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Mind the gap: how to close the performance gap in existing buildings

Building Performance By Bill Grover, Principal Engineer, Building Performance – 21 September 2022

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Bill Grover

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A problem with many existing buildings is the premises are not living up to the promises. They may look terrific, be well-located and have industry leading amenities, but they fall short of living up to the sustainability aspirations of their owners and comfort expectations of their inhabitants.

This is the performance gap – the difference between the design and development aspirations and the final delivery, commissioning, and ongoing operational outcomes. Closing this gap so that all existing buildings provide ideal internal conditions for human comfort – whilst making the most economical use of resources – is one of the most important goals we need to realise as part of our industry achieving net zero.

Assessing the current state of a building’s DNA is a vital first step. This includes lighting, vertical transport, hydraulics, fire safety, electrical infrastructure and heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC). But it’s here where the great challenge often arises: incomplete and inaccurate documentation.

This challenge also provides an opportunity, one which building services experts can turn into a broader discussion with the client to understand the scope of the problem to be solved – what are the motivators? What is the end goal? This requires building a collaborative relationship, rather than having a purely transactional approach and providing band aid fixes. It also means developing a roadmap for an existing building, sequencing interventions, and allocating responsibilities.

“Assessing the current state of a building’s DNA is a vital first step.”

Understanding the client motivation is imperative.

Soft skills come to the fore here as much as engineering expertise. The ability to ‘read the moment’ and ask the right questions, to build trust, and develop a solid working relationship is perhaps the most important ingredient in existing building projects. Creating this effective working partnership makes it easier to manage surprises, adapt to latent conditions and leverage additional information from key stakeholders during the progress of works.

A tenant survey at the early upgrade planning stage will also deliver great value. This acts to inform the owner, the facilities manager and the building services team on the priority items that will deliver the best wins for tenant satisfaction. It also ensures occupant expectations are addressed following potentially major disruptions to their workspace.

Improving documentation and monitoring systems also provides a practical future-proofing outcome. This is extremely valuable, as it prevents future band aid fixes and ensures an asset can be adapted in as technologies or the market changes.

We also review tenant feedback to inform the plan, and review building control systems looking for potential wins. These might involve making appropriate software changes such as functional description updates or utilising analytics platforms, before considering any hardware upgrades such as upgrading infrastructure or replacing central plant.

Oops – no-one commissioned the submetering

Very often, examining the data from an existing building’s energy monitoring system (EMS) provides for easy wins in achieving building performance uplifts.

We have often found meters and other monitoring devices were installed as received from the manufacturer, without specific on-site commissioning and post-installation calibration. Many contractors assume sensors and metering devices arrive pre-calibrated from the factory: this is not the case. As a result, when building performance is reviewed to identify opportunities for improvement, doing so can prove impossible from inaccurate monitoring data. Simply calibrating sensors and meters, and recommissioning building systems can deliver measurable performance improvements long before expensive plant upgrades take place.

When delivering a new building or a significant upgrade, commissioning the energy monitoring systems is critical.

“Many contractors assume sensors and metering devices arrive pre-calibrated from the factory: this is not the case.”

Soft Landings in existing buildings

The Soft Landings framework developed by CIBSE can also have benefits for existing building performance improvements. The core of Soft Landings is working collaboratively with all stakeholders – the owner, the facilities management, building users and the project delivery team. A Soft Landings coordinator ensures that expectations, needs and decisions are properly communicated to all parties. They also facilitate information collation and consolidation.

If a building is occupied, it can also be more impactful than when used on a new building as the tenants and their needs are already known. On a new project, there can still be a degree of speculation involved as to what tenants might want. The scope of refurbishment can be clearly defined as part of tenant engagement, so there is a reduced risk of disappointment.

To date, the Australian property sector has been slow to adopt the Soft Landings framework, often citing concerns around additional cost.

The principles of Soft Landings are ultimately beneficial and easy to measure. Comfortable tenants and economical energy use are a long-term win for asset owners and facilities managers.

At a macro level, pulling existing buildings out of the performance gap is also a clear win for moving our industry to net zero.