen’ … and of course I can’t,” Hennessy says. Consequently, data centres remain entrenched in the status quo.

“They’ve been quite slow to embrace the green agenda,” he says.

“I suspect it’s got something to do with the old mainframe days. IBM used to set the standards, and a lot of people are used to having these conditions.”

Change is on the way though, Hennessy says, pointing to the number of articles appearing in the IT literature and elsewhere that discuss green data centres.

“There is starting to be movement, although it’s a lot slower than with commercial owners.”

“Up until now it has all been about reliability and availability”. But eventually it will happen, he believes. “If people start to think about their own lives and the energy they’re using, then I think that will rub off [in the workplace].”

Commercial buildings
Hennessy is also involved in the more prosaic, but nonetheless equally important, work of improving energy efficiency in office buildings.

The looming mandatory disclosure legislation has been driving the interest in better performance but, more importantly, so has the general push to retrofit and fine-tune Australia’s commercial property stock, in turn propelled by market demand from tenants and investors.

The Green Building Fund that was designed to stimulate commercial property activity has been a huge stimulus.

Even though the amount might seem paltry – a mere $90 million – its impact appears to have been significant.

Hennessy says his team has been kept busy with the scheme.

On mandatory disclosure, Hennessy is not so sure it will prove to be such a big issue, as most of the bigger players in the industry are up to date with their energy ratings.

It’s a different story further down the pecking order. “A lot of the lower-grade buildings don’t fall into the net that way,” he says.

“There will be people caught out, there will be some saying: ‘Oh, another bit of compliance’. They don’t realise it’s an opportunity to do something [to make their buildings more efficient and save on outgoings].”

He also believes that, for some buildings, there will be significant problems.

“It is very important that building owners can report ‘base building’ energy ratings, but I have come across a number of instances where changes have been made to power systems such that a base building rating can’t be done.

“The alternative, a whole building rating, can be difficult, expensive and may significantly disadvantage the building owner. I would advise any building owner that might be caught up by this legislation, to get a NABERS rating now – and if problems are found, at least they may have some chance to rectify things before it is too late”.

In the battle for better energy efficiency, Hennessy is a great NABERS fan.

“I’m a very staunch supporter of NABERS and have been since the idea first came up, and I had some involvement from the beginning.

“I think one of the things it’s done is that, when you talk about energy efficiency or building performance, potentially it’s quite complex. But NABERS has reduced it to something as simple as a star rating.”

That’s something that can be understood by everyone, he says. A building manager might not know the complexities behind an energy efficient building, but they know that 4 stars is better than 3 and they know that more and more tenants are chasing 4.5 star buildings.

There’s no doubt that “NABERS has moved the market,” he says, adding that the credit for much of this success belongs to the work of Sue Salmon, who with the NSW Sustainable Energy Development Authority, really pushed the commercial property sector to adopt the Australian Building Greenhouse Rating system which then became NABERS Energy.

“She was brilliant at pushing that, very dynamic,” he says.

At a more macro level, so to speak, Hennessy also comes up against the issue of how to connect co-generation plants to the grid.

Yes, it’s tough for the pioneers, especially when they are confronted by intransigent energy authorities that are slow to embrace new suggestions. But he has sympathy with them.

“It’s very difficult. Put yourself in the position of a power distributor with existing infrastructure that may not be 100 per cent suitable for the growth of that embedded [power] generation [created with the building site].”

Hennessy says that if a way can be found to make “both parts of the equation” part of the solution, we’ll get there much quicker.

“For example, if it’s necessary to run another network then the logical step would be to invite the existing providers to do so.”

Organisations such as Sydney City Council are investigating ways to build alternative and internal networks to deal with their co-generation ambitions.

In Melbourne, one of his clients has gone head-to-head with the local power authority, CitiPower. He says several owners that have been trying to get their cogeneration projects over the line have been faced with the prospect of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on particular equipment when they undertake developments.

There is a quiet consensus, he suspects, that new entrants are being “punished for the deficiencies in the network … or it’s a way of preventing us from going forward …. we can’t be sure”.

As for the future, Hennessy sees a surge in demand for retrofitting buildings. “We’re not seeing a significant change at the moment. I think commercial property is still in the doldrums but I hear there is a huge amount of work on the horizon.”

This could include part of the 330 million square metres of commercial space that the Property Council of Australia says is ripe for an energy efficiency makeover.

But if this demand were to suddenly take off, Hennessy fears there could be an acute shortage of skilled and talented engineers.

“Let’s say there is some imperative to improve the existing building stock sooner rather than later, then who’s going to do it?

“It takes time to train good engineers, and we as an industry have not been very good at attracting enough people into our profession” he says.

But at least the engineers can expect a nice jump in fees, right?

Hennessy is too polite to agree, but he does give a quiet chuckle.

The Fifth Estate – sustainable property news

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