Comment: Essential to incorporate a retrofitting regime in an organisation’s plan

A proactive retrofit budget enables buildings to stay ahead of the technology curve

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Sougata Nandi is the founder and CEO of 3e Advisory.
Sougata Nandi is the founder and CEO of 3e Advisory.

While all sustainability initiatives may not require retrofitting, every retrofitting exercise impacts sustainability in the built environment. Such impacts range from greenness of buildings to wellness of occupants, both accompanied by impacts on recurring O&M expenses.

Of late, the popular discourse appears to be revolving around MEP retrofitting primarily for energy or water savings. This should not be the only reason for retrofitting. Buildings undertake retrofitting for multiple reasons. The most predominant form of retrofitting is for commercial offices, within open plan settings, and it is either when a new tenant moves in or if an existing tenant undergoes re-branding. In other instances, retrofitting is required in order to replace non-functional equipment, sub-metering for utilities or to solve an operational problem, like improper IEQ (indoor environment quality). Almost all such retrofits are undertaken either because they are unavoidable or in order to reduce excessive utility costs. Very few instances of continuous or sustainable retrofitting are practised.

Almost all buildings have recurring retrofitting needs like replacement of fused lamps and burnt motors, replacement of carpets, repainting of walls, etc. The prevalent approach is to carry out ‘breakdown maintenance’, only when unavoidable. These are ad-hoc initiatives that are at worst rarely planned and at best, allocated a budget based on previous years’ history. Sustainable retrofitting involves not just planning in advance on short, medium and long-term bases, but also ensuring that retrofits have triple bottom line benefits. Planning retrofits in advance based on quality of O&M and equipment conditions, allocating appropriate budgets for both planned and unplanned retrofits and seriously mandating a pro-active retrofit budget that enables building operators to seek out new technologies, are all components of sustainable retrofitting. Akin to a corporate’s R&D budget, a proactive retrofit budget enables buildings to stay ahead of the technology curve; in the process ensuring that the building’s asset value always remains high. Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry HQ is a prime example of sustainable retrofitting.

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Embedding a sustainable retrofitting regime in the organisation’s operations management can reap multiple and ongoing benefits without having to go through complex management approvals, and sometimes, convoluted procurement processes. A sustainable retrofitting regime can achieve sustainable development goals, without having to go through costly and time-consuming projects and avoid unpleasant financial surprises for the building owners. Most importantly, sustainable retrofitting empowers building operators to take decisions for the betterment of the building. By engaging building operators in the decision making process, a genuine sense of ownership is catalysed.

A sustainable retrofitting program needs to start with the finance and procurement departments of an organisation, using a sustainable procurement policy as the framework. Such a policy needs to define the goals, ownerships and annual budgets for sustainable retrofitting. Technical criteria need to be set for MEP equipment that will qualify them as sustainable. Simple examples of such retrofits are buying only LED lamps of specific ratings for replacements. More sophisticated example would be upgrades of Building Management Systems (software and hardware), ongoing recalibration/ replacement/ upgrades of sensors, devices and meters. More complex examples would be identifying latest technology chillers, which may require special subject matter expertise, beyond a building’s own operators.

Minor sustainable retrofits like installation of motion detectors, reduction of plumbing fixture flow rates etc. can be easily taken up through a regular procurement process, wherein a business case for each such retrofit should be developed and automatically approved if it meets the organisation’s ROI criteria. Such retrofits can be easily financed through regular budget allocations as typical ROIs are in the range of a few months. A slightly different approach may be needed for retrofits like CO2, RH, and VOC sensors for monitoring IEQ, as there may not exist a quantifiable business case that is easy for management to accept.

Major sustainable retrofits may need significant budgets, even if these are planned. For example, a building’s outdated chiller plant may need a full-scale replacement, Capex for which would run into millions of dirhams. This is the financial challenge. The technical challenge would be to select the right chillers and its implementation plan. Such retrofits are better to be outsourced to specialised engineering companies who will carry out a detailed engineering design to select the optimum equipment and controls, define scope of work and develop a project management plan. The goal of such a retrofit should not only be limited to only replacement of old equipment with new ones, but also to ensure that the new equipment are cost effective to operate and maintain through their life cycle. If financing is a challenge, such retrofits should then be undertaken via the ESCO route.

A sustainable retrofit regime is an ongoing investment in a continuous improvement program for a building’s triple bottom line performance, occupant wellness and asset valuation. Such a concept enables buildings to sustainably improve from the original design and development, in the most cost-, time- and effort-efficient way possible.

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