Designing and building green is one thing, but what comes next?

The City of Melbourne’s website states that 70% of Melbourne city residents are living in high-rise buildings. As part of the City of Melbourne’s sustainability goal - to become one of the most sustainable cities in the world and to be carbon neutral by 2020 - involves the ‘greening’ of the high-rise buildings in many innovative ways. These include green living walls, storm water tanks and reuse, solar panel installation for electricity generation or for supporting bulk hot water systems and waste optimisation to name just a few.

Green innovations can also include automatically opening windows in common areas to decrease reliance on HVAC systems, modern equipment purchases and upgrading the old outdated machinery. It might be as simple as timers on lights or more organic lighting that comes on and goes off as you walk in and then out of a room.

From an outsiders point of view it seems easier to design a brand new building and include lots of green initiatives than to retrofit an existing building. And there are some amazing new buildings now that are fitted with the latest and greatest in environmentally friendly technology. The developer might still need to be prepared to spend a bit more in the initial stages for long term gain, but the planning, design and building stage appears the easiest option when putting these systems in place.

Once built however, questions need to be asked. Who is going to manage the green buildings? How much thought goes into their ongoing management?

Retrofitting buildings is more difficult and costly and can involve a large number of people; in managed high-rise buildings, the building manager would have a large involvement in project managing this undertaking. When it comes to the long term management of green initiatives or processes, having the building manager part of the upgrade is probably the best way to ensure that a building once rated green, stays green.

The difficulty is that like most processes or plant whether they are rated green or not, they all lose efficiencies over time and unless you are committed to managing a building with the determination that you are going to maintain its green rating, or just being prepared to put the effort into ensuring that cost savings are maintained, they can very quickly lose the little efficiencies that make them green or more cost effective.

Think of dirty solar panels, rain water tanks that become empty, kicking over to mains and then never switching back, automatically opening windows that have no fly screens so owners stop using them, green walls that look beautiful and cost $40,000 a year for an owner's corporation to maintain. Brand new HVAC systems have a green rating, however their efficiencies can decrease by small amounts every year if they only have standard maintenance undertaken, and by the time anyone really notices that the temperatures are not quite right usually large parts require replacing.

There also appears to be a disconnect between the process of designing and then building a high-rise apartment block and then managing the building once complete. While many buildings are built green and sold based on their green ratings, how many developers then put thought into who and how the building will be managed once they have handed it over to their new owners?

As a new building management company our approach has been to focus on our differences in the market. My environmental background makes me passionate about the many fantastic ways that we can reduce our carbon footprint while living in high-rise buildings, and I am excited by the approach City of Melbourne have taken. They are making available grants for upgrades and I have attended a number of their sustainability lectures and seminars, some with building managers in my employ.

But I have also seen instances of environmental innovation that while being great ideas are difficult to manage once everyone has moved in.

We need to find a way to start a conversation between the people that design the buildings and are looking and willing to install options that make buildings green, with the people that will go on to manage the buildings to ensure optimisation of all processes.

Community gardens can be incorporated into high-rise living as well. If a living wall is to be incorporated why not with edible plants? Strawberries love hanging planters and many herbs grow in the same way. In this we can make green initiatives not only picturesque but useful and relevant. Can we put aside areas in high-rise buildings for community gardens? Their management would be no more or less tedious than a common roof top area, and will have health benefits and promote community within an apartment block. These ideas can retrospectively put to the occupants of a building but if they are not incorporated into a building at design stage then often they are impractical and impossible to implement.

Water tanks for recycled water are becoming common place in residential apartment blocks, but many are there due to Council regulation and are big enough to run three common toilets and a pot plant. They are not sized according to what they can achieve but are squeezed into the spare space in the car park where they can be forgotten about.

However at one building I manage, the developer installed flow meters on the water tanks and is monitoring how much recycled water is being used compared to mains water and in this way is getting a comparison for future reference which is a great starting point for projects they build in the future. Those tanks run three levels of toilets in apartments and irrigate all the gardens around the building.

I recently saw a fantastic product for lighting that will again reduce electrical consumption used for lighting. Teamed with solar panels I believe the idea has huge merit. It is an organic system where the lights sit at about 20% capacity at all times but lift when they sense movement within a room. They light around the person and fade out in degrees as they go away from the person so you can always see around you and ahead but not all the lighting is up at 100% all the time. The whole system is based on a very large number of sensors being installed that run the lights. Initially there is a cost involved and sometimes it is hard to convince developers to spend the money in the first instance when another person will benefit from the savings in the future.

This is another disconnect I can see. People still have to be prepared to pay a bit more for the concept of ‘green’.

When green buildings are designed, built and then occupied, we as building managers need to ensure we have the tools and the initiative to manage and maintain this on the owner's behalf. I also believe that you have to have the ‘ethos’ as a company to decide to be green. Sometimes only pay lip service is paid to the notion of being 'green' but it is something you need to have as a mindset so when the hype dies down you still buy the recycled paper, encourage green cleaning products use at your buildings, and discuss and encourage recycling with residents.

You have to be able to find all the positive attributes of a community garden and then still be prepared to work through the challenges like dirt on the carpet and how to apportion a growing area to each resident. You have to want to inspect the electricity bills every quarter and question the microscopic increase rather than just assume it is a normal ‘blip’.

I think you have to invest yourself in the whole building and how you can make it a happy and enjoyable place for all the residents to live in, and be prepared to learn the intricacies of all the plant and process to ensure continued optimal performance of an entire building.

Jennifer Longstaff has a Bachelor of Applied Science in Environmental Management (Hazardous Materials) and Graduate Diploma in Secondary Teaching. Jennifer is the General Manager of Melbourne Building Management - an Urban Melbourne Industry Hub member organisation.

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