In this two-part series based on her PhD, Samantha Hall looks at how an holistic building performance approach can bring economic and environmental benefits to Australia. In this second part, she details the five key areas of building performance measured by a new holistic evaluation tool, and the shift towards “conscious building”.

See part I.

How can performance be measured?

The Green Performance Evaluation Tool uses a number of questionnaires and interviews to detect gaps, and to use these gaps to develop a roadmap for performance improvements. The tool is not designed as a star rating tool for a building alone, but as a method that ties the organisational processes and building together. It covers five key areas: indoor environment quality, occupant experience, design and technology, building management and corporate culture.

The tool has similarities to the Green Star – Performance tool and fits as a predecessor, essentially gap analysis, to understand what actions are needed to improve performance. Importantly, it offers a way to measure changes by expanding the typical pre- and post-occupancy evaluation to cover multiple areas.

A brief overview of the five areas

Indoor environment quality and occupant experience

While striving for energy efficiency in the built environment, it is important that the impacts of workplaces on human health are clearly understood, otherwise we risk producing the next generation of low carbon buildings, but shift the burden onto healthcare through detrimental working environments. A US study showed consistent associations between increased sick leave, lower outdoor air supply levels and IEQ complaints. This research was used to predict total cost of productivity losses to the US from poor IEQ at as much as US$22.8 billion per year.

IEQ impacts include thermal comfort, ventilation, acoustics and lighting. We tend to be much more resilient to higher temperatures at home but demand cool temperatures in the workplace.

The University of Sydney’s Professor Richard de Dear challenges the typical 21.5°C standard temperature for offices. De Dear says this temperature has unjustifiably made its way into lease agreements and is often demanded by tenants. He argues that occupants are more satisfied with adaptable spaces rather than tightly controlled, uniform temperature. In fact, the level of control people have is a psychological response that relates to the satisfaction with the space and level of productivity.

Sound in the workplace can have dramatic impacts on worker productivity, particularly the type of sound. Measuring acoustic levels is important for any IEQ assessment. LEED has been criticised in the past for poor acoustic design parameters and aesthetics can take priority over designing functional space with high acoustic performance. The jury is still out when it comes to open plan (a debate for another article), but it seems organisations with open plan spaces need to be aware it is a sacrifice to privacy, which can impact productivity, particularly in such well connected digital environments. The challenge is still on to optimise space and harness collaborative work while maintaining personal productivity levels. Transitioning requires a strong change management program.

Removing inefficient lighting is one of the quickest and easiest wins for energy reductions. This needs to be coupled with a solid understanding of indoor lighting. A lack of vitamins from natural daylighting can cause various health problems for workers and daylighting levels are linked with mood and productivity. A school we visited put posters over their windows, blocking daylight and requiring the fluorescent lights on unnecessarily.

Stress reactions in the brain and body have been proven to reduce from direct contact with nature or even pictures of nature. Plants can also remove toxins inside buildings, improving air quality. Indoor toxins often come from interior finishings, paints, office equipment and HVAC systems. The health impacts from toxins in buildings are still largely unknown. Considering the proven impact of IEQ on productivity we still do not place a great deal of emphasis on it and one of the key barriers is that it is technical and difficult to understand.

While a very brief overview of IEQ, it is obvious this is complex and the varied impacts on occupants difficult to measure. The GPET couples IEQ testing with an occupant survey that asks staff to rate their experience, their self-perceived productivity and other areas – such as satisfaction with response to building complaints. Other occupancy surveys exist, with the most frequently used the Centre for Built Environment Berkeley, Building in Use from the UK and the recently created BOSSA – Building Occupants Survey System Australia. Organisations can use these surveys, which feed into larger data sets, or use their own post-occupancy evaluations that are adapted to their own specific areas of interest.

We had many questions about what a productive building looks like at the start of this research. It is important to keep in mind that a building alone cannot deliver a productive workplace; it needs to be coupled with a productive workplace culture and supportive physical environment. A report by Gallup shows only 13 per cent of workers feel engaged in their workplace, costing the Australian economy nearly $55 billion. Engaging staff in public sector buildings is even more challenging.

