An increased focus on health and wellbeing in Australia’s commercial office sector does not mean energy efficiency must take a back seat, according to Craig Roussac, founder and chief executive of energy efficiency consultancy Buildings Alive.
The arrival of the WELL Building Standard in Australia may require more intensive air filtration systems and other technology to enhance worker wellbeing and comfort, but Mr Roussac said he believed a data-driven approach could deliver both human wellness and energy performance to the building industry.
“There is a big enthusiasm for WELL,” he said. “I guess when people are really focusing on those [health and wellbeing concepts], they are not really mindful of energy performance, and that could be problem. I’m not sure that many people are thinking about it enough.
“[However] we absolutely don’t have to trade off human health against climate health. Our business model is to keep innovating and evolve according to our clients’ priorities, so ‘total building optimisation’ is the big challenge we’re working on.”
A recent study from Harvard and Syracuse universities linked building occupants’ cognitive function to indoor carbon dioxide levels under scientific conditions. Essentially, as environments get too stuffy, workers become less creative and are less likely to solve complex problems, an indicator that indoor environment quality has a measurable influence on human productivity.
According to the researchers: “Green building design that optimises employee productivity and energy usage will require adopting energy efficient systems and informed operating practices to maximise the benefit to human health while minimising energy consumption.”
Mr Roussac’s company works with building owners and occupiers to pursue comfort, wellness and energy reductions goals using data-driven methods.
“The team brings together indoor air quality experts, water, data and behavioural sciences. What we do is take complex data streams and then try to turn that into very clear and timely information for people operating the buildings,” he said.
Building managers are able to compare the performance of their building relative to 150 other Australian buildings to measure their success. After 12 months, the typical client saves about 15 per cent, Mr Roussac said.
The balancing act required when trying to achieve wellness without reducing energy efficiency could be compared to the automotive industry, he said. A motorist may be interested in a car because it has great acceleration and goes really fast.
“If you do that without thinking about the fuel economy, you are going to have a gas guzzler,” he said. “The automotive industry has been looking at fuel economy, but performance has always been the main focus. I don’t think that when people started focusing on fuel economy they were interested in reducing performance.”
The rebound effect
However, Mr Roussac warned that too much emphasis on comfort posed a risk. He referred to the rebound effect, an adverse situation discovered in overseas residential studies.
“In places like Scandinavia there have been massive efficiency gains achieved, better heating systems, lighting technologies and so forth, but there haven’t been commensurate reductions in energy use,” he said. “You used to just heat your lounge room and now you have the whole house really comfortable all the time.
“Wellness, productivity, wellbeing or indoor environment quality – if you consider that as an output and you just focus on the output and you don’t focus at the same time on the input – you can use far too many inputs.”
Mr Roussac said the WELL Building Standard was an attempt at placing focus on buildings that provide optimal conditions for their occupants.
“That is absolutely where we are starting to shift our focus,” he said. “And we have been doing a lot of innovation with a lot of these clients… where we are starting to pick up other sources of data and starting to consider not just energy feedback or water feedback and trying to optimise that in terms of energy, but looking at the overall building.”
Mr Roussac said high-tech but human-centric solutions were needed to reduce complexity.
“There is a huge opportunity to take on board adaptive models of thermal comfort, taking into consideration using a little more outside air and, when the conditions are right, it may just be about compromising on comfort to provide fresher air.
“The complexity of it can be overwhelming and that is where sophisticated technology needs to come into it, to make it clear so that people can just make good decisions about running the building.”