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Wizards of Oz: how they tackle the performance gap down under

25 Brindibella Circuit
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A pan-industry group is embarking on a feasibility study to emulate an Australian rating system that delivers the energy performance supplied in client briefs

The British project follows Australia’s pioneering and successful ‘design for performance’ approach, which has helped new office buildings routinely achieve the highest energy ratings using the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS). This is a government initiative to benchmark the environmental performance of buildings and tenancies. NABERS provides a star rating for a building or tenancy, which represents its actual operational performance, using 12 months of measured performance information, such as energy bills, water bills or a waste audit.

Such a project is needed because many buildings routinely fall short of design predictions for energy efficiency – despite compliance with building regulations. It’s a phenomenon commonly known as the performance gap. Following a feasibility study that will conclude early next year, a team led by the commercial property group the Better Buildings Partnership with partners including Arup hopes to develop a framework for assessing the environmental performance of new UK buildings similar to that of NABERS. More than 72 per cent of the national office market there has now been rated under the country’s scheme.

The AJ spoke to Sarah Ratcliffe, programme director at the Better Buildings Partnership, the working group developing the new UK strategy

Why does the performance gap exist? Why is it timely to address it now?

The impetus for this project is the performance gap. Research has indicated time after time that while buildings are being built to certain standards, as they come into operation they are not sustaining them. There are a number of factors as to why this might be. Things might not be fitted properly, so they don’t perform the way they were expected to perform. It might not be commissioned properly. There are also people-oriented factors - people might not be familiar with the systems fitted and how to operate them.

What interested you about the NABERS scheme in Australia? Why follow this model?

The main thing that was interesting about the NABERS scheme in Australia is that it managed to transform the market. One of the reasons is that it is used in all new office buildings, and investors are requesting that standard. We want to find out, using this study, how they have managed to achieve that. What our feasibility study is looking into is how the system works in Australia, what similarities can we identify with here in the UK and what the differences are. For example, to get a NABERS rating you need one year of data; we don’t have anything similar to that in the UK. That’s one of the things we will be looking at – what sort of data are they gathering? Can we gather anything similar? What can we learn? We are also going to look at how the market is operated in Australia, and what has driven investors to look at this. Part of that is the link to value and how the NABERS rating scheme has been linked to investment.

How will you begin to ascertain if a similar scheme is viable in the UK?

The first part of the study is the feasibility study. There will be a major industry workshop at the beginning of December to look at the key facets of the scheme in Australia and how they are similar to the situation in the UK. What would be the barriers to us implementing something like this in the UK and what are the opportunities? At that workshop there will be individuals from the team in Australia.

There will also be some studies undertaken, where some of the industry players are volunteering their buildings for assessment, so that their buildings can form part of a pilot project to see if we can make this work with specific buildings. Once the feasibility study has been undertaken and we understand the key opportunities and barriers to implementing these schemes in the UK, should we then feel it is appropriate to take the idea forward to the next stage, we will embark on the technical feasibility stage. This would involve the development of the modelling software and actually testing that software in a more detailed way on live projects. After that we would move in to the technical implementation phase.

Are you still looking for project partners?

We are very much open. There is an executive board that is made up of a wide range of people from across the industry– not just those funding the study. We are trying to get as much industry buy-in as possible. Anybody interested can contact myself. We are keen to get more people involved.

What is the possible impact of this scheme should the new standard become a reality?

I think this is the only project I have worked on in my professional life where the goal is to develop a new standard, and nobody has said ‘we don’t want this it’s just another standard’. The industry is crying out for this in terms of design for performance and use. For the whole industry to meet its climate-change targets, we need to make a step change in how we design buildings, and look at their perfomance in use. Unless we crack this issue, we are in considerable danger of not making sufficient progress on the climate change agenda.

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