Sydney Fish Markets drawing. Photo: 3XN

Sydney’s new Fish Market and new museum at Parramatta could soon be the smartest buildings in the industry as governments drive demand in HVAC and tech services post Covid. But tenants are also pressuring landlords to lift their game on energy efficiency as they head to net zero by 2030, says VAE Group’s Ben Carter.

BRISBANE: We were pretty impressed with Ben Carter from VAE when we caught up with him in 2013. Back then he had grown from a Brisbane based one man band to 90 staff in just three years.

Today, the numbers have grown to 350, and he’s still hiring.

Most of the work is in HVAC and building technology, and most is in Queensland and the Northern Territory. But still, he’s keeping a close eye on Sydney: he’s tendering for some of the most interesting high tech work on offer for Sydney’s new fish market. The company’s also installing a microgrid at Monash University in Melbourne.

Ben Carter

Covid, for Carter, has come and gone. There was a rocky period for about six months from March last year but he’s back to his normal high velocity positive sentiment, thanks mostly to construction work and mostly from the public sector.

“If I go back six months, we were very nervous about what was going on with the market. There’s a definite improvement. It’s predominantly government work but we’re seeing the private sector come back and play again.

“Jobs that got canned or shelved last year have been revived, across Queensland and northern Australia.”

The company is also growing in New Zealand, but with just 16 staff, it’s still in its early stages – by comparison.

“The market there is very similar to the Sydney/NSW market in that there’s a lot of government spend, but not a lot of private sector money there.”

The typical pattern though is that government decisions tend to take their time.

Carter would describe his confidence level now as “slightly optimistic”.

And the shape of activity is looking much like a V.

Prices are still indicative of a depressed market, he says. For instance, between March and the end of June, margins industry-wide tended to drop by 10-15 per cent. A bit like panic buying, he quips. But there are also good signs of a recovery now.

And since those nervy days he’s put on 60 staff to take levels to current numbers.

Among the projects on the books now are the Cairns Convention Centre with Lendlease, an office building in Ann Street with Hutchinson Builders, a detention centre in Darwin and a defence project in the Northern Territory.

All are HVAC jobs.

Other work he expects will come on stronger is in building integration platforms – “fairly high-end solutions” for buildings.

Driving this is the bigger emphasis on technology since Covid and how you can use things like the “full touchless experience” to make people feel comfortable about coming back to the office.

“It seems like all the new buildings are trying for outcomes to see who can be the most technologically advanced.”

Government buildings are definitely going down this path, he says.

Among the biggest movers are the NSW government and the City of Sydney both “going down a smart building platform. We’re seeing a massive increase with the NSW government”.

Examples are the new fish market and also the new museum in Parramatta. “Those two will probably be two of the smartest buildings when they’re completed.” Western Sydney Airport will be another high-end tech building, he said.

The City of Sydney, he says, is looking at a smart city platform.

Elsewhere the company has just picked up a “nice micro-grid job” at Monash University,  designed to generate and sell power to neighbouring users.

Driving demand on energy, Carter says, is a ramping up of ambition.

“Customers who might have done energy efficiency projects five years ago are now coming back and saying they want to go further. Everyone is trying to get costs down and efficiency up.”

It’s not so much the owners but the tenants driving the demand, he suspects.

“Big corporates wanting to get to net zero by 2030. And the building space is one of the biggest energy users.”

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