With the significant changes being experienced by almost every sector of the economy due to COVID-19, we’re seeing a number of important impacts on building energy performance, but its not quite as straightforward as “less people working in offices = less electricity/gas/water consumed”.

Lets take building occupancy to start with. As increasing numbers of workers are exposed to and isolated by COVID-19, and as most employers are actively supporting if not mandating remote work, we’re seeing a lot less people in the buildings we service – whether they be CBD or suburban office buildings, shopping centres, university campuses, tech parks, or entertainment/creative spaces. Since people are a key driver of utility consumption, it makes complete sense that electricity, water and gas consumption drops, often dramatically. Predictions of and expectations for building energy performance with low real world occupancy also change, and we’re adapting our machine learning models to account for these unprecedented circumstances

Yet in some cases, we don’t see as large a reduction in electricity, water, gas consumption as might be expected – despite there being significantly less people in buildings. Not only is there a base building load (ie building operating, even if not occupied), but there’s also an obvious tension between lease conditions, tenant instructions and perhaps common sense expectations. We’ve seen numerous examples of where building managers would like to reduce electricity consumption because of a lack of people attending sites, yet leases dictate that certain internal conditions need to be maintained (eg floor temperatures). We’ve also seen places where tenants have moved to 100% remote work, but not informed building managers or requested them to make adjustments to Building Management Systems to account for these changes.

Building ratings are also relevant. Most schemes – eg NABERS – have a relationship between rated area and occupancy, with a threshold of whether or not space is “ready for occupation” or not. In the case of NABERS, generally if a space is leased by a tenant who has requested via their lease that base building services are provided and no further instruction is provided, then the space is considered occupied. With increasingly common remote work, under these circumstances the building will waste energy (not great from a cost or environmental impact perspective), but the NABERS rating may improve because the building will use less energy than normal for the same rated area (good from a building owner/operator perspective).

Beyond these three impacts, we’re also seeing increased enquiries about factors like optimising the use of or monetization of solar PV generation capacity (which is unaffected by occupancy!) and about indoor environment quality (particularly airflows / exchanges). These further draw attention to the fact that buildings are complex systems both with and without occupants, and there’s opportunities to cost-optimize across multiple different dimensions.

Buildings Alive is continuing to support our customers with daily building energy performance analysis, feedback and insight which recognises these different impacts and seeks to deliver the best all round outcomes even in the challenging times of COVID-19 and its flow on economic effects.