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Case study: NABERS high achievers clear the air

“How healthy is our building?”

The question of indoor environment quality has long occupied the minds of building owners and operators, but the Black Summer bushfire season and COVID-19 pandemic have raised the stakes. Now, building occupants want assurance that their office is healthy before they step inside.

Changing our view of Indoor Air Quality

‘Sick building syndrome’ has described a series of symptoms, like headaches, colds and difficulty concentrating, for decades.

It’s hardly surprising that the World Health Organization has estimated that up to 30% of our buildings make us sick. Most people spend 90% of their time indoors, shivering or sweating in rooms that are too hot or too cold, breathing in recirculated air or chemicals from furniture and fittings, or squinting in bad lighting.

The consequences of sick buildings have never been clearer – and the investment in healthy buildings never more important.

NABERS IE by the numbers
-120 active ratings
-One to six star ratings, from “making a start” to “market leader”
-An average rating of three stars represents “market standard”.

Since NABERS launched the Indoor Environment (IE) rating tool in 2012, more than 193 buildings have achieved ratings.

A NABERS IE rating assesses indoor air quality, or IAQ, alongside thermal and acoustic comfort, lighting and layout.

ISPT boasts the biggest portfolio of 6-star NABERS IE ratings in the country, and seven of those buildings are in the nation’s capital.

4 National Circuit, ISPT holds a 6 Star NABERS Indoor Environment rating

“We achieved our first NABERS IE rating back in 2012,” explains Alicia Maynard, ISPT’s General Manager of Sustainability & Technical Services.

“We recognised that customer comfort was an essential measure of building performance. Having our buildings independently verified helped us set benchmarks and then identify areas where we could improve.”

Today, ISPT has an average NABERS IE rating of 5.3-stars across a portfolio of 26 properties – well above the national 4.2-star average. Among these are sparkling contemporary buildings of glass and steel, like 7 London Circuit in Canberra’s city, and heritage masterpieces like the award-winning RM Hope Building in the Parliamentary Triangle.

Years of proactive investment in the best building management systems, working with experts and listening to our customers has paid off – and we have the biggest portfolio of 6-star NABERS IE buildings in Australia. - Alicia Maynard, ISPT’s General Manager of Sustainability & Technical Services  

The NABERS IE ratings for these buildings are more than just numbers, Alicia says, as ISPT’s customers in Canberra can attest.

In January, as Canberra choked on the world’s worst air and Parliament House’s 81-metre flagpole was barely visible in a haze of smoke, ISPT’s facilities management team worked around the clock to keep customers safe and productive.

While smoke particulates and vapours can easily pass through standard air conditioning filters, expert analysis from CETEC has found the best quality buildings reduced air contaminants from bushfire smoke by 90%.

“We continually monitored outside conditions, bringing in fresh air to flush out the buildings when the wind was blowing in the right direction, closing off dampeners when the wind turned and installing the finest filters possible,” says Knight Frank’s head of facilities management on the ISPT ACT portfolio, Stuart Green.

Live dash boards and instantaneous feedback enabled ISPT to make quick decisions and look for ways to continually improve the air quality.

The result? “The quality of the air in our buildings was better than the air in most people’s homes,” Stuart explains. Heading to the office became the healthy option, he adds.

ISPT is applying the lessons learnt from the bushfire season to drive innovation, piloting new technologies and initiatives to gain real-time insights and feedback – and the ISPT team hopes their NABERS IE ratings will increase with time.

“An IE rating is, I believe, the most important rating for any building – because human comfort is why our buildings exist in the first place,” Stuart says.

A NABERS IE rating balances the optimisation equation

The best buildings are both efficient and comfortable – and NABERS IE ratings prove that you can do both.

“Buildings exist to provide comfortable, productive environments for people,” says Craig Roussac, who established Buildings Alive in 2012 to help owners and managers optimise the performance of large, complex buildings.

“A NABERS IE rating answers the question tenants are increasingly asking: is this space comfortable, productive and safe?”

Craig, Buildings Alive’s CEO, led Investa’s sustainability team for eight years, and was the driving force behind Australia’s first portfolio rating of NABERS Energy buildings in 2003.

