People having a work-related discussion over coffee

Residential building management and energy savings

In a previous post I commented on how the high-density residential market is not being driven by the same market forces as the commercial property sector to incorporate sustainability measures in the design/development of new dwellings.

So assuming that current building stock (i.e. those being built today) have a life span of 50–100 years. Thus, if the development stock currently being built is less efficient, what can be done to improve efficiency in the meantime?

There are often clear benefits for shared facilities/common areas that strata and building managers have the ability to implement. For example, air conditioning/HVAC, power factor correction, common utilities like lighting, lifts and garage doors etc. These are “low hanging fruit” where the savings accrue to the strata/building manager, so there’s a clear (if not immediate) benefit to investment (with payback periods within a relatively short time, such as 12–36 months, in some cases).

To lower the barriers even further, there are a number of programs/schemes/businesses that make it easy to finance sustainability changes. One that immediately comes to mind is Pingala which partners with local building owners to create community solar installations. Some, like Pingala, route the generated capacity to the local community, and pay for the installation etc. through the usage rates charged.

Other programs, such as Energy Buster share the savings generated over time, until the initial capital outlay is repaid. Typically these will generate immediate savings, though during the payback period these savings are reduced. Once paid back, all savings are received by the building manager/strata scheme, and ownership of the equipment can sometimes vest with the building manager/owners corporation (which has pros and cons—some prefer to keep things as opex rather than capex, and leave the maintenance etc. to others).

However, it would seem (if only on the basis of anecdotal evidence from people I’ve spoken to) that participants in such owners/strata groups are often seeking a low level of engagement with facilities management in general, and even less so for improvements framed in a “sustainability” orientation. (Notwithstanding a number of forward-thinking managers who are engaged in sustainability initiatives such as those run by City of Sydney or the Green Strata group.)

Thus, for people that live in these environments, it can be difficult to effect change. They may not be owners, for a start. In 2001, the ABS reports that 64% of residents in high-rise units were renters. As common property is managed by body corporate/owners’ corporations, and/or strata managers, changes at this level require sometimes significant wrangling and lobbying to set sustainability measures as a priority within residents groups and committees. An individual owner has limited sway, and non-owner residents even less.

This is not a technical problem—the technology (such as monitoring equipment, sub-metering, efficient lighting etc.) exists. And it’s not even a financial problem—the payback period is often reasonable and savings can be substantial. It seems much more to be a social challenge—a question of prioritisation.

So, what can we do to increase the priority of sustainability measures within owners’ corporations and strata/building managers? Given there are strong financial incentives, what other barriers and challenges need to be overcome? How might efforts such as Smart Blocks be improved to support residents’ and managers’ efforts? And how can we maintain momentum (continued energy savings) when the “low hanging fruit”—clear/substantial financial incentives—are harvested?

Feature image credit.

Also published on Medium.

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