It’s time to wake up to the performance gap & retrofit challenges

In some cases sustainability can be managed through good design at virtually no cost, but other measures require up-front investment and financing. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the UK is behind other countries in finding effective solutions to help incentivise and finance initiatives to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions for existing and new build commercial premises and operations.  

There could be several reasons why these sort of schemes haven’t flourished. Sustainability initiatives need to represent a good deal for funders, developers, building owners and tenants. Unsurprisingly, not all of their priorities align and when additional market forces come into play there is often no drive to make a change and none of the parties have the confidence to make the necessary investment.

Focusing on the confidence aspect, two of the biggest issues are addressing the performance gap in new buildings - so the difference between what has been designed and what actually gets built - and retrofitting energy efficiency measures in existing buildings.

The Government is doing the right thing by tightening regulations to reduce energy demand, but there is evidence this is increasing the performance gap. It is sensible to have compliance tools which allow comparison between buildings but it appears these tools are now too far removed from the reality of buildings in operation. Designers and building owners need to look at the tools they use and if necessary upgrade them to make better value decisions that influence use.

One of the down sides of the regulatory approach is the strong temptation to simply comply with the standards rather than making the additional effort to go beyond. For example, you could have a great design on paper but even the smallest gaps if not sealed properly or the junctions between different materials if not joined properly, can lead to significant energy loss, and by the time the building owner has realised their energy bills are much higher than anticipated it is too late to tackle the issue.

Another factor related to the performance gap is that the regulations only cover a small number of areas, such as cooling, heating and lighting. They don’t address human behaviours or the operations and processes which are carried out in the building. Whether Government better legislates, the industry considers it voluntarily or building owners and tenants take a broader view of their asset and operations, there is more to be done to consider the building and its operations as a whole rather than just the building performance.

The performance gap is not new and it is time to stop ignoring it and looking for blame elsewhere. The whole construction industry needs to step up its game. Designers need to be more aware of overall building performance rather than simplistic code compliance; contractors need to be more careful with onsite construction and the junctions between work packages, taking a more scientific approach and upskilling if necessary; and building owners need to work harder at operating, maintaining and continually tuning their assets. 

Making existing buildings more energy efficient is also a big challenge. If building owners, tenants and funders take a long term view it would be easy to produce a compelling business case for making improvements to energy efficiency. But delivering them would be immensely disruptive. Occupants would likely have to be relocated during the work and would probably face rate increases to reflect the improved facilities when they return. Building owners would face the double whammy of lost income and a tenant that may choose to relocate permanently on top of the capital expenditure. This doesn’t exactly incentivise change. One could argue that building owners need to wake up to that long term view. The building is their asset and they have to take some responsibility for making it sustainable, particularly as there is likely to be a return on their investment. However, it would also be valid to suggest that there is a practicality issue here and some form of financial assistance, such as tax breaks, may also be necessary to lessen this impact.

I think most agree that reducing energy use in commercial buildings is in everyone’s interest. There are environmental benefits and cost savings. Mechanisms are available to fund additional energy reduction measures for new builds and upgrade existing buildings, but for the money to be released there needs to be a confidence that the anticipated energy savings can be made. This requires smart design and attention to detail on the build and a commitment from all parties to the long term goals.

David Tonkin is Chief Executive Officer at Atkins, UK & Europe

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David Tonkin

Author: David Tonkin

Added: 21/10/2014

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