Occupant surveys can be used as an engagement tool. They can collect information on the building as well as work in general, and give staff the opportunity to feel they are contributing to improvements within the organisation. It is important the surveys and results are actioned in order to retain this engagement.

Design and technology and building management

Effective metering and a strong building management system are critical for performance. When operated effectively these systems can bring between 5-20 per cent in energy savings. It is also important that meters are reading the correct information as buildings change use over time.

These systems can assist with both managing the building, and behaviour change programs. It is likely more information will be fed into the BMS in the future, such as IEQ real-time monitoring. Many organisations still have analogue meters read monthly, which unfortunately leaves much room for human error, and is a time consuming process. It is important to ensure any BMS is intuitive; the more complex the more likely it is only a small number of people will be able to use it risking knowledge loss when people move on.

Lighting and HVAC are the two biggest energy users in a building. Practical case studies show the process around changing lighting. Measuring lux levels is important, if spaces are overlit it not only increases energy use unnecessarily but can be counterproductive for occupants. In one of the buildings we tested a staff member was wearing a hat due to the glare from lighting. Replacing lights involves looking at the lamp and ballast type, as well as zoning and controls on the lighting. Energy from lighting can be reduced by around 30-40 per cent if multiple controls are put into place, such as sensor controls.

The HVAC system is responsible for maintaining the temperature and delivering sufficient ventilation. Correctly sized and designed HVAC systems can not only reduce wasted energy but deliver a more stable and easy to control indoor environment.

Finally the façade of a building and minimisations of leaks improve efficiency. Building sealing drawings can be requested from the architect to demonstrate how leaks have been minimised and controlled.

There are more and more stakeholders involved in the design, delivery and operation of buildings than ever before. The greater complexity has led to breakdowns in communication and in turn flaws and deficiencies which can impact performance. In one building we tested there was a strong reliance on contractors for lighting and HVAC with limited knowledge on asset types and life within the building. Strategically planning effective maintenance is difficult with this knowledge gap.

Buildings will undergo various refurbishments over time and ensuring assets are commissioned correctly and tuned over time is integral, as well as planned maintenance strategies versus reactive ones, which can be very difficult for typically time-constrained building managers. Faults in initial building design can also impact maintenance, such as accessibility of areas for cleaning. Lack of consideration for how elements can be maintained can result in substandard HVAC performance and poor air quality.

Australia has a relatively disjointed building management profession with a skills gap around energy efficiency. Often building management is so focused on compliance with multiple responsibilities that it is difficult to consider efficiency, though this is different for larger portfolio owners where efficiency is often a corporate driver, compared to individually owned and managed buildings. It is near impossible to achieve sustainability in an organisation without considering the building management processes that need to accompany this goal.

Corporate culture

The way in which companies engage with energy efficiency and carbon management is influenced by their organisational culture. Executive level buy-in cannot be stressed enough as directly influential to final asset performance. Without the corporate driver, it is difficult to prioritise energy efficiency. As an example of corporate culture impacts, St John of God Healthcare have a group environmental sustainability strategy and a corporate mandate to reduce their impact on the environment (an important note, the mandate is not to reduce energy, but to reduce impact). Under this driver, the hospital has replaced 11,000 lights with LEDs at a cost of 1.2 million, saving around 13 per cent in electricity consumption per annum.

Sustainability has still been seen as lacking. In fact, a survey of 688 property investors showed managing environmental issues in their portfolios as relatively inactive. A recent article in The Guardian suggests that there is a lack of investor and board support contributing towards sustainability resistance.

As well as the drivers and corporate culture for sustainability, the need for communication is important. The previously mentioned disconnect between the ever growing number of stakeholders involved in buildings makes it difficult to keep accountability in check. We are seeing this in a current retrofit project, interviewing around 30 stakeholders involved at management/coordinator positions on a single building and the absolute importance of consistent and continual communication. CitySwitch are targeting this process through the new Vertical Communities direction.

It is important to communicate the value of sustainability to management (at SimplyCarbon we call this “making cents of carbon”). Companies such as Mirvac and Psaros are recognising the importance of that corporate vision and setting mandates and targets. This is also particularly relevant when it comes to the human factors.

