Getting our priorities right

Published:  02 March, 2011

HVCA, Sue Sharp, Service and maintenance, refurbishment
Delivering true sustainability — Sue Sharp.

Service and maintenance contractors will be under more pressure than ever to show how their work can deliver a financial return this year, says Sue Sharp.

Commercial landlords are starting to invest in making their premises energy efficient. They held back for years as they could not see a way of passing on the cost. Now we are starting to see premium rents being charged for the ‘greenest’ buildings.

One office block in London has successfully increased rents to the same tenants from £20 to £26.50 a square foot following an extensive refit that involved replacing the old central-heating system, improving draught proofing and cutting the use of artificial lighting. If you can demonstrate running-cost savings, tenants are starting to believe in the value of this work.

The Carbon Trust says that reducing carbon emissions from offices by a third by 2020 would save UK businesses £4 billion a year in running costs. They quote upgrading heating, using low-energy lighting and greater use of natural ventilation as ‘simple and low-cost measures that can be quickly and widely applied.

The Government’s Green Deal, which kicks in next year, will also make the funds available for many of the building refurbishments needed. Utility companies, including Centrica and EDF, are gearing up to provide the loans and the technical services, as are major players from the wider commercial world such as M&S and Tesco. And those infamous ‘money men’ are moving in for the kill as well, including some of the world’s largest hedge funds.

Big business

Energy efficiency is now big business; there is a big prize here for building-services firms, and we must not be left behind. However, the golden rule is that future systems must deliver what they promise. The loans made available through the Green Deal must be paid back from future savings in energy and building operating costs — so energy-saving measures must perform as intended. End users should be able to see benefits in reduced fuel consumption from the moment energy-efficiency improvements are made. Delivery is the key — what we implement must work and must pay back.

What should we do first? The priority has to be implementing low-cost measures that are quick to implement and involve very little disruption. We want building occupants on our side, so we must avoid shutting down parts of their building, and we must demonstrate progress quickly.

Those measures will become apparent from the process needed to get access to the Green Deal money.

The first step is for the building owner to have an independent energy survey of the property carried out. This will give clear advice on the best energy-efficiency options available and should inform the refurbishment strategy. This must be specific to the building in question, but there is a series of initial measures that can be applied in almost any building based on the ‘energy hierarchy’.

HVCA, Sue Sharp, Service and maintenance, refurbishment
Getting the building and its conventional plant right are the vital first steps towards sustainability — well before renewable energy.

This 3-stage strategy starts with applying basic energy-saving measures to get the energy demand of the building down. Often these involve hardly any investment at all, but just need a little attention to what is already in place. For example, thermostats should be checked and adjusted, all systems should default to ‘off’, and a programme of regular, scheduled service and maintenance should be set up.

The visibility of energy use makes a huge psychological and practical difference because if building users can see what they are using they are more likely to do something about it. That is why installing local energy meters is another useful early measure.

We can then move on to slightly more sophisticated strategies such as installing motion sensors to switch off lights in unoccupied rooms and daylight sensors to cut down on the unnecessary use of lighting. Insulation levels both for the building fabric (cavity walls and ceilings) and for individual items like heaters, valves and pipes can be increased at very little cost or disruption. Then the building owner might want to consider solar shading to reduce overheating and, therefore, the use of air conditioning.


The second stage is replacing and refurbishing existing energy-using equipment such boilers, chillers, ventilation plant and lighting systems if necessary. All of these have to come before thinking about the possible final piece of the jigsaw — adding renewables. These should only be considered if they are practical, appropriate and cost-effective — and that will not be the case in many buildings.

Single-technology suppliers are, naturally, keen to impress clients with what their products can do, but we should remember that they can only offer the promise of delivery, they cannot deliver complete solutions and a return on the client’s investment. Service and maintenance contractors can, and do, deliver performance because they know how to integrate emerging technologies with existing systems and how to control and commission the total system. We also continually explain to clients why it is important to service and maintain systems for reliability and energy efficiency reasons — and we manage their expectations. Fitting a wind turbine might make you look green, but it won’t do much for your building’s overall energy performance.

True sustainability requires a measured and cost-effective approach, so our priorities will have to be what we can deliver quickly, easily and relatively cheaply first and avoiding, at all costs, the curse of ‘green bling’.

Sue Sharp is vice president of the HVCA and chair of the association’s service and facilities group.

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