Taking control of decarbonisation


25 May 2023

Graeme Rees, President of the Building Controls Industry Association, highlights the role that building controls can play in the decarbonisation of the built environment.

In February this year, the Prime Minister announced the disbandment of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) as part of his cabinet reshuffle. Since the United Kingdom left the European Union, the department for BEIS has been responsible for setting the environmental, net zero and sustainable goals for the future. In its place, three new departments have been established; the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero; the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology; the Department for Business and Trade. I am optimistic that the new Government departments will help galvanise investment in Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS) and present an opportunity to illustrate the positive effect building controls can have on the built environment.

Data from the BCIA’s latest Market Information Service report has estimated that the BEMS sector is now worth around £835.8 million to the UK economy. The latest growth reflects an upturn in the market, representing an increase of 8.0% from the 2021 figure. With a greater demand for better energy performance and a reduction in energy costs, the building controls sector has the potential to be a huge asset to the Government’s decarbonisation agenda.

Hidden asset

It is often said that if you are watching a game of football and you haven’t noticed the referee it means they are doing a good job (VAR might have made that almost impossible in recent years but we won’t get into that!). Building controls are like that as when they are done very well, nobody really notices. If you are inside a building and feeling too hot or too cold then you notice it because you are uncomfortable. Unlike an impressive example of architecture, a well designed and maintained building controls system is not ‘visible’. What people certainly do notice when building controls are not done well is their energy bills going up.

The energy crisis has caused real concern for households and businesses across the UK, particularly in the winter months, and the situation remains unpredictable certainly for the foreseeable future. The most effective way to deal with future price increases is to prepare our buildings and make them as energy efficient as possible. With a robust energy management strategy in place that not only caters for the drive towards net zero but is also ready or enabled for the next energy crisis, building managers can develop a planned approach to understand where their energy is being used. 

The effect of the lockdowns on commercial buildings has been discussed extensively by the BCIA and the building controls industry at large, with many agreeing that it was a wake-up call for building managers who were suddenly left with large, unoccupied premises using the same amount of energy as they were during a normal working day. Some companies have taken the decision to realistically downsize the scale of their building stock, closing some, merging others and generally rationalising down to a more meaningful and useful size/capacity. With these properties there is also much greater demand for them to be super-efficient and low-carbon as we push towards the net zero target. Increasingly all of this ‘change’ is driving a greater refurbishment project outlook. Decarbonising existing stock is a little trickier than something built from scratch where it can be designed that way but, in both cases, controls will play an ever more significant role, paving the way towards smart buildings.

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Performance gap

Something a lot of BCIA members see on site visits is a performance gap, where a building has been designed for a particular purpose, systems have been commissioned, installed and set to work and handed over to the end client as designed, but over time the use of the building has changed, and these changes have not been taken into account by adapting and fine-tuning the systems for the new occupants. If the sensors are not reading the right readings, and we’re not confident the correct commands are being made, then we are wasting the true potential of the technology available to us.

I am sometimes asked, “how smart is it possible for smart to really be?” My answer to this is always the same: For smart to be truly smart we have to get the basics right.

The smart analytics packages that we can deploy now are only truly beneficial if we avoid the rubbish in/rubbish out scenarios and dispel those who masquerade data packages as a quick fix, choosing to either ignore or dilute the essential requirement that the underlying building control systems - the sensors, actuators and devices - are installed and maintained correctly. If all the data that is collected from a building is incorrect, then it is useless. If the temperature sensors are positioned incorrectly, for example under a photocopier, the reading won’t be right. If data analysis is based on the assumption the temperature control valves are open when they are in fact closed, again, the data is skewed. Systems must be set up correctly, mechanical plant needs to be sized correctly, and there is a lot that can go wrong if we don’t get those basics right. That is where good control starts. 

When we are confident that we are on a firm footing with the correct set up, then there is real cause for excitement as everything becomes digital, as opposed to years ago when we had to rely on people being on site to switch things on or investigate problems. So much can now be done remotely, including predictive maintenance and the ability to make necessary adjustments remotely and securely based on information provided from a building’s data.

Constant source of learning

Data in buildings provides a constant source of learning. The systems available now, with remote connectivity and analytical tools, can be checked thousands of times in one hour, whereas years ago they would perhaps be checked annually by one person with a toolbag. Data analytical tools give us the advantage of being able to monitor what is happening and predict maintenance requirements before they cause a serious disruption.

BCIA members can serve all types of commercial building and can use the data available to make the working space within that building as comfortable and energy efficient as it can be. One of the organisation’s objectives is to raise the awareness of building controls in communities beyond the traditional space. There is a value proposition for a huge range of players in this market, including facilities management providers and mechanical contractors, such that the data provided by buildings does deliver genuine value when structured, presented and used appropriately. The alternative is that we will be left with a massive pool of data that people will occasionally look at on a chart but generally ignore. Once the realisation is there that there is value in that data, and acting upon it brings significant benefits, then that is when we will all start to win.