Inside BSRIA

BSRIA, Julia Evans, reserach, performance gap
BSRIA’s reputation for independence and objectivity — Julia Evans.

BSRIA’s chief executive Julia Evans has been in the position for around six months and regularly responds to issues in the construction industry. Ken Sharpe went down to the organisation’s headquarters in Bracknell to meet her face to face. The discussion covered the performance gap, the need for research and how to fund it.

BSRIA is clearly a very different organisation to the National Federation of Builders, of which Julie Evans was previously chief executive. But it was those very differences that attracted her to becoming chief executive of BSRIA.

She explains, ‘BSRIA is a very attractive business. It is very diverse. It has a perspective on the world that I think is unique. In many ways for a professional manager, which I am, what’s not to like?’

Her eight years with the National Federation of Builders (NFB) were dominated by the recession. She had only been in the position for about a year before the recession really bit and recalls that helping members get through it was the biggest achievement for her personally and everyone else at the NFB.

Reflecting on her time with NFB, she says, ‘Trade federations and membership bodies must look to themselves in times of difficulty because members or companies will review what they spend their money on, and they will only spend money on things they think to be valuable.

‘Even when the recession was at its worst, the NFB was, and still is, doing lots of interesting things — in housing, in public-sector procurement, which we majored in enormously, in health and safety and in Government relationships.

‘During that time, the NFB took its place on the Strategic Forum for Construction and put members into what is now the Construction Leadership Council. We sat on the delivery group, having played a substantial part in the creation of the Government’s construction strategy.’

But BSRIA is a very different organisation to the National Federation of Builders, so what does she see as the main value points of being a BSRIA member?

‘It is knowledge. It is a knowledge economy for any business that is looking to develop itself. The one thing that businesses, especially smaller businesses, will find very difficult to access is expertise and knowledge. Because building services is such a specialist area, you need access to experts to help and support you — and you can get that here at BSRIA, in a unique environment.’

And that knowledge manifests itself in the wealth of BSRIA publications and the wide-ranging experience of its knowledgeable staff.

There is an additional factor: ‘It’s also what we generate by being a group. An individual will have certain knowledge, which they will add to in the course of their working life. But if you are in a group like we have at BSRIA, be it a staff group made up of experts from the sector here at BSRIA or a wider network taking in members or other stakeholder, then you get a huge sparking of interest, and you get all sorts of interesting collateral coming out of that.’

BSRIA’s huge knowledge resources are readily accessible via the Internet, and it has the biggest information library for this industry in Europe. Access to these resources is freely available to members at no extra charge.

Looking beyond the benefits of being a BSRIA member, the discussion moved on to how BSRIA can contribute to a more effective construction industry, such as using buildings in a more energy-efficient way and more effectively.

Julia Evans says, ‘You always want to couple the two; having those complementary dynamics is really important. It is all very well businesses assuming that things happen in a linear fashion, that everything is cause and effect. However, if you don’t filter in not only existing knowledge but also the growth in knowledge and the dynamic that the enquiring mind, be it collective or individual, can bring, then your business is going to be a very sedentary affair.

‘The thing about BSRIA is that it is constantly looking to the future. And that is key for the sector.’

Discussing energy-efficient and effective buildings led naturally on to thinking about the performance gap — the difference between design intent and the energy actually used by buildings.

At this point, Julia Evans took advantage of the access to experts she referred to earlier and called in BSRIA’s engineering director Mike Smith.

Julia Evans herself thinks that the performance gap is a really interesting concept and one to which there are no single-line answers.

Thoughts on the performance gap — Mike Smith

Mike Smith tackles the topic by recalling how the designer uses all sorts of assumptions. They include rules of thumb and adding in margins to cover for eventualities, even though the initial calculations already have safety margins build into them, so the plant inevitably lands up oversized.

‘The next stage,’ says Mike Smith,’ is for the designer to carry out an energy estimation using the DCLG’s SBEM [Simplified Building Energy Model], which is based on a whole new set of assumptions, which until a few years ago the designer never used to think about very hard. All he had to do was to make sure that the plant could cope on the coldest day and on the hottest day. The rest of the time was dealt with by the controls package.’

Predicting the energy use of a real building accurately is enormously complex. Mike Smith points out that SBEM is a compliance tool, not a design tool, and has a number of built-in assumptions — especially concerned with occupation density and building-use hours. These two assumptions are often very different from actual use, so an EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) and a DEC (Display Energy Certificate) rarely match, in rather the same way the car manufacturers’ figures for fuel consumption are useful for comparison but completely unobtainable in real use.

Useful guidance is provided by he CIBSE publication TM 54 ‘Evaluating Operational Energy Performance of Buildings at the Design Stage’. It provides a step-by step methodology for designers to follow that brings consistency and improved accuracy to estimation.

