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The low-carbon trajectory: what FMs need to know

By Suzanne Toumbourou, Executive Director, Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC)

‘Low carbon’ is a term that facilities managers will be hearing more often in connection with our buildings. These aren’t just buzzwords; they have real meaning in the day-to-day work of anyone involved with managing buildings. With changes to the National Construction Code’s (NCC) energy-efficiency measures for commercial buildings kicking in, low carbon is going to be something that facilities managers will need to be across.

It’s clear that tackling climate change is becoming more and more urgent. At the same time, energy costs are rising for businesses around Australia. This has resulted in increasing moves to improve the energy efficiency of commercial buildings.

According to ‘Low Carbon, High Performance’, a report produced by the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC), buildings account for almost a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, just through their operation. This means that we have an excellent opportunity to reduce our overall carbon emissions by creating buildings that use energy more efficiently.

More than half of the buildings due for completion by 2050 will be built after 2019. Constructing these buildings with high-performance measures in place is the fastest, cheapest way to address our emissions and save on energy bills. On the other hand, delaying new measures by just three years will lock in decades of expenses and poor performance over the course of a building’s life, as out-of-date design and construction methods result in properties that cost more to heat, cool and light.

The push for energy efficiency is coming from everyday Australians, with polling from YouGov showing that an overwhelming majority of Australians understand the urgent need to improve the energy performance of our buildings, and want to see our governments spend more on energy efficiency measures. A whopping 88% of people polled strongly support current or greater government investment in energy efficiency.

Last year, ASBEC partnered with ClimateWorks to deliver the ‘Built to Perform’ report, which outlines the cost-effective potential to increase energy efficiency standards in the NCC. ‘Built to Perform’ advocates for a ‘zero-carbon-ready building code’, with a set of energy-performance targets for different building types across different climates. Achieving the targets could deliver 14.7 million tonnes of cumulative emissions reductions across Australia by 2030, and 78.3 million tonnes by 2050. It could also cut residential energy bills by $20.9 billion and business energy bills by $8.4 billion between now and 2050, while reducing electricity network investments across Australia by approximately $12.6 billion between now and 2050.

Early this year, the findings of ‘Built to Perform’ were incorporated into the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Energy Council’s ‘Trajectory for Low Energy Buildings’, signalling a nationwide commitment towards zero-energy-ready buildings for Australia.

The FMA has been a longstanding advocate of energy efficiency in buildings, joining industry and community groups like the Property Council of Australia, Energy Efficiency Council and the Australia Council of Social Services to push for governments to show leadership on high-performing buildings.

For facilities managers, taking care of buildings has always involved minimising costs for owners and tenants, while maintaining health, safety and comfort. As energy prices rise, energy efficiency is going to play an increasing part in the cost of running buildings. ASBEC’s ‘Low Carbon, High Performance’ report estimates that improved energy efficiency in buildings could save up to $20 billion in energy costs across the Australian economy by 2050.

But it’s not just about the bottom line. The fact is that working and studying is better in sustainable buildings, with people experiencing improved levels of comfort and health. It’s not hard to understand why. Natural light is better for our eyes and our moods, while being comfortably warm or cool means that we can focus on what we need to. Natural ventilation also makes buildings less likely to succumb to airborne nasties like Legionella.

With the science clear that energy-efficient buildings improve our wellbeing, energy efficiency measures are increasingly demanded by end users of buildings. An expensive, dark, damp, poorly ventilated office block or student accommodation facility is becoming a less desirable option for tenants, and a poorly performing investment for owners.

The NCC governs minimum standards for all new Australian buildings. In May this year, a significant upgrade to the energy efficiency standards for commercial buildings came into force. This is the first overhaul since 2010, and ties in with the COAG National Energy Productivity Plan for Australia.

There is a 12-month transition period during which either the new NCC provisions or those from 2016 may be used, but from May 2020, all new buildings will need to comply. By increasing the minimum standards required by the NCC, we’ll be driving a generation of smarter, more efficient buildings.

These new measures in the NCC have the potential to reduce energy consumption in commercial buildings by 35 per cent. Measures include improved methodology for glazing and insulation, increasing the efficiency of ventilation and air-conditioning systems, and taking stronger measures around thermal bridging. There will also be an expansion in the systems used to verify environmental performance, with the NABERS Energy Rating and Green Star Certification systems added as recognised verification methods. There will also be more requirements to at least consider onsite renewable energy. This can include solar panels, which generate electricity or hot water, and rooftop wind turbines that generate electricity.

It’s well known that building management is increasingly data driven. As our buildings get smarter, they require the gathering and interpretation of data. Low-carbon measures are no exception, requiring dynamic involvement from those managing the building – for example, monitoring energy consumption throughout a building so that smart systems can adjust to the demand, or monitoring weather conditions to ensure that buildings deliver the best response to the outside temperatures and rainfall. Onsite renewable energy provides an additional layer of opportunity and complexity.

Facilities managers are increasingly being asked to manage not just the building itself, but the way it interacts with the rest of the world. The stakes are high. With climate change already bringing challenging conditions, we’re going to be asking more of the design and performance of our buildings in the years to come. For Australians, energy-efficient buildings mean safe, cool conditions inside when heatwaves rage outside. It means buildings that don’t overload our ageing power grid when the going gets tough. It means buildings that cost less to heat, cool and light at a time when rising energy costs mean rising bills.

Low-carbon buildings are going to ask more of facilities managers – more knowledge, more data, more responsiveness – but they are also going to give more back through improved performance, comfort and reduced costs.

Facility PerspectivesThis story was originally published in Facility Perspectives, Vol 13 No 2.