The hidden benefit of both commissioning and managing facilities

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Harvard HouseZero; Harvard Graduate School of Design’s pre-1940s headquarters retrofitted in collaboration with architects Snøhetta to be entirely carbon neutral.

Universities are ideally positioned to commission energy efficient and inclusive buildings because they will also be responsible for managing and maintaining them, says Richard Sale, senior architect at national practice, Conrad Gargett. 

Facility management at universities faces two major considerations, says Sale. “A university builds the building, which they then manage. This gives them a different perspective from an office that is tenanted out to occupants.” 

As well as this economic driver, Sale (who has had many university clients during his 35 years in practice) believes the university’s research and practice can give them an intellectual push to build and operate quality buildings.

For instance, universities divested from carbon a few years ago. This means they “absolutely” have a greater sense of responsibility towards this goal than corporate workplaces, especially if they are also researching and producing reports and studies on these subjects, he says.

Perfect for getting on top of carbon

One of the ways campuses are meeting their carbon reduction obligations is to set ambitious energy efficiency requirements. For example, a major university in Queensland set an objective to exceed the building regulation requirements by 20 per cent by improving the thermal performance, insulation and so on.

Universities have a “more sophisticated follow-through because they typically own and pay the bills to run the buildings”.

Sale says that Australia has always been in “catch-up mode compared to, say, Europe and the US. A principle of the building regulations in terms of energy efficiency was to eliminate worst practice, and then to increase the stringency, to raise the bar progressively. That is happening as we speak with the draft of the NCC (National Construction Code) circulating now.

“There are still certain sectors of the building industry that want to restrict that because they consider it an imposed cost on development.”

But he reckons the opposite is the case when the maintenance bill is factored in.

Australia has always been in “catch-up mode compared to, say, Europe and the US

“With retrofitting for energy efficiency, the building’s fabric is one component. There are other elements such as mechanical and lighting systems. Lighting upgrades – going from incandescent and fluorescent to high-performance LED (light emitting diode) lighting – are quite uncomplicated compared to upgrading windows to increase their thermal properties. All this, again, depends on the building.”

Meeting the ongoing funding challenge

However, he believes the biggest facility management challenge for the modern university is “to get enough funds to manage the building and meet recurrent costs” – anything from redecorating and replacing carpets to maintaining the mechanicals.

“Maintenance is such a fraught issue because there is the grim reality of having to pay the running costs and come to terms with the building’s long-term performance.”

This gives them a lot of valuable experience. “That is why universities are leaders in that regard. Because they run the building, they see the benefit of better building construction, and building higher quality buildings.”

Air leakage is a big issue in north Queensland. Sale cites a laboratory building that “we got more airtight, with better energy efficiency” due to getting on top of draughtproofing.

In another case, of a building which had been constructed with less stringent performance requirements than is typical. 

“A typical airconditioned building runs at 22-24 degrees, whereas this building, I think, was set for 18-26 degrees.” This severely impacted on the running costs.

Harvard’s HouseZero requires almost zero energy for heating and cooling, daytime lighting and ventilation.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard

Supporting gender and ability inclusion

The increasing definition of access and amenity provisions presents challenges, with greater amenities space required for people with disability (pwd). 

“Universities have also fairly speculatively spoken about the question of whether there needs to be gender-neutral amenities in addition to those for male and female and pwd,” says Sale.

“Retrofitting programs can meet some of these challenges and are particular to each building.”

Sale is impressed by US facilities generally (especially Harvard). “They are so well-funded by benefactors that they can afford fantastic facilities that put any other university in the shade.” 

“Universities have also fairly speculatively spoken about the question of whether there needs to be gender-neutral amenities in addition to those for male and female and pwd”

Build for quality

But come what may, “you have to build for quality. There are always compromises depending on the method of procurement. Universities procure through design and construct, which in the development world can be fraught with challenge, but universities are relatively sophisticated clients with design standards setting down their requirements,” he concludes.

For example, their toilets and handbasins will be defined by standards because they want to maintain those amenities and have them the same or similar to installations throughout. 

As an architect working for universities, Sale recognises – and values – the fact that they aspire to quality, if for nothing else than financial and practical reasons.

“If you are building a building to run it, you have an interest in how it performs and how durable and reliable it is.”

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