The role of building services engineers

Promoting the capabilities of building-services engineers — Stephen Matthews.
Stephen Matthews, Chief Executive of CIBSE, argues that building-services engineers are part of a very small number of people that can really do anything about climate change.Most people who have given the matter any thought are concerned about climate change and the effect it is going to have on our economy, our lives and our world. Unfortunately, very few people are able to really do anything about it. Very few people that is, except building-services engineers. Climate change and the rise in energy costs have given a new importance to excellence in building services design and building operation. This has introduced a new dimension to excellence in that the energy and carbon efficiency of providing environmental services have become the prime criteria — given that effectiveness and compliance are almost taken for granted. Regulatory developments, including the Energy Performance of Buildings Regulations, are raising the profile of our once shadowy and poorly understood profession. Building-services professionals either have, or can relatively easily acquire, a thorough, practical, pragmatic and competent approach to both adapting to and mitigating climate change. CIBSE now offers them the means to develop their skills in this area and to demonstrate their quality to clients by becoming an accredited Low Carbon Consultant or Low Carbon Energy Assessor. For new buildings, low-carbon design is now the norm — but even more effective new techniques and technologies will have to be developed if we are to meet the zero-carbon objectives being set by Government. With existing buildings, substantially reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions is an altogether harder task. There are basically two approaches to mitigating climate change. The first is to find operational, engineering or fabric retrofits that can deliver the same productivity, comfort and quality of life — but with vastly reduced energy requirements. The second is to exhort everyone to change their ways to reduce their energy and carbon impact. Most people agree that there is no magic bullet which will cure our energy ills; the technological approach will never provide the full answer. However, what is also clear is that although many people are inclined to try to save the planet, few will do so at any significant cost to their personal lifestyle or to their company’s productivity. So the main drive for climate-change mitigation has to be relatively painless. The business of making it so is an area of expertise which can be claimed by building-services professionals. And it is a skill which is now recognised as being highly valuable, and marketable — even in an economic downturn, in fact, perhaps particularly so. The measurement of building energy performance is one of the first triggers to encourage building owners or operators to do something practical to reduce energy use. That is why CIBSE was keen to have a role in accrediting energy assessors. CIBSE’s role is not just to make sure that there is a cadre of truly expert individuals and to provide the information and training to allow them to become so but also to make sure clients know where to find truly expert help. Many experienced building-services engineers will tell you that they can save 20% of most buildings’ energy use with operational or minor improvements to what is already there. Over-designed services, commissioning failures and ineffective controls are all well-understood by expert engineers and can be addressed in tried-and-tested ways. CIBSE offers much guidance to help those who are newer to this area to know what works in practice. For example, the knowledge-series publications, in particular ‘Making buildings work’ and’ Controls’, will help people understand how to tackle these areas. The commissioning codes are also a major boon to those who seek to make things work correctly, and the central guide ‘Energy efficiency in buildings’ is a must for all building-services designers and building operators. We have all heard stories of chillers and boilers working in opposition, or all the elements in a BEMS system working against one another. This is the kind of thing that even an experienced facilities or energy manager may not be able to tackle, but they can be well informed on who to call on to analyse the problems and suggest a solution, and CIBSE is making sure that as wide a cross-section as possible of clients know about Low Carbon Consultants and Low Carbon Energy Assessors. Working out what is going on in a building is not always easy, but with appropriate metering it is possible to see where energy is being wasted. Why a building is still using energy at 4 a.m. on a weekend night is a question that can easily be asked by someone looking at a report gathered by half-hourly meter readings, but without the readings you would never know it was an issue. Building-services engineers used to rely on numbers to convince people, but the new challenges are encouraging them to engage with the ‘influencing’ agenda. Once again, help is at hand. As part of CIBSE’s 100 hours of carbon clean–up initiative, participants can access guidance in fostering behavioural change.* This will help them to encourage clients to participate in the 100 hours of carbon clean up and in particular to enthuse a client’s workforce about addressing energy waste. As well as the guidance available as part of the 100 hours, training in communications skills, energy audits and surveys, are all available from Mid Career College. The technological approach complements a behavioural approach, but it is different, in that we are very likely to see a growing industry of motivation and change-management specialists helping organisations address their energy use and carbon emissions. Building-services engineers will need these soft skills to be at the table, but what they can also offer is real low-carbon performance. They can put apply technologies that will deliver real carbon savings. They might wish to suggest the peak-demand-management techniques advocated by Terry Wyatt at the recent CIBSE National Conference.† To optimise systems and find the best solutions for any particular application is no mean feat, and to do so on a national scale will require a bigger and more competent building-services profession than ever before. But CIBSE is here to help provide the information for people to gain competence. By joining CIBSE’s knowledge networks such as the energy-performance group or the facilities-management group, you can get to share knowledge and experience with the very best. The demands will grow, and the future will be challenging — but there has never been a better time to be a building-services engineer. The opportunities are limitless, and CIBSE will be working to ensure that everyone recognises the contribution competent building professionals can make to all our futures.
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