131 Queen Street, Melbourne

1 September 2011 – When it comes to creating a sustainable building or refurbishing an old one so that it picks up NABERS stars, there is no one size fits all solution. What makes it even harder is that some building owners are still taking short cuts. According to mechanical services contractor, AE Smith, many of them are just ignorant of what they can do.

AE Smith’s systems lighting engineer, industrial designer and sales manager Tim Wright points to three buildings as three very different examples of what could be done. Again, there was no single solution that would apply equally to all three.

131 Queen Street
The first was at 131 Queen Street in Melbourne, a building that picked up a $500,000 government grant via the Green Building Fund to transform its 90 year old heating and cooling systems.

The building has iconic status in Melbourne. It was the scene of the Great Bookie Robbery in 1976 where six balaclava clad robbers are said to have got away with $15 million (no one has ever been convicted and no one really knows how much money was stolen because the bookies remained tight lipped and most of the cash had not been documented, for taxation purposes).

Wright says the building owners were actually considering knocking it down and starting all over again but the grant, with an extra $500,000 tipped in will see it go from a zero NABERS rating to three and a half stars. As part of the green makeover, the building’s rooftop is now landscaped with tiered gardens, BBQ facilities and sculptural screens.

417 St Kilda Road
The next building was at 417 St Kilda Road. Wright says the building is being taken to four stars and is likely to hit four and a half.
He says the building’s owners, the Challenger Group, had budgeted to spend $2 million replacing chillers, boilers and installing a new building management system. Instead, AE Smith opted to use dynamic thermal modelling technology, creating a three dimensional picture of the building in cyber space.

This effectively compartmentalised the building to review how and when energy was emitted, making thousands of small calculations around energy consumption.

The process revealed that 49 of the building’s 150 variable air volume boxes – more commonly known as VAV boxes which help make airconditioning systems more efficient by regulating the amount of cooling targeted toward any specific room or area – were not working properly. As a result, energy consumption was running 40 per cent higher than it should have been.

The total cost of the dynamic thermal modeling was $20,000 and, according to Wright, it was worth every cent.

The upshot of it was they had two 1100 kilowatt chillers that we downsized to 850 kilowatts,” he says.

“That was a $200,000 saving for them. So they spent $20,000 to save $200,000 and they also save over $100,000 a year in electricity ongoing forever. Instead of $2 million, they ended up spending $1.7 million.

“The additional $20,000 paid off in spades.”

C Grade in Collins Street
The third building was a C grade Collins Street building, with 10 tenants per floor. AE Smith found some fundamental problems. The building management system was old and the pneumatic system driving its airconditioning was leaking lots of air. The boilers were completely shot.

Wright says the building owners refused to do the kind of hard work that went into 417 St Kilda Road and 131 Queen Street, and instead went about it the wrong way, bringing in inexperienced contractors.

“They went in all guns blazing but they didn’t do the basic stuff,” Wright claims.

“They retrofitted and refurbished but didn’t do the basics. In fact, they made it worse because they gutted the floors and didn’t shut the airconditioning down for the rest of the building so they were sucking dust from the demolition back through the whole building.

“It was blinkered vision and a lost opportunity. They might get lucky and get to one star with a little bit of really basic work but they have the potential to get it to four and a half.”

He says it is impossible to have a one size fits all solution to turn buildings into high NABERS stars units. “Some buildings suit an upgrade better and basic good design doesn’t shift,” he says.

“You have some buildings with high thermal mass, low glazing ratios and good solar orientation. Then you have others with poor solar orientation and stacks of glass.”

In cases like that, he says, building owners might even have to go so far as putting in an extra façade.

He says building owners can do basic things, like checking the building management systems and the codes for airconditioning. If the system has airconditioning system switching off at 7 pm, and everyone left an hour ago, it could be changed to 6 pm. That would produce a 10 per cent saving in energy costs.

He says some building owners resist doing this but he does not believe it’s about costs. A simple energy audit on a commercial building costs around $8000, not a lot of money for a building that might be worth $40 million.

“I just think there is a level of ignorance,” he says. “I don’t think anyone has illustrated that there’s bucks in it for them.”

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