A question of balance...
Chris Dearden believes in adopting a balanced approach to every aspect of his business. The md of Medem is also passionate about the need to take the long view rather than relying on short-term, stop-gap measures to tackle the recession. Ian Vallely reports
One of the biggest challenges facing building services consultants over the coming five years is how to design efficient hvac systems with the smallest carbon footprint and lowest energy loss for the minimum cost.
But striking the right balance between reducing energy usage and the cost of achieving it is far from easy, a fact acknowledged by Chris Dearden, managing director of Altrincham-based gas safety energy monitoring and air quality controls specialist Medem.
As he points out: 'For each pound saved on a project there is an amount that has to be found to invest into the building in order that it can save energy. The balance is made much more difficult because of the recession with the result that budgets are being scrutinised far more carefully.'
While cost is important, it is not the only factor impacting on hvac system design. Another important issue is the pressing demand to meet increasingly stringent legislation.
However, for Chris, the last three years have often seen a relaxation in the way legislation is interpreted: 'We design and build our products so that they meet a specific design or safety standard and, quite often at a late stage in the build or refurbishment, they will be knocked out, even though the legislation says that they should be there.'
He offers the example of a second tier mandatory document to the Building Regulations called 'Building Bulletin 101 Ventilation of School Buildings' (BB101): 'This clearly states that the average exposure to carbon dioxide (CO2) in a teaching environment over eight hours should be 1,500 parts per million (ppm) and the operative - in this case probably the teacher - should have the ability to reduce that level down to 1,000ppm.
Compromise must be reached
'In reality, that often doesn't happen. Indeed, in the majority of cases that I've seen, it is unachievable because a compromise must be reached between heat loss from the building and the need to keep fresh air coming in. That is a prime example of a piece of legislation being in place that is not honoured, at least partly because the money is not available in the project.
'The result is that there are both new and refurbished classrooms and laboratories where the optimum air quality levels can't be met because the budget is not there to put in adequate ventilation.'
Exacerbating this situation, says Chris, is the desire to minimise heat loss in new build school projects which means that ventilation in teaching areas is reduced so CO2 levels are higher than BB101 recommends.
He adds: 'It is crucial that the designs produced by building services engineers are carried through to the completion of the project so that they end up with a finished system that is as it was specified and expected to perform.'
But the recession is affecting more than just legislative compliance. Too many major companies are living on borrowed money which means that manufacturers like Medem must run a particularly tight ship when it comes to credit control. As Chris puts it: 'We have to check out everybody we supply before we supply them each time. People are definitely getting slower at paying.'
He says the smaller contractors are suffering most: 'The smaller the company, the further down the 'food chain' they are. Many contractors have been squeezed so tightly on their margins that they can turn over huge amounts of money for a very small bottom line so it only takes a couple of decent sized hits to put them out of business. That's why so many are going under.'
And the implications for the industry are significant. Chris explains: 'As a result of all the bankruptcies, we have a shift towards bigger companies and many of the smaller contractors are struggling to get a look-in. I think that will lead to greater consolidation with larger companies dominating - a less fragmented market with fewer firms operating within it.'
One negative consequence of more big companies controlling a tighter market is less innovation because, according to Chris, there tends to be less individual free thinking within large companies. 'And the 'corporate thinkers' you find in these organisations are inclined to plan more on short-termism which is all about satisfying the shareholders for the next year.'
A short-term approach
The same short-term approach is, he believes, taken by national governments and this, too, is causing significant problems. 'We don't have the statesmen in Government anymore; rather, they are often people looking for short-term gains in popularity in order to win the next election and that leads to great compromises because the forward thinking just isn't really there anymore.
'You only have to look at the power industry and the fact that no commitment was made to replacing the nuclear power stations that are being decommissioned which will leave us with a potentially devastating electrical power generation deficit. To counter this threat, the Government is committing to creating a series of quick-build gas-fired power stations which are expensive to run so the net result will be higher costs all round.'
