Design for Performance - Times they are a-changin'​


As some people would be aware, I am currently working with Verco and the Better Buildings Partnership in London on the Design for Performance Project. This project is intended to bring the concept of post-construction energy performance targets to the UK building market, based on the experience of NABERS and the NABERS Commitment Agreement in Australia. To date we have completed the feasibility study (2015-2016) establishing the feasibility of concept and are now about half way through the pilot phase, where we are trying out components of the NABERS Commitment Agreement process – and other activities known to deliver good post-construction energy performance outcomes – on some real UK building projects. I’ve written previously on some of the key issues and barriers, but this time around I want to focus on the progress we are making towards change.

Some background, for context. When I wrote the original NABERS scheme ( in 1999 (or ABGR as it was back then), the idea of rating actual energy use in buildings was untested and in no way guaranteed to take off.   Indeed, it took 7-8 years before the scheme started to really make an impact on the market and the real evidence of transformation only started becoming apparent from 2010 onwards. Now the scheme is highly successful and disclosure of NABERS ratings is mandatory for office buildings upon sale or lease of spaces greater than 2000m2 (dropping to 1000m2 from 1 July 2017).

Meantime, the UK, like most of the world, has focussed on design-based ratings – specifically in this area the Energy Performance Certificate or EPC, which is also subject of mandatory disclosure requirements. The challenge is, however, that there is no relationship between design potential – as rated by the EPC – and actual performance, as would be rated by a scheme like NABERS. Why? Because there are many issues of control, commissioning and operation that stand in the way of a design achieving its performance potential. Indeed, the evidence I have seen over many years is that, on average, a building will use around twice the energy it was intended to unless one consciously tries to make it perform to its potential. In Australia, we have excellent evidence now that – with attention to the right things – it is quite possible to consistently deliver buildings that perform at their theoretical potential

The Design for Performance project is bringing the lessons from the Australian market to the UK and rebuilding them into a process that suits local practices and conditions. Working alongside the Better Buildings Partnership we have a group of core funders – British Land, Legal and General Real Assets, Stanhope, TH Real Estate, Laing O’Rourke, NG Bailey, Willmott Dixon and energy simulation company EDSL – who are funding the project and helping us engage with industry to work out how to bring about the massive market transformation that is needed.

I’ve just finished my second visit to the UK for the pilot phase of the project and I am very excited to see some real movement in thinking. Some examples:

1.     I have previously written on the apparent conservatism of the UK design market – especially in mechanical services, where fan coils are king. Last visit I was shocked by the way buildings were being designed – with 24 hour chilled water and hot water, constant volume outside air and fan coils controlled by tenant BMSs that are not linked to the base building BMS. This visit I have seen that there are designers looking beyond the current paradigm - even though dropping fan coils is probably, still, a step too far. Examples include variable temperature chilled water and hot water supply to fan coils; landlord management of fan coils; quarantining the primary chilled water supply from 24 hour uses so that central plant only need operate during primary operating hours and the use of water side economy cycle through free-cooling chillers. I have also seen significant diversity on questions such as the use of cooling towers. What does all this show? That the capacity for change and innovation is alive and well in the UK market. Now before Australian designers get all cocky and superior, I’d like to point out an uncomfortable truth: When NABERS started, Australia had its own design skeletons, including inoperative fan control, 24 hour plant operation to serve trivial uses, uncontrolled pump circuits and much, much more. I remember well the number of times I was told all the things that could not be done and the myriad reasons why….only to find that there would be someone else in the market, doing those “impossible” things successfully. This same divergence is visible in the UK market today, and I see it as evidence of the germination of change.

2.     The single greatest challenge of the UK market is still, in my opinion, the handing over of control and maintenance of FCUs to tenants, and the characterisation of landlords as little more than providers of chilled water and hot water. However I have been able to dig a little deeper into this, and there are cracks showing. Firstly, we have a project where the owner is committed to retaining control of the tenant FCUs in the face of industry expectation. Secondly, we are seeing criticisms of the status quo being raised. So for instance, it is becoming clear that there are significant issues with the quality of maintenance undertaken by tenants, resulting in poor levels of thermal comfort. Furthermore, these issues are still being taken back to the landlord in spite of the derogation of responsibility to the tenant, so it’s not even working as a means of avoiding being blamed for thermal comfort complaints. So it is becoming more apparent that this arrangement doesn’t always deliver good outcomes for the tenants, many of whom are well out of their depth managing their own FCUs, or for the landlords, who are being blamed for things they can’t control. So I’m fascinated that one of the activities arising from the last week of (about 20) meetings is that a number of the project funders’ key decision makers are going to get together informally to discuss what the options are to make changes, in the light of the known problems (and the significant market inertia around the current arrangement). Again, it feels like the seeds of change are germinating,

3.     The concept of design for performance is getting recognition. We are talking to a number of organisations about how design for performance could be incorporated or coordinated with existing tools and guidance. This institutionalisation is critical to the success of the initiative. Time will tell, but I believe that by the end of the year, elements of design for performance will be front and centre for any project seeking to achieve any serious energy outcomes. As part of this we are beginning to pull together the bones of a defined protocol for projects seeking to design for performance, with a view to creating a formalised mechanism in 2018

4.     The last two years I have been disappointed with the way that the UK Part L energy efficiency regulations seem to have deskilled the simulation industry to the extent that it basically can’t simulate HVAC. Well this trip I met two simulators who are passionate about the use of advanced simulation to test building designs, optimise HVAC, calibrate to post-construction performance and use as a targeting and diagnosis tool in post-occupancy. Some really good work being done, and evidence that the skills are present in the industry. And – to add to the excitement – one of the consultancies involved in a pilot project has elected to train its simulator to undertake more detailed HVAC simulations. Market transformation, happening today.

5.     Perhaps the spirit of the last week is actually captured best by the response of one design team to an independent design review we did. In short it was: “There’s some things we can do today. There’s some things we will do in the next project. There’s some problems we’ll take on notice.” This is the sound of people listening and thinking about change.

So yes, after a week in London I am feeling very positive. After 2 years working on the Design for Performance project I can see real change happening that could, over time, spearhead the same sort of transformation in the UK that we have achieved with NABERS in Australia. And that, I’d have to say, would be just splendid.