Another problem highlighted by Mike Smith is assumptions made by the designer about how many people will be in the building and how long they will be there. ‘Almost never is the building operated like that — either because that does not suit the occupying organisation or the facilities manager is not up to his job — so you could have poor operation compounding a effective change in use.’

All those considerations prompt him to assert, ‘I don’t think there is a performance gap. Another way of looking at it is the designer not understanding how the building was going to be operated.’

There is another dimension to the design gap. ‘Many commercial buildings are built for developers who don’t occupy them. Developers are looking for a flexible building that will meet a wide range of occupancy patterns.’

Even if the client will be the user of the building is no guarantee that there will not be a performance gap. ‘Even if it is your own building, you’d be a brave man to specify exactly how it will be used, because you don’t know where you will be in five years’ time. So the client inevitably designs in flexibility.’

Mike Smith concludes, ‘The design gap is actually an oversizing of buildings to make it more flexible and to make sure it meets every eventuality.

I don’t think there is a performance gap. I think there is a lack of understanding of how equipment actually operates and how the demands on it are actually applied.

‘If you could design a building that maximises efficiency to match the occupation, you wouldn’t have a performance gap. There is no performance gap, but there is a thinking gap.’

With the continuing emphasis of the Building Regulations on reducing the carbon footprint of buildings and numerous Government initiatives to stimulate energy efficiency I asked what Julia Evans and Mike Smith thought were the most effective approaches to reducing the energy consumption of buildings.

Julia Evans responded first: ‘I would say that the one thing the Government is not spending enough money on is adequate research. The Government is putting forward ideas for improving the energy consumption of buildings without thinking about it deeply enough.’

As an effective example of reducing energy consumption, Mike Smith referred to making buildings more airtight. ‘Before we started testing for airtightness, buildings leaked like a sieve. Now they don’t. I am willing to bet that it we stopped testing, as they did in Denmark, there will be backsliding, and buildings will leak again.’

Improving the airtightness of buildings has been a major success story in reducing energy consumption.

The success of airtightness testing derived from there being robust standards in place based on experience in Canada, where it is extremely cold in winter.

With Government help, BSRIA looked at why the energy consumption of buildings in the UK was so high compared with Canada and Sweden. A series of buildings was tested for air leakage, and Tesco, for example, picked up over 20 years ago that the way to improve the efficiency of their buildings was to make them reasonably airtight.

Mike Smith observes, ‘Improving airtightness worked perfectly, but it was on a base of research.

Move forward to today and technologies such as heat-recovery ventilation, fancy lighting, smart metering etc., and Mike Smith asks, ‘Where are the test standards for any of this? Where is the research?’

Mike Smith says the DCLG [Department for Communities & Local Government] has not spent any serious money on research for around 10 years. He adds, ‘DCLG has spent lots of money with contractors inventing more complex ways to meet Part L. That is research of a sort, but mostly trying the effect of one action or another.’

Julia Evans summarises, ‘The message from us is that this would be such an important part of the carbon-reduction agenda and the energy-efficiency agenda that it would be prudent for the Government to spend money on research — and get better results more cheaply.’

Nor does the Government need to stump up the entire cost of research. Mike Smith comments, ‘There is lots of capability and interest out there in manufacturing land, and others would be willing to help with funding — but you need a catalyst to make it happen.’

Julia Evans adds, ‘You need a “ringmaster” to co-ordinate activity. If it is not the Government, it could be BSRIA.

‘The idea that all research should be completely Government funded is out-moded. We have moved on and grown up in an environment that is quite different to that— and it is undesirable anyway. Shared funding keeps the thing real.’

And Mike Smith adds, ‘You don’t want just an academic approach to life. You need the pragmatic industry input to decide what is achievable and what isn’t.’

And finally what about influencing Government thinking to create a more positive environment?

Julia Evans responds, ‘We have certainly benefitted from the links and relationships of Andrew Eastwell, our previous chief executive, over the years. We hope to benefit from a continuation of those and also by collaborating with sister organisations such as CIBSE, FETA, ECA, NBA and BRE.

‘Collectively, we stand much more chance of being influential at a policy level that us or any one of those organisations on their own.’

Rather than intense lobbying, she sees a more tempered approach based on consistent engagement with Government on particular issues.

‘For example, BSRIA’s could contribute to Government working parties on a wide range of issues to influence technical direction. We would prefer to be informative and helpful rather than waiting for a set of circumstances to develop and lobby intensely to try opt get them changed.’

As well as its vast amount of knowledge and expertise, BSRIA has another important attribute — as summarised by Julia Evans: ‘Our reputation for independence and objectivity is the key that differentiates BSRIA from any other ordinary common-or-garden engineering consultancy. We will report our research and findings accurately and without fear or favour.’

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