Sam Hall

In this two-part series based on her PhD, Samantha Hall looks at how a holistic building performance approach can bring economic and environmental benefits to Australia. In this first part, she explores why buildings become inefficient, and the path ahead.

Read part II.

Sustainability is built on principles of harmonising people, the environment and the economy. Buildings are a perfect opportunity to improve working conditions and health implications for Australian workers, reduce carbon from operating buildings and improve asset value and productivity for organisations.

Building performance needs to be redefined with the expected growth of cities to include the value of humans occupying the buildings as well as the operational impact the building has on the environment. Considering these areas together through a holistic building performance approach can bring greater economic returns over the long term.

Instead of seeing buildings as “static containers”, they have potential to add value to organisations. It is necessary to look beyond this shell and to the values and organisational cultures of the places where we work. Fixing the technical design elements of a building is only a short-term solution. Sustainability should be a long-term focus, and we need to find a way to hand over buildings like they are an agile product, requiring ongoing maintenance and performance improvements.

Green building growth

Green building has been, and continues to be, a growth industry. Certified green is today’s best practice in commercial construction. The growth of this industry still leaves two challenges; firstly the ongoing management of these buildings to maintain green performance after delivery, and secondly, underperformance issues in existing building stock.

As populations continue to move to urban centres, capital cities have a building stock that must be continually operated efficiently and improved in order to curb growing greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, better planning is needed. At a recent Property Council of Australia event the issue was raised of the need for stronger up-front cohesive planning for buildings, as sound design does not always translate into sound operational performance.

People lead increasingly busy lives and spend the majority of their days inside these buildings. In addition to green buildings targeting environmental sustainability they must also be healthy environments for occupants. More attention is being brought to the impact that the indoor environment can have on the health and productivity of staff, and Australian industry is looking forward to the NABERS Indoor Environment review outcome.

The CRC for Low Carbon Living’s “Closing the Loop” project is including the human factors in the project framework.

A new performance tool for buildings

In an attempt to understand what affects building performance the Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre undertook a research project in partnership with Curtin University and Queensland University of Technology, along with a number of industry partners. The research looked at five key areas influencing operational building performance from a holistic perspective: building management, design and technology, indoor environment quality, occupant experience and corporate culture.

This research was used as a basis to develop the Green Performance Evaluation Tool. The tool is not focused on design and technology alone, but is a method for understanding the systemic issues and gaps that need to be addressed for long term sustainability to be integrated into organisations.

Designing and delivering a green building does not guarantee it will perform.

It requires a sustainability supportive – and driven – corporate culture, efficiency and improvement focused building management, engaged occupants and a healthy indoor environment. Aligning these areas can maximise investment into sustainability bringing returns in productivity as well as utility savings. The tool was designed to detect gaps and help direct that progress.

Findings from the research show that current rating tools lack the provision of a roadmap for building owners and managers to continually improve performance and find the balance between human health/productivity and energy efficiency, especially as commercial buildings become more densely populated.

Curtin University has recognised the need to understand building performance in more detail and recently commissioned the use of the GPET to determine how a retrofit performs on delivery, and how the feedback loop once the building is operational, can be closed to inform improvements within the building, and future design of other buildings.

How buildings become inefficient

Over time older buildings drift from their original design specifications. Layout and functional use changes, as well as changes to building management, result in efficiency losses. For example, a building tested in the research was constructed in the 1960s with various additions that had occurred over the years.

There were few O&M manuals and limited understanding of asset lifecycle, and the use had shifted from the original design intent for the building. These factors make it difficult to improve building performance.

Even those built to high green standards will become problems in the future if they are not managed and maintained well. Hence, a large producer of emissions in cities is buildings, and a larger producer than necessary in many cases.

Australia saw the hottest temperatures on record in 2013, according to the Bureau of Meterology [a record likely to be overtaken in 2014 – Ed]. There is over $46 billion planned for electricity network infrastructure development to manage increasing electricity consumption and peak demand pressure. It is questionable whether this infrastructure is supplying some already inefficient assets, essentially feeding false demand.

