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Why even our premium grade buildings are failing on efficiency

Matt Sullivan, chief executive Hux, left, with Rhys Sullivan, head of product.
Matt Sullivan, chief executive Hux, left, with Rhys Sullivan, head of product.

There’s a story going around that a building lauded by many as one of Sydney’s most sustainable just doesn’t work. Energy use is nowhere near as low as expected, and no one’s really sure why.

It’s something we hear from time-to-time at The Fifth Estate: a building gains significant attention along with a swag of stars and accolades for its sustainability credentials, only for us to hear from the owners that it’s costing a bomb in energy.

It’s a story that doesn’t surprise Matt Sullivan, chief executive of IEQ tech company Hux and former head researcher for the Moreland Energy Foundation.

He set up Melbourne-based company Hux two years ago to address what he sees as a failure in the industry to ensure that buildings are properly optimised over their lifetimes.

Sullivan’s previous work with Moreland exposed him to governments at all levels as well as the corporate sector and, as he sees it, while there’s been a lot of excellent movement in building design, it hasn’t followed through to the performance stage, which accounts for the bulk of carbon emissions.

He places part of the blame with building management systems that are “either too costly to be practically adopted, too complex to be effectively implemented, or some combination of both”.

Most facility managers don’t have the right training

One of the key issues is that the vast bulk of facility managers – the people who are actually operating buildings – aren’t being given the appropriate training to operate a proliferation of complex systems effectively on a day-to-day basis.

What’s being taught is not matching where the market is sitting.

“The sort of training expected to be able to operate the types of systems used in buildings effectively is not the sort of training the market demonstrates a willingness to adopt.” Sullivan says.

The standard model for facility management, as a third-party contracted service, contributes.

“From [a third-party company’s] perspective, they have an interest in having trained staff, but their model also means that facility managers are working across a large number of sites,” Sullivan says.

“Because the FMs are working across a large number of sites, it’s not plausible for them to skill up on the control systems for each and every site.”

The standard practice, he says, is to instead rely on subcontractors to deliver the services and skill set needed to interface with the BMS.

This means “the people who are operating the site on a day-to-day basis are actually decoupled from the capacity to be able to interact with the systems that are supposedly optimising these buildings”.

Premium building complexity

Sullivan says it is “100 per cent the case” that poor performance is a problem faced by premium grade buildings as well as those in the lower tiers.

“Premium grade buildings are interesting exercises in that there are a whole bunch of collaborators that are coming together to produce this outcome,” he says.

“What it means is there is a whole range of specialist skill providers. The end result is that you’ve got a building now where there’s a possibility it was configured well … but there’s a much higher possibility that something wasn’t right. There’s basically an inevitability that, as time passes, the original configuration becomes increasingly invalid. But because you’ve got a whole bunch of specialists involved, it becomes quite a challenging process to understand how to go about updating the systems.”

A telling example is that Hux has been called in by the facility managers of “a very premium grade building” to do simple diagnostics around HVAC patterns, lighting patterns and out of office usage.

“For us, superficially, that’s quite an interesting request because self-evidently the building already has the capacity to tell you this stuff,” he told The Fifth Estate.

“It makes sense to do third-party verification … but that’s not the purpose of the request that was made. The request was made because they didn’t know how to access that information, and the cost and complexity of trying to access it actually exceeded our cost of delivering an independent third-party service of assessing and verifying.

“When you get in the situation of where the building operators are requiring third-party specialists to do basic diagnostics of what’s going on, then what you’ve done is divorced the probability that [the system] can be optimised.”

The cost of bringing people in means issues will only be addressed on an ad hoc basis, when things get really bad.

Optimisation needs an iterative approach

The problem here is that buildings require constant adjustments to trend towards optimisation.

“Building optimisation is a matter of tuning – essentially iterating,” Sullivan says.

He points to the outcomes of the Warren Centre’s Low Energy High Rise study – the basis of Melbourne’s 1200 Buildings Program – which found one of the key drivers of high-performing buildings was facility managers that had the capacity to know their systems well enough to iterate solutions and move towards optimisation.

“This is the only way it’s going to work. The idea that you can spend a stack of cash, bring in a bunch of consultants, tune the system so it’s operating perfectly and then it works perfectly from that point on – we have endless examples of how that’s not a credible solution.”

Making it easy to understand

Hux’s solution is trying to make it easier, and cheaper, for the people operating buildings on a day-to-day basis, so that adjusting and iterating towards a solution becomes tenable – for all buildings.

A problem Sullivan sees is that a lot of building control technology has come from an industrial background, and has been adapted for use in buildings. It requires a lot of technical skill and the onus is placed on facility managers to upskill to the specific technology platform.

“The way that it should work is that the technology connects to how people do their jobs rather than putting the onus on the operator. The onus should be on the designer and developer to present information in the most usable and accessible way.”