Energy efficiency alone is not always enough of a commercial driver. Integrating the health and productivity components so there is a dual focus can drive the sustainability agenda. “Green teams” or the equivalent are very difficult to sustain without high level support, and an aligned organisational culture.

The corporate culture is not only about driving energy efficiency but putting the right controls in place, such as relevant lease agreements, supply chain environmental management, fitout guides and policies, waste management, education and training. And, importantly, ensuring these are not just environmental charters that sit in a frame on the wall but are integrated into process and continually improved. Long-term incremental investments in energy efficiency are more effective than once off upgrades, and change needs to be accompanied by relevant support – such as training workshops.

Key learnings in summary

  • There is valuable information to inform performance improvements across multiple stakeholders, not just occupants
  • Occupant surveys are rarely conducted on a regular basis which include information on working environment, but these surveys can serve to provide valuable building feedback and a staff engagement tool
  • Collecting this data and cross-analysing it with other data can provide valuable feedback on gaps, providing a roadmap for performance improvements
  • Corporate goals and targets needs to be specific. That is, instead of a corporate goal to be more sustainable, a goal to reduce energy use by 30 per cent with specific sub-goals of reviewing lighting, training etc
  • Without a supportive organisational culture long-term sustainability is not possible
  • There are a lack of practical skills and knowledge on the ground, and source of guiding information for FMs, especially those not part of a larger FM team
  • Communication with building stakeholders is disjointed, impacting delivery, commissioning and operation
  • Building management is hard to engage, and the level of detail obtainable on the building is difficult. Energy audits should be used to obtain detailed lists of assets within buildings
  • Energy consumption data is difficult to obtain and there is little knowledge on wiring and what meters are reading
  • Occupants’ general satisfaction and perception of the building they work in are linked
  • Building performance diminishes over time. The impact of poor performance on environment and health is not clearly understood, nor a business priority

Bringing it together – Conscious Building

It is difficult to make the link between technical building attributes and user satisfaction, but this tool was an attempt to explore those links.

Existing rating tools do just that – rate. But we need more information sharing in order to creating roadmaps for organisations to improve performance. Part of this information sharing should include what went right, and what went wrong. When a plane crashes every effort is made to ensure the same error does not occur again, following James Reason’s Swiss cheese model of filling the gaps. We do not apply this to buildings as while the impacts on the environment and humans are profound, they are not immediately visible. The challenge is to create these feedback loops with greater accountability to ensure these errors aren’t repeated, while maintaining commercial interests.

In workshops we ran, feedback showed people have limited trust in once-off published case studies. As part of the larger Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre project this research was part of, fellow researcher David Sparks looked at published case studies on green buildings and followed them up to see how they were operating since the study had been published. A lot of the times there weren’t repeat post-occupancies and stakeholders weren’t sure if the savings and statements made in the studies were still valid. These are the types of information gaps that are important. What went wrong that can be learnt from?

Mackey and Sisodia refer to “conscious capitalism” as a shift from profit to purpose maximisation, re-routing business to have multiple value outputs to stakeholders. “Conscious building” implies mindfulness of organisations about how the operation of their building affects the environment and occupants. In order for organisations to create high performing buildings they need the hybrid focus on the environment and people within an organisational culture that is supportive of sustainability. Using an approach such as the GPET to test multiple areas can assist organisations to find the “weak spots” and develop processes to enable improvements. For example, one of the test buildings had over 50 per cent of testing spots showing below Australian Standard lux levels and staff discontentment with lighting. There was also a lack of knowledge around lighting life and cleaning processes. Hence a recommendation is to conduct a lighting audit and review maintenance processes with contractors.

The best advice I got when starting a business was to take a step back and work on the business, not just in the business. The same applies for buildings. Often there are so many issues that it is a daily process just to keep up with operation. Let’s take a step back and understand what we are trying to deliver in each building, and how this “shell” can maximise organisational outputs whilst minimising environmental impact.

Sam Hall

This research formed part of a larger project undertaken by Sustainable Built Environment National Research Centre, providing financial support to Curtin University and Queensland University of Technology. Other researchers included Professor Peter Newman, Charlie Hargroves, David Sparks and Kuntal Dutta.

Samantha Hall is director of SimplyCarbon and a research associate at Curtin University. This article is based on her PhD thesis.

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