Retrofit, refurbishment and the growth of connected HVAC technology
This article was originally published by BSRIA in March 2016, as ‘BSRIA launches White Paper on Retrofit, Refurbishment and the Growth of Connected HVAC Technology’.
The vast majority of premises are small-to-medium sized. Much of the existing building stock, both commercial and residential, is inadequately insulated and uses outdated, inefficient HVAC technologies. They often have control systems that function poorly, if they have them at all. Many have never been re-commissioned, even where there has been a change of use.
All of this represents a real need for renovation, which should provide a host of new business opportunities.
 Key issues
The challenges to the effective retrofit of buildings are not just technological but are also financial, psychological, social and legal, as well as the levels of skill and understanding.
Those companies who are active in the retrofit market need to take account of all of these issues if they are to offer services that are attractive, profitable and beneficial to the environment.
Some of the requirements, such as the need for improved understanding and qualifications, go beyond the reach of the individual supplier, and require cooperation with other industry players, and potentially with public authorities.
In response to these issues, BSRIA held an executive Diamond Group discussion at the AHR exhibition 2016, involving 34 senior personnel from the industry.
The majority of participants were from North America and so it may be assumed that the findings have a North American slant, even when they discuss issues of international relevance.
 Refurbishment and retrofit the mid-market building
 Drivers and objectives for refurbishment and retrofit
Julia Evans, Chief Executive, BSRIA, said:
“In North America there tends to be a more ruthless attitude towards older buildings than in Europe, unless they are protected. Hence, rather than refurbish buildings, it is quite common practice to demolish old premises and build new on the same site.
“The first and most important criterion is user comfort, closely followed by productivity. When building users begin to complain about the level of comfort the building owner is prompted to refurbish.
“However, although users may complain about discomfort, they typically do not want to pay for the refurbishment. In contrast, the building owner will rarely choose to refurbish the building before any deterioration starts costing him or her money. Interestingly, it was the demand for an enhanced level of comfort that was emphasised as the principal driver for refurbishment, rather than the energy bill, though more energy efficient solutions are sought.
“For the owner or developer, the key objective is to make the building saleable or rentable. Providing effective HVAC is a principal concern and customers want easy, hassle-free and risk-free solutions.”
 Lifecycle costing
Lifecycle costing is often cited as a panacea for many building ills. However, while lifecycle costing offers benefits it often sits uncomfortably with existing habits, traditions or priorities, which still tend to attach a lot of weight to the initial ‘up front’ cost, as opposed to the longer term benefit. There is also a need to get over the three-year payback constraint if life cycle costing is to be taken seriously. New solutions, like VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow), are increasingly analysed on the basis of lifecycle costing but for the true implementation of such a practice a change of culture is needed.
Packaged equipment is an attractive solution for buildings of one to two storeys, and rooftops will often be used for retail buildings. Frequently the choice is being made to retrofit using new products such as VRF systems, as well as with more advanced chillers. These can be combined with more energy-efficient devices, such as magnetic compressors. VRF controls are becoming more sophisticated and will include multi-zone solutions and connection to the cloud.
Where boilers are used, the condensing type is taking market share from the non-condensing type. It is thought that traditional technologies in air-conditioning will remain but that their degree of connectivity and operational functions will evolve.
Systems need to become better at registering human behaviour and responding to this, for example, through automatic adjustment of their settings, and also by making it easy for users to input their preferences. This needs to be combined with systems that are capable of modulating their control signals in a more subtle and gradual way, rather than simply cutting in or out. This will result in control solutions that are more refined.
Wireless communications are becoming very popular but soon they will not be considered a differentiator as all companies will offer wireless solutions. Nevertheless, they are well-suited to building retrofits.
Although new innovations will continue to come along, there are plenty of existing, even traditional products, from simple thermostats all the way to more advanced chillers that provide cost-effective solutions when correctly applied. Efficiency can then be improved by equipping these traditional products with more energy-efficient components. A significant advantage of such an approach is that contractors, maintenance and facility management companies are already familiar with existing solutions.
 Roadblocks and limitations to the building lifecycle approach
 Weak or lack of regulation or legislation
As far as the USA is concerned, the regulations that exist are often weak. In general, legislation is lagging behind although there are some signs of change. A few states, such as California and New York are leading the way. Legislation is expected to be an important factor in the integration of renewables, energy storage and back-up power generation for buildings. But until there is substantial change in terms of legislation, there is little ‘push’ for building owners to do more than is implied by purely financial concerns.
 Demand for quick return on investment (ROI)
A significant barrier exists in that demand for a quick ROI conflicts with lifecycle models. Achieving a three year payback is a challenge for some investments, and in the commercial sector, emphasis tends to be on the immediate balance sheet impact. Whether the end user is a tenant or an owner will make a difference to whether they invest, and lack of finance for investments can also present a problem.
 Skills and understanding
“There are issues around the availability of skills and understanding at all levels. Designers, contractors, clients, facility managers and operators all need a better understanding of the factors and processes that impact on building efficiency. The much vaunted ‘performance gap’ between a building’s specification, and its measured performance often derives from this lack of understanding.
“Getting a skilled workforce in place to service and support the retrofit of mid-size buildings is a challenge. There is a need for better and more widely used and recognised qualifications, certifications and training from the specialist right down to the routine ‘front desk’ role. A common language across the trades and applications is required.
“Attracting the younger generation is a key challenge for our industry. Not only must the industry be shown to be more than just a ‘dirty building site’, it must be made far more accessible through targeted marketing and pathways to the trades, such as apprenticeships and links to educational facilities.”
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