Climate change resilience and improving B and C grade building energy efficiency are high on the agenda for the Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Airconditioning and Heating, the institute’s chief executive Phil Wilkinson says.

Resilience was particularly front of mind at AIRAH’s awards night last week as Brisbane’s supercell storm pounded the building where the event was being held.

Mr Wilkinson said early involvement of the facilities management and heating, ventilation and airconditioning consultant was part of the solution to reduce the number of design decisions that leave plant or other equipment exposed to damage.

“Plant on roofs is vulnerable and it gets damaged by hail,” he said.

“Plant and switchboards in basements are also vulnerable [to flooding].”

It is not just the plant that can be affected by flooding. Mr Wilkinson said he knows of one building that during the Brisbane floods in 2010/11 had its oil storage for the backup generator in the basement, where the fuel became contaminated by water and was therefore unusable.

Design both for new builds and for refurbishments needed to ensure plant and power systems were placed in locations that ensured a reliable backup power supply for ventilation and chillers so the building could quickly become operational post-disaster, he said.

“It’s not a case of necessarily needing to have whole buildings go back up, but to design for refuges in buildings, such as common areas. A conversation needs to happen with architects about where plant goes, there needs to be collaboration.”

AIRAH is currently working on developing a white paper with Paul Stoller from Atelier Ten on improving resilience in buildings, and is also engaged working with the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council on phases of the building lifecycle that apply to resilience – including initial design, operations and recovery.

“From a building continuity and recovery point of view this is an exciting thing for us to look at,” Mr Wilkinson said.

Preloved buildings

Another major focus for AIRAH is retrofits and upgrades to B and C grade building stock. The organisation’s Preloved Buildings conference last month brought together the mechanical, HVAC and energy efficiency sectors, with experts like Dr Paul Bannister from Exergy, GPT’s sustainability expert Bruce Precious, NDY sustainability consultant Ian Van Eerden and WTP Sustainability’s Steve Hennessey.

Mr Wilkinson said Dr Bannister’s presentation was a good example of the technical rigour being applied to advancing the sustainability agenda within the industry, and provided challenges to some of the broader perceptions within the industry.

“He was pushing the boundaries of what people can do without,” Mr Wilkinson said.

One of the themes that emerged strongly was the extent to which building tuning is becoming a major focus, as well as the need for more monitoring, measurement and technical upskilling.

Mr Wilkinson said stakeholders outside the HVAC industry needed to be aware that energy-efficient HVAC systems were not “set and forget”.

“They are very complex. Measurement comes through again and again as important, which means there is more focus on metering.”

While the top tier of HVAC firms were largely engaged in new builds and major projects, Mr Wilkinson said smaller firms were finding it necessary to adjust their offering and focus on upgrades, retrofits, tuning and other energy-efficiency moves for the B and C grade “preloved” market.

One of the challenges for both the firms and their client base was this level of the property industry often did not have in-house HVAC technical expertise, he said. This meant the building owner and facilities manager may have the aim of achieving better energy-use outcomes, but only vague ideas about how to do so.

That puts the onus back on “the man in the van”, Mr Wilkinson said, who may need upskilling in order to be able to present the business case for an upgrade to the FM.

BMS systems were also something that could present problems during a building’s maintenance phase, he said, as they are a technology designed along “grey box or black box” lines – in other words, they are a virtually sealed form of technology that requires someone with highly specific technical and electronic knowledge to adjust, maintain or fix.

Mr Wilkinson said occupants were another important area requiring focus both for new builds and for retrofit projects, with studies showing that mixed-mode ventilation projects –like many of the leading Green Star projects of recent years – rated as both the poorest and best performers by occupants for indoor environment quality.

What made the difference between low IEQ and high IEQ ratings was the degree to which tenants had been educated about building behaviour, giving people the opportunity to adapt their behaviour to the building, such as dressing appropriately.

“Scaled up air con [in a fully sealed building] is risk-free compared to mixed-mode HVAC,” Mr Wilkinson said. “People don’t perform better or worse than before if that’s the HVAC solution.”

These risk-free solutions are however generally more energy-intensive compared to the mixed mode option.

Mr Wilkinson said it was also important for mechanical installers and facilities managers to be giving feedback to builders and designers about what worked well – and what didn’t – as the commissioning, tuning, operations and maintenance phases unfold.

“There is a huge need for that to happen,” Mr Wilkinson said.

“We have been holding a series of ‘mistakes’ seminars, and they are some of our best attended seminars. It’s a case of, ‘Let’s share our learnings.’

“The thinking and maturity of the HVAC discipline is growing.

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