Buildings – Plugging the Performance Gap

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

What do The Titanic, London’s Millennium Bridge, and The Leaning Tower of Pisa have in common? One answer is that as structures they all failed to “perform” as expected. The Titanic, designed with the latest technology to achieve a success  rate of approximately 100% safe Atlantic  transits, actually achieved a disappointing 0%. The Millennium Bridge, fine and inspiring though it was, failed to take account the consequences of perfectly natural, if little understood, human behaviour – the tendency to walk in sync on a naturally moving structure – with potentially alarming consequences. It had to be radically re-engineered before reopening in 2002.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa, which I was able to climb last month, failed in the most fundamental requirement of most buildings – staying permanently upright – though in some-ways of course this very failure was the secret of its long term success and certainly the main reason that people like me still pay good money to climb it more than 800 years after it first started leaning.

When buildings fail to deliver the intended results, we talk about a “performance gap”. While this can embrace many areas including cost, safety and comfort, we tend to talk about this particularly where energy performance is concerned. This reflects the fact that energy performance is at least ostensibly a goal of most of those involved in the design, construction and management of buildings, and that as energy prices rise and concerns over the impact of greenhouse gas emissions become more acute, the sense of urgency can only increase.

Some of the reasons for this are highlighted in a useful new book “How Much Energy Does Your Building Use?” by Liz Reason (Dō Sustainability) whose launch I attended in London last week. The book highlights examples of buildings initially hailed as energy efficient which spectacularly failed to live up to their reputation. It also shows how these failings can emerge at any stage of the building process from initial planning and design through construction, commissioning and occupation and operation, and considers how these problems and shortcomings can best  be addressed and avoided.

What I want to focus on here is one central question: How do we know how our building is actually performing, let alone how it is likely to perform in future? The key here is information, which needs to be collected and then analysed, not just to show us any obvious performance issues but also point to potential problems or just unusual patterns that deserve further investigation and explanation.

This points to a central role for Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS). These are offered by a wide range of suppliers, including most of the major Building Automation providers, and present wide ranging functionality. Central to almost all of them is the collection and analysis of data, sometimes in prodigious volumes. A well implemented BEMS enables you to keep track of what your building is actually doing, irrespective of what it was intended or expected to achieve.

'Performance gaps' in buildings are nothing new...

‘Performance gaps’ in buildings are nothing new…

Another way in which the performance gap points towards BEMS is that while the value of BEMS has been widely recognised for some time in the retrofit market, especially for the huge mass of buildings constructed in 1960 – 1990, there has sometimes been a tendency to assume that more recent buildings, being generally built to much higher standards, can, to a degree, “look after themselves”. If a building really is “zero energy” then what is there to manage, at least from an energy point of view?

However, if there are basic failings in the design itself, the way it has been implemented or commissioned, or the way the building is operated in relation to its actual usage, then the performance gap can loom up large and un-ecological as a fire-breathing dragon. Sometimes the failings can be obvious: a stiflingly uncomfortable office can jump up and hit you as much as a wildly wobbling bridge. But in other instances, energy wastage is less obvious. Real performance issues emerge only when the actual data is collected and analysed over time.

This month BSRIA publishes the latest update of the study “BEMS Market 2014 Q2 :Developments in Europe and the USA”, a study which, with its regular quarterly updates, helps you to keep up to speed with the newest developments in this exciting and important area.

2 Responses to Buildings – Plugging the Performance Gap

  1. edwrdmrphy8 says:

    Totally understand the sentiment here Henry. However. There is also data overload. A building we recently studied had 53 meters each recording half hourly. That’s close to 990k pieces of data annually to make sense of. Invariably our industry has yet to devise structured software algorytms to even begin to assist with this. And given pressing day to day demands of FM teams few barely giive more than the main meters a second glance.

  2. Henry Lawson says:

    I think you have homed in very accurately on one of the main challenges that the industry faces: Even if data is available, how do you interpret it, let alone use it to take action to improve the building’s performance?

    It is therefore no coincidence that not only do most leading Building Energy Management Systems include at least a level of data analytics, but some of the leaders in this field have been major IT companies, including names such as IBM and Microsoft which would not previously have been associated with building technology, but for whom “big data” is a core competence..

    Perhaps the most celebrated example is Microsoft’s headquarters campus near Seattle, where they are collecting data from 125 buildings, generating a rather staggering 500 million data items every day.

    However of course, while companies like Microsoft have evolved to handle and interpret vast amounts of complex data, it is a different matter for the kinds of FM teams you are talking about, who are not typically data specialists.

    I think there is a general trend across all walks of life – as software and IT has advanced and become more mainstream there has also been a recognition that it needs to become easier to use, and ideally “intuitive”. We see this for example in the “smart home” systems that are starting to gain traction, in the lower end commercial sector as well as residentially.

    And yes, building energy management systems, and building automation in general, will need to continue to move in this direction if they are to be deployed effectively and en masse.

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