This notion was the starting point for the company’s platform, Hux Connect, which Sullivan says is the first on the market to integrate a stand­alone building monitoring system into the day-­to-­day practices of facility management, and is already being used by clients such as the City of Melbourne and Westpac.

The technology is an Internet of Things-based system – a network of distributed sensors that communicate wirelessly together and aggregate over the cellular network, storing data in the cloud where analytics are performed and then presented via a web portal.

The tool focuses on indoor environment quality, throwing emphasis onto occupant amenity elements like temperature, daylight and humidity, which have follow-on consequences for energy efficiency.

It’s offered on a service basis, so there’s no upfront capital expenditure, and because it’s not hardwired it doesn’t require multiple sign offs and can be installed by any stakeholder – tenants, building owners or FMs – for a low cost, making it accessible to all types of buildings, not just at the premium end. It also doesn’t require a compatible BMS.

The importance of UX

Sullivan says one of the most important parts of the technology, however, is the user experience element, with the Hux team including people with advertising, user experience design and app development backgrounds – including his brother, co-founder and head of product Rhys Sullivan, who has 10 years in the advertising industry as a developer and technical lead.

“All you need [to install the platform] is the same skill set as someone who is loosely familiar with interacting with an iPad.”

The key is how the information is communicated.

“Everything we do, we say, ‘Does presenting this information help someone make a decision?’

“A lot of big data is simply presenting data, almost from the perspective of people’s edification. I think potentially part of the problem is that people who work with big data are data nuts. They love data. They just think it’s awesome. But the people that we’re looking at communicating with aren’t fans of data. They like things that help them understand things better. But they don’t want to have to troll through a bunch of data themselves.

“What we’re looking to do is essentially target the facility managers – the people that are already employed in this business – and give them the tools by which to understand what’s going on in their buildings and make decisions themselves on what to do next.”

The future is IoT

Hux joins other wireless sensor-based technology like SAMBA coming onto the market. Sullivan says an Internet of Things-based approach was the most sensible solution going forward.

“Really costly, preinstalled systems – heavily wired systems – will not be a feasible trajectory.”

He also has little interest in “over-engineered” solutions like wearables that can create individualised, localised temperatures, such as that being researched by the US Department of Energy’s DELTA program.

“For me, it doesn’t feel like the way we solve this problem is with such an engineering-based approach.

“Any solution that requires a large amount of physical infrastructure to work is a solution that’s very likely to fail.

“What I think is the way we solve it is through essentially a social dynamics type approach. So basically giving people better capacity to interface with the system, giving the system the best information to work on, then coming to a compromise on how that’s resolved.

“Once you establish individual comfort preferences then you do things such as match people’s preferences to the natural way the building operates.”

So, for example, if there are areas in buildings that gravitate towards being colder or hotter, if it’s an activity-based working environment people can locate to where their preferences are matched.

At the end of the day, it’s about making buildings work for the people who occupy them.

“The situation in front of us is we’re trying to optimise buildings, and for a range of reasons – not just for energy efficiency. Optimised buildings benefit everyone involved. They last longer, they have lower utility costs, they give better amenity to staff. In every facet of thinking on it, there’s improvements to be seen.”

Comments

4 Responses to “Why even our premium grade buildings are failing on efficiency”

  • Kieran McLean says:

    Great article highlighting the difficulties of negotiating complex Building Management Systems. In general I agree that most systems could be more user friendly. However, even the most basic concepts (not heating & cooling simultaneously) are often not implemented effectively. Without any accreditation/training requirements for BMS practitioners I wonder whether the systems are too complex or is the industry not appropriately skilled to support them?

  • Great article and nice ideas. I think one important point regarding failings in performance comes down to the architecture. Most are fragile glass boxes. They ignore fundamental laws of physics. Do not respond to their context or climate. Well designed buildings massively reduce their reliance on complex mechanical systems, making life easier and healthier for everyone.

  • Nigel Howard says:

    This is 20 year old news from the UK Probe studies, but needs repeating often. I don’t think we should be blaming facilities managers though – the complexity is devilish and even experts really struggle to make it work. I don’t think we should be relying on a super complex building operation and commissioning manual as the batten passed from the design team to the owner/facility manager. This manual is never read or understood, gets lost really or metaphorically and shouldn’t be needed if the building is intuitive to all of its users. Instead we should be designing for simple intuitive, “fail efficient” systems and controls. As Bill Bordas (in my opinion one of the top (UK) international experts) would say – design using the BRS (Big Red Switch).

    • TFE Journos says:

      Hi Nigel, I don’t think the blame was being levelled at facility managers per se, rather the complexity of systems and the way the market operates that acts against iterative improvements being taken, which it seems you agree with.

      As the article said, from Hux’s perspective the problem was with “building management systems that are ‘either too costly to be practically adopted, too complex to be effectively implemented, or some combination of both’.”

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