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Age no barrier as Observatory Tower outperforms younger buildings

Age is no barrier when it comes to improving multi-residential building performance. When smart management works with a committed owners corporation, major gains can be made without breaking the capex budget, as one premium Sydney apartment building has shown.

Glen Webber has been the building manager of Observatory Tower in Millers Point for the past 17 years. The multi-residential building comprises 199 apartments, 60 per cent owned by owner-occupiers.

The tower was originally the 20-storey IBM commercial office building, and was refurbished and extended 21 years ago into a 27-storey apartment tower with a retail courtyard at ground level.

When he first took over the management, Webber says the property had many opportunities to improve on its energy performance.

He proceeded to work methodically through a series of energy efficiency initiatives with the cooperation of the strata committee.

“You have got to have a proactive committee that is interested in energy efficiency and will commit to it,” he told The Fifth Estate.

The first improvement was installing carbon monoxide sensors in the five levels of basement carparking and variable speed drives (VSDs) on the main exhaust fan and the two supply fans on every level.

Previous to this the fans had all been operating 24/7, he says, as the carparks had no open ventilation.

But with the sensors and VSDs in place, a large saving was achieved on the common area energy use immediately, as the fans are hardly every needing to turn on.

VSD motors were also installed on the cooling towers for the building’s HVAC system and on toilet exhaust fans, generating further savings. As well, the main domestic pressure pumps for water have VSDs installed to increase efficiency.

All common area lighting has been upgraded to LED with sensors also installed to ensure the majority of lights only come on when people enter an area such as a lift lobby or pool.

Sensors also control the air conditioning in the building’s library and gymnasium – it only turns on when someone enters the room.

Observatory Tower exterior

Low-cost strategies with good paybacks

Webber says sensors are a simple, low-cost strategy.

“Most of what has been done has a payback of three years or less,” he says.

Individual apartment owners have also been able to take action. The Owners Corporation passed a by-law to allow residents to install 3M solar window film on apartment windows that reduce solar heat gain and the need to run individual apartment air conditioning units.

As part of a plan to achieve a building that is as energy efficient as possible, while not compromising the quality of life for residents, a lift upgrade is also in the plans within the next two years.

The upgrade will involve the installation of reverse generation motors, he says. This technology feeds energy into the building when a lift descends.

Initiatives to date have resulted in around $45,000 to $50,000 a year in reduced common area energy spend, Webber says, “just by implementing simple things”.

“A lot were under two years payback. It isn’t rocket science.”

He says the property is hopefully in a position to obtain a fairly good NABERS apartment rating, if it ends up going down that route.

More plans in the works

There are still more initiatives on the drawing board. The building has an increasing number of hybrid vehicles, he says. A recent survey by Wattblock found that many residents would be more positive about owning an EV if there was onsite charging infrastructure.

Currently hybrids charge using trickle-feed from the common energy system power points.

Webber says the strata body has now applied for a grant through Wattblock from the City of Sydney to install smart EV charging infrastructure.

This type of system means that when there are a substantial number of vehicles charging, the system can load-shed between chargers so as not to impact the capacity of the whole building’s energy network.

In terms of the financial model, Webber says if the project goes ahead – with or without a grant – the strata committee will put a by-law in place that allows people to connect to a charger and then reimburse the owners corporation for the energy use plus pay a fee to connect. The system will then effectively pay for itself.

Webber estimates the type of system the building is looking at would cost about $95,000.

“That would give us enough capacity for 10 years or more.”

Webber says big sites like Observatory Tower “have to be proactive” about energy efficiency and adopting new technology.

Increasing building value

“I believe that with any of these top-end buildings, the more technology [like this] that is put in, it will increase the sale value of those properties.”

Solar is not currently on the immediate horizon for Observatory Tower, he says, largely because the design of the building makes it difficult to work out where to put the panels.

But both solar and wind turbines have been considered, and solar may yet be in the building’s future.

“It is always something to be looked at. We keep reviewing it every couple of years.”

Webber says that for any building manager the key thing is to be proactive and review possible initiatives regularly.

That also means keeping in contact with companies working in the space, he says, and reading relevant articles to keep up to date.

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