Rising costs will be more important than energy labels

Copyright: David Lawson Published Property Week June 2008

Here’s a tip for potential entrants to Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice.  Propose a system for trapping all the hot air spouted about green issues and sell it to property managers. They would welcome a cheap heating source.

   Energy was once ignored because it makes up only a couple of percent of business costs but price surges have begun to worry finance directors, who are putting pressure on managers. Costs for commercial buildings are expected to be more than 200% higher this year than in 2001.  This could have a far greater impact than high profile measures such as energy labelling, which is well down the order of priorities among clients polled by building services consultant Johnson Controls.

  Grants are even less important, mainly because businesses are not willing to spend time and effort tracking through a web of incentives. Regulations and levies also rate only moderate concern, as do ageing building services says Georgina Perkins, director of technical energy solutions,. Many of these measures are seen as important for the future – but not today.  She is not playing down the need for urgent action, however. New buildings make up only 2% of stock and managing the rest should be a priority.  For instance, replacing inefficient services will have a significant impact on future values, which will be hit by the introduction of energy certificates.

   Simple management techniques can reap big rewards but require skill to balance costs and benefits. Reducing the hours of lighting car parks will cut energy bills, says Simon Marshall, a partner with Edgerley Simpson Howe & Partners. That would be welcomed on the 55 retail parks managed for landlords including Standard Life and Hammerson, who take the threat to existing property seriously.  ‘But dark, unmanned car parks are a free-for-all for boy racers,’ he says. Extra security may mean no saving in service charges. On the other hand, switching to metal halide bulbs could save enormous amounts while insisting on three year warranties from suppliers reduces replacement costs.

   Managers have an arsenal of more sophisticated measures, including technology which monitors energy and sniffs out inefficiencies. But using these powerful weapons is not always straightforward.   ‘Building management systems were the great hope a few years ago but there are some horror stories out there,’ Arup director Terry Dix told a sustainability measurement seminar at the recent Think08 conference. ‘They can require up to three years on-site training to be effective.’

  Progress is slow because the industry is ‘shockingly complacent’ about the way buildings are run, said Judit  Kimpian, head of sustainability at consultant Aedas. She blamed a culture of ‘fit and forget’, where developers hand over to managers and leave them to get on with the job.  Architects complain they are hamstrung because they have no right to information once a building has left the drawing board. But they are also haunted by fears of comebacks if data contradicts claims about sustainability. 

  Managers have that information at their fingertips but can rarely judge performance against similar buildings. An independent, central system of benchmarking is needed, much as those available on financial yields for investors.

   New buildings designed to be sustainable are not immune to management problems, says Adrian Leaman, managing director of Building Use Studies. He fills the hole left by developers and designers, inspecting buildings for occupiers to discover how they actually work. ‘It is myopic to act as though green buildings will perform well all the time,’ he says. He quotes the ultra-green National Trust HQ in Swindon, which won the British Council national award for innovation two years ago, but revealed surprises such as high energy use in the kitchen and communication rooms.

  Managers worked with the design team to overcome these glitches but the fact that problems occur reveals flaws in the development process, says Leaman. ‘Carbon fixation’ means attention is focused on features such as photovoltaics to achieve good energy ratings, yet these can lead to problems in practice.  Managers should be brought in earlier to work with designers and engineers, says Leaman.  Buildings also need a ‘soft landing’, where co-operation goes on after handover.  After-sales service will be the key to greening buildings rather than the current fit-and-forget method of leaving managers to handle any problems.

Managers of public buildings face the extra burden of telling the world how they are performing when Display Energy Certificates [DEC] are introduced. Liverpool City Council has begun tackling the job with a simple screen-based ‘dashboard’ monitoring performance of its network of one-stop shops.   Energy management specialist t-mac Technologies designed a system which will enable on-site managers to see where they can cut waste. It also keeps the public informed via interactive screens in each centre. 

  This will be a key tool to meet legislation under which a DEC must show actual energy consumption of large public buildings, give an indication of how each is being managed and how well energy use is controlled.  Live energy rating displays change monthly in accordance with changes to each one-stop shop’s consumption. The dashboard works interactively and over the internet, presenting live and historic energy use, and showing location, energy data and summaries of the best and worst sites.