“Achieving that first portfolio of NABERS ratings created awareness about energy efficiency among tenants,” he explains. Today, more than 2,000 Australian buildings boast NABERS Energy ratings, and Craig expects to see a similar trajectory with NABERS IE.

“People are asking a lot more questions about air quality. In the future, we expect it to be as important in tenant decision making as views and amenity.

“Increasingly, we’ll see tenants not only want to know a building’s rating, but they’ll compare ratings when making decisions about space. Owners will be motivated to improve their ratings – just as they are with NABERS Energy.” A NABERS IE rating balances the building optimisation equation, Craig adds.

The process of achieving a NABERS rating incentivises continuous improvement. What do people want to do once they have a rating? They want to improve it. - Craig Roussac, CEO, Buildings Alive

Does indoor environment quality matter?

In short, yes. Research shows that a building with high indoor environment quality boosts everything from sleep quality to asset value.

1. Productivity and performance

The World Green Building Council’s analysis of global studies reveals:

  • 11% gains in productivity when outside air rates increased, levels of pollutants decreased and fresh air was delivered direct to workstations
  • 10% decrease in performance in offices with poor air quality and elevated temperatures
  • 23% decrease in decision-making ability in workplaces with high concentrates of CO2
  • 66% drop in memory in when working in a noisy office.

Harvard University, meanwhile, has made a clear link between productivity and air quality, including a 31% improvement in strategic thinking, a 38% boost in focused activity and a 101% increase in cognitive scores in green buildings with enhanced ventilation.

2. Human health and wellness

Harvard University’s study found offices with the best air quality reduced sick building symptoms by 30%.

The World Green Building Council reports that well-ventilated offices record up to 35% less sick leave, while office workers with access to natural light enjoy an extra 46 minutes more of sleep each night.

While there is still much to understand about aerosol transmission of COVID-19, early studies suggest that tiny particles carrying the virus can be recirculated through HVAC systems. Some experts suggest that buildings with high levels of ventilation, filtration and operable windows may reduce the risk.

3. Asset value

Businesses are making the link between IAQ and business outcomes, and that is turning excellent indoor environment into hard currency for investors. Some research suggests good IAQ could command a 10% price premium, as well as a 10% higher occupancy rate and a 5% higher rental return.

4. Customer engagement

People care about their comfort – and they are more engaged with building owners who also care. As ISPT’s Alicia Maynard says: “Our customers have told us they like knowing that our business takes extra steps – monitoring our air quality, temperature and ratings in real time – to make sure their work environment is safe and healthy, given that they spend an average of seven hours there each day.”

Optimisation options

What are the top actions to optimise buildings to support health, safety and productivity? Craig Roussac says it comes down to three actions.

  1. Monitor: “Real-time monitoring allows building management teams to make informed decisions. Whether you want to maximise the circulation of outside air, lower the carbon dioxide concentrations or improve the thermal comfort, you need to measure and monitor the indoor environment in the first place.”
  2. Analyse: Data is just numbers unless it leads to actionable insights. While the actions will be different for every building, Craig says “performance analysis – day-by-day and hour-by-hour – is what leads to incremental improvements”.
  3. Manage: Craig says balancing the “optimisation equation” is never easy. “You don’t want to be focusing solely on indoor environment quality and sacrificing energy. While there is a trade-off between the two, drilling down into the data provides the evidence to make sound judgement calls – and that’s the secret to good management.”

How do you achieve a NABERS IE rating?

  1. Get started: Register your building and engage a NABERS accredited assessor to undertake an audit.
  2. Gather your data: Collect details about the size and features of your building. Your assessor will guide you and will also assist you to gather 12 months of temperature data.
  3. Seek buy-in: Engage with your facilities management team, cleaners and other contractors – not to mention the people who work in your building – to explain why a NABERS IE rating matters.
  4. Achieve NABERS certification: Work with your assessor as they collect data and conduct site visits. Communicate your progress once your rating has been validated.
  5. Improve your rating: Take action to tweak, test and trial initiatives that improve your indoor environment. Collect data to inform your next rating.

NABERS Indoor Environment ratings are only available to office buildings. They are fee-free for offices under 1,000 sqm until 30 June 2021.

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