Progressive companies think longer term, identifying opportunities further down the line. Medem, for example, has spotted a potentially huge growth opportunity. Chris explains: 'Energy monitoring for commercial and industrial buildings is a critical activity. Why? An analogy might help. Say you shop in your local Tesco supermarket every Friday for 13 weeks - one quarter - and you don't get the bill until the end of that period; you will inevitably spend more because you have less control over your expenditure.
'By the same token, in a large building - whether a school, factory, town hall, or whatever - you can control your costs better if you can see what they are on an hour-by-hour, daily, weekly or monthly basis. After all, you can't manage what you don't measure.'
A short history of Medem
· 2001 - Patent application is filed for differential pressure proving for pipe supply of fluids (gas)
· 2002 - Modern Plant Ireland is appointed to sell and support Medem gas pressure proving systems for school laboratories in Ireland
· 2003 - A distributor is appointed for Great Britain for the gas pressure proving system
· 2004 - Medem takes the sales and marketing for its products for Great Britain in-house
· 2005 - The first easy-use LCD system on to the market is released by Medem UK for use in commercial kitchens
· 2006 - Introduction of turnkey strategy for commercial kitchens to enhance service. A 24-hour helpline for commercial kitchens for turnkey packages is also introduced
· 2007 - Launch of the UK's first integrated gas pressure proving and gas detection system. Launch of the UK's first purpose-designed carbon dioxide monitoring system for teaching areas
· 2008 - BP (Kosan Gas) approaches Medem UK to be appointed as distributor and support for selected Scandinavian countries
· 2010 - Introduction of the five-year warranty. Launch of the UK's first multi-function range of systems for the built environment. Relocation to a larger factory. Introduction of a college training programme for future engineers
· 2011 - Development work begins on energy monitoring solution for commercial and industrial buildings. Investment of £120,000 in new equipment funded from Medem reserves, not banks.
· 2012 - ISO 9001 certification achieved, launch of energy monitoring system, and enhanced features for the SEC range including CO2 auto switch interlocking for kitchens
· 2013 - Further investment in production equipment to increase production capacity. Recruitment of two field standards advisors. Introduction of the EVO and Inair gas safety systems
Medem md Chris Dearden says: 'Today, we are a company with all the internal skills necessary to develop new ideas to help the building industry meet the ever-growing demands for increased safety and energy management. We have a continuing research and development programme in operation and we invest in the latest production equipment on a regular basis.
'Also, all our research and development is sourced from within the company and everything we do is self-financed. We owe nothing to anybody. That is important because if you are not beholden to a bank or any other financial institution then you have a clear mind and a clear mind is a positive mind which means you can innovate more easily.
'We don't have the stress or worry about repaying debts because we don't have any and that means we can concentrate on innovation and building the right kind of products to help the hvac sector to become more efficient.'
Ten facts about Medem
· Medem designs all its own products and manufactures them in its own factory
· True differential gas pressure proving (patented by Medem UK) means no nuisance tripping of the gas supply. It is therefore dynamic (and not static as with other methods) in that it allows for variances in supply pressure. It also allows upstream monitoring of gas pressure with valve closed so will not open the valve if the gas pressure is too high or too low, ensuring safety
· Medem offers five- and 10-year warranties on its products
· The company holds the ISO 9001 quality certification standard for the design and manufacture of electronic control systems for use within commercial and public buildings
· It operates a 24-hour helpline for end users, installers and maintenance engineers
· On commissioning of its products, Medem includes each site on its database so that, when a call is received, it has site information to hand. This information includes the system type, information on any fans, power use, gas installation and pressures as well as site images
· All proving systems have an LCD readout which displays step-by-step instructions as well as current status and suggestions to resolve issues such as inadequate ventilation
· Medem can deliver CPD seminars complete with points towards mandatory training, as well as guidance and best practice advice
· As part of its design and prototyping process, the company's systems are tested independently by a government-approved testing house
· Medem is a member of the British Standards Institution, the Chartered Institution of Building Service Engineers, the Institute of Gas Engineers & Managers, and GasSafe
12 February 2013