Monday, 9 January 2017

Top priority

In this month's President's Blog, CIBSE President John Field takes a look back at the Conference and Exhibition and asks - 'Have we got our priorities straight?

In the first blog of a new year it’s traditional to have a look back at the year that came before, and take a look forward at the year ahead – so I’m going to start off with a quick word about November’s Conference and Exhibition. It has become one of the biggest honours in a CIBSE President’s term to preside over the yearly Conference, where we get to demonstrate the wealth of knowledge, experience and innovation within the ranks of the building services engineering community, and this year’s was the biggest and most exciting that I have attended.

Naturally, Building Performance was the focus of the event (it’s in the name after all!) and the issue of how we can create new buildings and reform existing ones in order to make them kinder to the environment and their occupants was a thread that ran through every single presentation, speech and CPD session. But that got me thinking – with so much information and research available on the issue of Building Performance, how can we help to balance the priorities of the many different facets of the performance issue?

Location, size of business and budget can all be major factors
in setting sustainability priorities
This issue is also one of accessibility: If massive multi-national corporations with access to vast resources struggle with balancing their building performance priorities, how are the smaller operations without the benefit of as much time, money or expertise supposed to manage?
Stripped down to its basic parts, the job of a designer is to:

Maintain expected levels of temperature, lighting, fresh air etc.
Have low initial cost
Have acceptable lifetime and flexibility for re-use and end-of-life requirements
Have low running costs, including energy costs
Have low resource use and impact including energy-related emissions
Have happy and productive occupants
Have good engagement/effect on the immediate and wider community

Unfortunately there is no ‘silver bullet’ that will allow us to achieve all these aims with a single action, and for a long time the energy issue was king, tied in with the carbon that creating that energy generates. Most of our focus was in reducing energy usage in order to cut associated greenhouse gas emissions, but this rather one-eyed approach lead to issues of its own around comfort and cost. Sustainability began to take hold as a new ultimate goal – creating buildings that were not just energy efficient, but more sustainable in business and environmental terms. Recently the issue of occupant well-being has also come to the fore.

Occupant well-being is increasingly seen as a priority on par with efficiency
But these changes have, in turn, made the mission of achieving better building performance a maze of different and sometimes competing priorities. Making a building more comfortable for its staff may actually increase its cost, but the savings gained through greater staff productivity and fewer sick days may offset this. In fact, as stated in a number of Conference sessions, staff costs can be higher than energy costs by a factor of 90 to 1 for offices. Increasing comfort and well-being may also increase energy usage, but with the right balance of design priorities this can be kept to a minimum – though it will certainly hit a business in its bottom line energy spend.

Buildings under construction now will determine carbon
emissions in 50 years time
Adding to the mix is the concern that these issues govern a building’s lifetime costs, not just annual costs. Building Physics Engineer Marine Sanchez raised this as an issue of concern in her Conference presentation, saying that we risk ‘locking in’ bad performance and cost for the whole life of a building if we get it wrong. This is an issue that is often difficult to sell to clients who may not be interested in such a long-term view, but which will be vital to future generations who may find themselves stuck with an inherited performance burden they can’t address.

So what is our role in this, as individual engineers and as an Institution? As experts it is up to us to guide clients towards the best solutions for them, in order to help them achieve their goals, whether that is to increase wellbeing, lower energy costs or carbon emissions. Clients will look to us for guidance on the dizzying range of options and priorities out there, and it is up to us to make sense of what our own priorities are, and to equip ourselves with the right skills and resources to help most effectively.

There is a huge opportunity in front of us, this year and beyond, to drive positive changes in the built environment. But in order to grasp it, we as professionals - and together as an Institution - need to be clear what the priorities are, and how alignment with our clients’ natural priorities can best be achieved.

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