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Mid-tier survey reveals barriers to HVAC&R maintenance

The results of a national survey focused on HVAC&R maintenance in mid-tier buildings have now been published. The Better Ways To Work Report offers a plant-room perspective of maintenance practices, and pinpoints the main obstacles that must be overcome to improve energy efficiency in Australian buildings.

The Better Ways to Work survey, run in 2020, was designed to understand how commercial office buildings are managed and maintained in Australia, with a focus on the notoriously complex “mid-tier” segment. Although initiatives such as NABERS and Green Star have significantly lifted the environmental performance of premium or A-grade buildings in Australia, there is still much room for improvement in smaller, non-premium buildings. It has been estimated that mid-tier office buildings make up more than 80 per cent of the overall net lettable area in Australia’s commercial office building stock.

More than 1,500 survey responses were recorded across all parts of Australia including CBDs, suburbs and regional areas. Information was gathered on those who do the work, the buildings and systems they work on, the maintenance practices, and the barriers to better maintenance.

The project was conducted on behalf of the Australian Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER); by researchers from the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities (SGSC); and the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) at the University of Wollongong.

Dr Chantel Carr is a researcher in the Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space (ACCESS) at UOW, and part of the project team. She says the survey was a terrific opportunity to get a plant-room perspective on mid-tier buildings.

“It’s research that hasn’t been done before at this scale,” says Dr Carr. “We managed to capture the experiences and insights of contractors and facilities managers right across Australia.”

Dr Carr says the responses show considerable untapped opportunities for better performance in Australia’s office building stock.

“Over 40 per cent of respondents reported that most of the buildings they work on still rely on an original HVAC system that hasn’t been upgraded since installation,” she says. “Given that the average building in Australia is about 27 years old, there’s clearly a lot of systems that are close to being on their last legs.”

The survey found that cost is overwhelmingly the deciding factor when choosing whether to repair or replace HVAC equipment. Respondents also identified planned and preventative maintenance as the number one action that could be taken to make HVAC systems perform better.

“It’s clear that lowest-cost contracting is driving bad practice in older, lower-quality buildings, and this needs addressing,” says Dr Carr, “It isn’t good for the industry, and it isn’t good for the environment. We need to get the right information into the right hands at the right time so that owners and contractors can make informed decisions around preventative maintenance and upgrading equipment.”

The report offers valuable insights into the professionals who do the work, including their typical qualifications and ongoing professional development. Dr Carr says this can inform approaches to strengthening the sector.

“There’s a lot of informal knowledge-sharing that goes on in the industry,” she says. “Experienced colleagues were identified as a key source of information at almost double the rate of formal CPD training. Equipment suppliers are also really important in the training space too. This means we might need to rethink how we get the energy efficiency message out there.”

UOW has released the report and an interactive dashboard for viewing the survey results on the Better Ways To Work website.

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