Professor Richard De Dear, indoor environment specialist and director of the IEQ Laboratory at University of Sydney, sums this up well, finding that the tenant demand for comfort levels drives unrealistic temperature conditions in buildings, and in turn heating ventilation and airconditioning loads. Reducing energy is as much about shifting cultural “norms” (and hence back to organisational culture and values) as it is about the design and technology.

The cost of human resources is much higher to an organisation than energy expenditure on operation of their building, and just small improvements to productivity can offset costs to improving the office. Unfortunately, the valuable research conducted on IEQ hasn’t made a large impact on office fitout and it is necessary to make this research more palatable and accessible for industry.

A key point raised at the recent LCLCRC conference was the need to re-think the cost per square metre in office space, integrating more consideration for how the space is used and how it affects the working environment.

The road ahead: linking buildings and organisations

Studies show buildings can improve performance just through tuning and commissioning, requiring minimal capital outlay. In fact, a study in the US on 664 buildings found 10,000 energy faults that could be fixed with minor tuning – bringing an average of 16 per cent energy savings.

So why are we still not seeing a massive uptake of energy focused retrofits in the commercial space? For a start, it’s complicated. There are split incentives, lease agreements, property cycles, capital finance, practical skills available, policy, data and logistics – to name just a few. One of the greatest barriers is that energy efficiency and the associated savings are not enough of a driver for change.

However, the market can respond to policy triggers. This was shown through the increased uptake of NABERS ratings on the introduction of the Commercial Building Disclosure legislation. While it may not yet show a vast improvement in the ratings – requiring the same buildings to be re-rated – it is a step towards creating a transparent market and generating demand for truly efficient buildings.

Carbon content is often compared to ingredient labels. The same should apply for buildings. A buyer should know the building’s efficiency index. Could the next step be mandatory Indoor Environment ratings so occupants have transparency about their workspace?

A number of other factors emerged as separate issues. Some of these include building management processes, lease agreements, energy ratings and organisational culture influences on sustainability. The culture is integral, without executive buy-in the chance for long term sustainability success is minimal. A positive outcome of the federal government’s Direct Action scheme is that it will actually create accountability for performance, as delivery of abated carbon must be proven to receive the credits.

It is important to make the link between organisational processes and the building itself. This is where “Scope 3” emissions are critical. These look at emissions from waste, staff commute, business travel, paper and other indirect emissions. They are reflective of the culture, and are where most sustainability behaviour change programs are directed.

It is the opportunity to engage occupants and shift behavioural norms. Drawing a boundary around electricity use in a building misses other opportunities. If staff travel interstate or overseas, the carbon generated from travel can outweigh savings in building energy consumption.

Obviously cultural sustainability goes much wider than this, and the need for organisational transparency and sustainability reporting was highlighted in the recent Australian National University divestment exercise. Risk management, supply chain analysis, procurement policies and other strategies must be explored as part of organisational sustainability.

Despite the resistance to ongoing performance monitoring when building owners and managers make building improvements, such as installing end-of trip facilities or upgrading to LEDs, it is important to capture this information. Measuring progress enables the full investment into sustainability to be realised. Connecting with users and asking about their feedback is a way to capture this information.

Without this loop there is a lack of accountability and issues go undetected, manifesting over time. The next section in this series will summarise the five key areas, how they are interlinked, and how these relate to performance of a building.

Read part II.

5 replies on “Rethinking building performance: part I”

  1. NABERS ratings reflect the actual energy, water and indoor environment performance of a building. Since there inception and up to an beyond the mandatory requirement of NABERS rating for premises over 2,000; NABERS rating have significantly improved; reflecting the improvements in performance of commercial buildings. NABERS ratings are based upon carbon emissions.

    1. Absolutely correct Rod, and the NABERS energy ratings tripled on introduction of CBD requirements. The IE and water ratings are still quite low in comparison, which again shows the power of mandatory vs voluntary programs.
      One of the main issues this model addresses is a more holistic view of performance that can be sustained over time. Technology can only go so far to bring us towards our carbon reduction targets. Leveraging corporate cultural influences as well as harnessing occupant feedback in buildings are both powerful tools for the sustainability shift we need.

  2. Once a building has all of the best design elements for its site and climate location, it will perform for ever. The work place usage will change with commercial buildings, so becoming functionally obsolete will be more of a usage change than a structure issue into the future.

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