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Environmental impact of our existing building stock is no longer sustainable

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When I started working as a commercial BER assessor in 2010, the scheme was seen by some as just a box-ticking exercise to be carried out for a sale or letting to be completed with little attention paid to the actual result.

Today, a building’s energy rating (BER) is seen as a key consideration for both owners and investors.

All newly constructed projects must comply with the new NZEB (near zero energy buildings) regulations, which can be challenging to meet. And while there are a multitude of options available to assist with reaching these targets, stakeholders must have the knowledge to select the appropriate one for their project.

Many of today’s larger projects, particularly the new headquarter office schemes favoured by the tech and fintech sectors, are increasingly looking to exceed mandatory building regulations by securing BREAM “Outstanding” or LEED “Platinum” certification.

Older stock – an enormous challenge

The greatest challenge we now face is the one presented by our existing building stock. According to the Central Statistics Office, 59 per cent of Ireland’s existing office stock has a BER rating of a “D” or worse. This figure will have to be dramatically reduced if we are to meet the commitments set down by the EU’s climate targets for 2030.

Bringing these older buildings up to an acceptable energy rating/level in a manner that is financially viable is an enormous challenge. That challenge is further complicated by the adverse environmental impact associated with the demolition and replacement of existing stock. The construction of buildings, primarily through the use of concrete and steel, is a significant contributor to the carbon footprint globally and so this all needs to be accounted for in the lifecycle of a building.

Easy wins

My approach has always been to firstly look at the potential “easy wins” to see what impact these can have on the overall efficiency of a building. If a BER assessment has been carried out within the last few years, it can be quick and cost effective to look at the impact that changing some entries would have on the overall energy rating.

Items such as lighting, heating and hot water have a big impact on the BER rating of commercial properties and if some of these items are dated, the impact of updating them can be dramatic.

For example, if an office building has T8 fluorescent lighting on manual switching and an old oil-fired boiler with an efficiency of 60 per cent, the effect of changing all the lighting to LEDs with occupancy sensors can be sizeable. Combine this with a new, efficient air-conditioning system or a heat pump and the results will be dramatic.

Clearly every building is different however and there are numerous factors to allow for including orientation, sheltered sides, solar gain, thermal bridging etc. Notwithstanding those considerations, paying attention to even a few important items can make a big difference both for the environment and for the bottom line of the landlord and the tenant.

Typically many older buildings will have little or no insulation in the floors, walls and roof, while the windows can be of a very poor standard, so getting an initial report to see what impact changes to these will have on the overall rating is a worthwhile exercise.

Investment

For investors and companies looking at new offices, the link between the sustainability of a building and its value as an asset is becoming more and more apparent. The main items that drive this are (a) financial savings in terms of reduced energy bills, (b) corporate brand and reputation, (c) employee satisfaction and (d) customer attraction.

Studies consistently show that current and potential future employees of a firm have strong expectations as regards the sustainability and environmental impact of the company they work for, and the buildings in which they work can be a clear reflection of a company’s values in that regard. As a result, more companies are signing up to environmental and social governance commitments. These commitments aren’t just bland statements, but will need to be adhered to for a company’s stated values to be taken as credible and consistent.

Cathal Kelly is a chartered surveyor with Bagnall Doyle MacMahon and works in the investments and office agency division



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