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'Modernisation is now unstoppable'

The building engineering services sector has witnessed significant changes and Bob Shelley believes it must keep changing if it is to survive and thrive in a fiercely competitive environment
The recent industrial dispute over the planned new working agreement for mechanical, electrical and plumbing operatives was unsettling. The final outcome is still far from decided, but one thing was made abundantly clear by the process - the profession of mechanical and electrical engineering has changed beyond all recognition in the last 20 years.

The Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA) was developed to harmonise operatives' pay and terms and conditions; provide a basis for future job security and modernise the way in which the industry goes about its business. It was designed to reflect the new modern, multi-skilled and multi-disciplinary industry in which we all work.

Working in a collaborative way
The old wage agreements were drawn up in an age when the traditional 'trades' had clear and separate roles from each other - those days are gone. Most firms are now trying to work in a more collaborative way and a large number of employees are already multi-skilled.

Negotiations over the sector's working agreements are ongoing, but the main union Unite has accepted that the status quo is not an option - whatever national agreement is reached it will have to be a modernised version of those drawn up in the 60s and 70s.

This is because our industry faces totally different technical challenges and project processes to our predecessors. For example, contractors have the task of integrating renewable technologies into the widest possible range of buildings. We find ourselves discussing the potential of community heating schemes; combined heat and power; smart controls and smart grids. Things that would have been considered the domain of the design 'professionals' in the past are now part of everyday discussion among contractors in partnership with our design colleagues.

The modern contractor has a direct involvement in attempts to improve the thermal performance of the building envelope; he looks at the role mechanical ventilation with heat recovery must play in new housing built to 21st century standards of air tightness with the accompanying threat of airborne pollutants on occupant health; and he is expected to understand how natural ventilation allied to night-time cooling of the thermal mass will affect heating and air conditioning loads in complex buildings.

This broad involvement and depth of technical understanding represents a revolution in how contractors go about their business. Of course, specialists in key areas continue to play a crucial role, but their specialism is firmly part of a broader building strategy.

Many ventilation hygiene specialists, for example, now cover water systems too and also regard their health and safety role as an integral part of the energy performance strategy.

It is against this backdrop that the HVCA changed its name on March 1 to the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES) to better reflect the depth and breadth of its membership. We were the HVCA for nearly 50 years - it was time for a change and our members clearly agreed because over 90 per cent supported the move.

Modern approaches
There is very little room for sentimentality in the modern business setting. Times have changed - and carry on changing. The twin challenges of sustainability and the current austere economic circumstances mean there is no going back. The vast majority of m&e and plumbing workers realise that their future depends on our industry embracing modern approaches, such as integrated project teams with specialist contractors involved from the outset.

The Government also wants projects delivered for 20 per cent less money despite the fact that raw material costs continue to rise steadily. The pressure on the public purse is such that there is no alternative. The coalition's proposed Construction Strategy has highlighted the importance of the industry working in a more collaborative and integrated way to achieve it.

Integrated project teams get started on site, on average, six months before conventional project teams; they deliver sustainable projects on time and to budget giving far better value for money. The post-handover experience is always better too. They do this by working in a coherent team from the very early stages of the design right through until commissioning and beyond. However, for contractors to be part of that process they must have the necessary breadth of technical and management skills.

They must be familiar with modern methods of construction, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), which is widely regarded as the technology platform for collaboration. BIM will be mandatory on all public sector projects from 2016 and it is not just a design and construction tool. BIM's greatest value is arguably in how it supports FM providers and building managers in the long-term by providing 'real time' data about each element of a building's services. This moves our profession into the role of ongoing life support for a building - not just part of the team that disappears over the horizon after handover.

Client expectations are rising as modern methods become more widespread. Commercial building owners are looking for a return on their investment and they expect us to be sophisticated and multi-talented enough to help them achieve their goals.

Challenging engineers
At a recent CIBSE conference on Display Energy Certificates (DECs), Paul Edwards, head of sustainability at the developer Hammerson, challenged building services engineers to make sure his buildings performed as they were designed.

'If you deliver, we will pay you and if you don't we will penalise you. If you deliver an A rated building I will give you a bonus,' he said. 'I don't need to know how it is done; I just need to achieve it and be able to hold people to account.'

DECs are seen as a valuable tool by many clients because they give real, operational data about their buildings. They can compare them with their Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) issued when the building was built or rented to see if they are meeting their running cost targets. Having a well run, energy efficient, comfortable and productive building is a considerable financial asset.

'DECs are good for the private building sector because they create value by making your building look better than others. No-one wants a G-rating in their lobby,' said Edwards.

They will be required in all buildings over 500m2 by 2013 and those over 250m2 by 2015 under the requirements of the recast Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which came into force on February 1 this year.

This has major implications for all commercial building owners as they will have very clear and transparent energy goals to meet.

They will also be able to see exactly how much energy they are wasting and, with energy costs steadily rising, this will become a clear business priority. If you can measure your energy use you can also do something about it - as long as you know 'a man who can'. That is both a responsibility and a huge business opportunity for building engineering services contractors with the right skills.

Yes, saving carbon emissions and cutting environmental impact is important, but the main driver for better buildings is economics and we are an absolutely crucial part of the equation. Our job is practical implementation of the design measures intended to make a building perform well throughout its operational life.

With the advent of performance guarantee contracts, either directly with commercial building clients or indirectly through initiatives like the Green Deal, delivering on a building's operational promise becomes a financial imperative.

Meeting the Golden Rule
For example, the Green Deal loans will have to be repaid from a monthly charge on the consumer's energy bill. However, funding will only be made available if the planned energy saving improvement meets the Golden Rule that the charge is either equal to or less than the resulting energy savings. Our role is, therefore, to turn 'expected' savings into real ones or face a huge backlash if homeowners, businesses and landlords find they are paying back more than they are saving.

The Government intends the Green Deal to deliver energy retrofits for 26 million homes between now and 2050 - that will simply not happen if the measures do not work properly.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is a similar case as payments are dependent on readings from the heat meters installed with every project. The amount of heat generated will be continually measured and monitored - and if they don't deliver the RHI payments won't materialise. Similarly with Feedin Tariffs (FiTs), if systems are poorly installed or not properly integrated into the building the results will be disappointing and the payback period on the microgeneration system extended.

Sustainability and the low carbon agenda are driving integration and multi-skilling; so are the new generation of young engineers who can't imagine any other way of working. Politicians have put grand plans in place, but they don't know how to make them reality - we do.

Against this backdrop, our sector continues to fight for its life. Specialist sub-contractors are under intense pressure to cut costs even though margins are already wafer thin. This means we have to work in a smarter way to survive and provide job security for our workforces. Failing to adapt and modernise is not an option.

// The author is president of the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES), formerly the HVCA //

1 March 2012

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