Tonsley Park

Energy efficiency and diversification are two major opportunities for health and research facilities looking to save money and attract investment.   

Air quality is of utmost importance for health and research facilities to protect people from bacteria, viruses, chemicals and other nasty contaminants. But keeping all that fresh air pumping through the HVAC system comes at a price.

According to CBRE’s national director of science and research, project management, David Keenan, healthcare and life sciences assets are more financially constrained than they’ve ever been due to Covid and are looking for opportunities to cut costs.

Reducing their giant energy bills through HVAC upgrades is “low hanging fruit” as far as Keenan is concerned.

Keenan, an expert in the tertiary education, research and health real estate and author of a new whitepaper on the subject, says that collectively these buildings are some of the least sustainable property typologies.

This is because they “spurt out beautiful conditioned air, and lots of it” in a bid to keep their occupants safe from contaminates that might be lingering in the air. He says that in office environment, there’s around two to three air changes per hour compared to four to 12 air changes per hour in a typical research facility.

“You should not be arbitrarily churning through fresh air.”

While the safety of occupants is always the top priority, Keenan also says that there’s ways to manage airflow sensibly to ensure both safety and reduced energy wastage. He says managing air quality in these buildings hinges on a critical piece of technology – sensors that detect contaminates in the air and control ventilation accordingly.

When laboratory air is clean – which is 99 per cent of the time – the sensors recommend air changes in line with office amounts. Air change rates are boosted when sensors detect contaminates in the air.

Keenan was involved with what he says was the first building to implement this demand-controlled ventilation technology, the Kinghorn Cancer Centre in Sydney.

Arup was the engineer behind the Kinghorn system as well as a couple of other buildings in Sydney and Adelaide. Keenan says the company is still at the pointy end of this type of technology although other engineers have certainly implemented it.

While still a capital cost, the large amount of energy saved means the payback is decent. Unfortunately, the technology is still far from widespread – it’s only in a handful of Australian buildings. Keenan says clients don’t tend to know about the technology, and few engineers tend to push it.

But with budgets tightening for tertiary institutions in particular due to fewer overseas students, Keenan says health and research facilities would be wise to consider retrofitting these systems to improve performance.

“While every building should be sustainable in practice, things like public health assets have missed a trick.

“Given the sheer scale of asset number and spread there’s a huge opportunity to look at them as a bigger player [in environmental performance].”

Keenan says that Covid is likely to nudge universities, governments and other organisations in this direction.

“As much as the environmental crisis is real it will take things like Covid that have impacted people’s pockets sooner to create change.”

Put plant rooms on display

When it comes to new builds, there’s other opportunities to improve energy performance. For example, it’s common to put centralised plant rooms a long way away from the facilities they service because they are unsightly, which means energy is lost transporting conditioned air to the facility.

Keenan says there might be design driven solutions to this problem or simply a change in attitude to embrace a plant room in prime position, especially for engineering and technology education buildings that students might benefit form having access to the building plant room.

Diversification achieves economies of scales and attracts investment

The recent CBRE research found that the overlap of education and healthcare followed by diversification to become genuine “innovation ecosystems” is providing a springboard for greater investment in this type of real estate. This model helps achieve economies of scale for expensive equipment that researchers and students want to use.

Emerging Australian innovation precincts include the Tonsley Innovation District in South Australia, Fishermans Bend in Victoria, Western Australia’s Murdoch Health and Knowledge Precinct, Westmead in New South Wales and Herston Quarter in Queensland.

CBRE senior managing director of capital markets, Pacific, Mark Coster, said that interest in alternative sectors such as education although Covid was rising despite disrupted investment flows.

“Increasingly, education and university real estate is viewed as an attractive investment sector, with investors actively raising capital for these assets,” Mr Coster said.

“Universities in particular continue to offer key investment fundamentals that capital is seeking – despite the current challenges of closed international borders and some campuses running online only.”

The expectation is that the government’s incentives around STEM courses will help boost demand for specialised laboratory and medical facilities and their subsequent development.

In Australia, $549 million of investment was injected into healthcare, medical centres and hospitals during 2019 – an uplift of more than 100 per cent from 2018.

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