'Virtual engineering' smartens up Dexus properties

Case Study5 min06 February 2018By Vanessa De Groot

Dexus has implemented a smart data program across its portfolio of commercial property assets. This kind of program, known as a ’virtual engineering’, provides continuous, around the clock monitoring of each building’s performance, improving energy efficiency and providing cost savings. Broad adoption is expected amongst buildings owners with similar programs in future.

Virtual engineering, the latest innovation in building operations, is an analytics system that collates data about how aspects of a building, such as air quality and temperature, are performing. It allows owners to make targeted changes in order to operate the building more efficiently.

In Australia, the take-up of these virtual engineers has so far been limited, but it’s expected to increase as building owners become more aware of the existence of analytics packages and the benefits of smart data.

The major advantages of implementing a virtual engineering program include an improvement in energy efficiency and, consequently, a reduction in energy costs, greater tenant comfort, and reduced time and cost for equipment maintenance and upgrades. 

5 Martin Place, Sydney has achieved a 5 star NABERS Energy rating – a significant achievement considering the heritage elements of the building.

A market-leading example

The technology is relatively new, according to Jonathan Clarke, Associate Director and Controls Group Manager at Norman Disney & Young, although there are a number of buildings around the world using it.

So when Dexus implemented the smart data program in 2015, Clarke says it took a progressive approach to building operations. This was the first project of its kind on such a large scale in Australia.

The property group decided to pioneer the virtual engineer as the logical next step in its path towards sustainability excellence after carrying out an award-winning energy efficiency project between 2009 and 2013. 

That project saw the average NABERS energy efficiency rating across the company’s portfolio increase from 3.2 stars to 4.8 stars through an extensive retro-commissioning program and plant upgrades. Emissions reduced by 40 per cent from 2008 levels.

With a portfolio of efficient buildings and many energy gains already achieved, Dexus next turned to big data and the Internet of Things (IoT).

From this came the implementation of the virtual engineering program, providing a stream of information about building management and operations across 44 of Dexus’s office buildings. 

The analytics program allows data to be centralised – in Dexus’s portfolio there are around 240,000 Building Management and Control System (BMCS) points connected into a single platform, including 28,600 temperature sensors, 140 chillers and 700 pumps.

This data is then used to provide insights into what is happening behind the scenes in each building across the group's portfolio to enable them to be run more efficiently.

The true power of the software is the ability to apply and adjust hundreds of data points across disparate systems to present a concise and predictive layer of analysis around the clock, seven days a week.

Since the program uses a points-naming convention in which all the data is converted into a single language, all new developments in Dexus’s portfolio must abide by it to allow integration into the platform.

Paul Wall, Head of Group Sustainability and Energy at Dexus, explains that by doing this Dexus can start monitoring buildings before they take over management of them.

This was the case during the diagnostics liability period for the recently delivered heritage development at 5 Martin Place in Sydney.

The program identified over 160 sustainability challenges over a 16-month period. These were addressed, enabling the asset to track towards a 5 star NABERS Energy rating – a significant achievement considering the heritage elements of the building.

150 George Street, Parramatta has improved its energy efficiency rating using smart data.

Why turn to virtual engineering?

One important benefit of the smart data system is that it enables a greater level of energy efficiency, which reduces the building’s energy usage and costs.

In 2015 Dexus set a goal of reducing emissions by 10 per cent by the year 2020, and due to the analytics system it is well on track to achieving this.

In the first year virtual engineering was in operation across its portfolio, it achieved a 5 per cent reduction in emissions – well ahead of the incremental target – and a total energy reduction of 3.3 per cent.

Since the inception of the analytics platform, 77 per cent of Dexus’s properties have recorded an increase in their NABERS Energy efficiency rating.

An A-grade office building at 150 George Street in Parramatta, built in 1992, is one building that has improved its energy efficiency rating using smart data, with no additional outlay of capital.

It was a high-performing building, says Wall, which had achieved a 5-star NABERS rating by pulling just about “every energy efficiency lever” you can, but a higher level of diagnostics was needed to improve its rating further.

“Through the use of smart data, we got it to 5.5-stars through measures including algorithms that balance the requirement of individual work zones. That would not have been possible without the support of analytics.”

Another key benefit of the virtual engineering program is the ability to apply a centralised data-driven maintenance model for the BMCS.

The traditional approach to routine maintenance – where an individual checks a certain percentage of equipment each year regardless of condition or performance – has been rendered archaic by the virtual engineer.

Now the analytics can instead direct technicians to areas that are showing early signs of failure, with maintenance able to be targeted. 

This substantially reduces the hours spent on maintenance, which also reduces costs. In fact, it resulted in an immediate cost saving for Dexus of 16 per cent – or around $180,000 – across 13 of its properties.

Wall says the pre-emptive nature of the analytics is a considerable benefit to tenants. It means the program predicts a failure before it even happens, resulting in reduced inconvenience for tenants and an improvement in amenity and comfort.

“One part of the system may be operating inefficiently and people on the floor may not notice; you’ll never pick it up unless there’s a complaint,” he says.

“The system is pre-emptive, so if there is an anomaly in that parameter it will pick up the fault in the part in the chain where the failure is before it becomes a major failure.”

These systems are complex. It would be impractical to have a human engineer checking each data point manually all day every day, but the virtual engineer makes the system workable.   

“Before we gained this capability we had maintenance regimes that would check 20 per cent of the equipment each year. We now only actively target the ones that aren’t performing,” Wall explains. 

Other benefits of virtual engineering include the performance optimisation of HVAC equipment and systems, and improved equipment life cycle reports and CAPEX planning.

The true power of the software is the ability to apply and adjust hundreds of data points across disparate systems to present a concise and predictive layer of analysis around the clock, seven days a week.

A collaboration of stakeholders is required

Without buy-in from stakeholders, the implementation of virtual engineering across Dexus’s portfolio would not have been as successful.

While one analytics platform was selected, Dexus developed two separate partnerships through two different delivery models. 

One is an integrated service delivery model with a trusted mechanical contractor. The contractor uses data analytics to enhance the delivery of its services to Dexus, and can advise how to make the process more efficient, says Wall.

The second delivery model uses a third-party data analytics provider, who delivers insights and provides advice to various third party HVAC contractors on Dexus’s properties around Australia.

At the moment, Wall says, each service delivery model is being trialled, with the optimal model to be deployed through a national procurement strategy.

Is virtual engineering the way forward?

Following Dexus’s implementation of the smart data program, a number of other building owners are now investigating the benefits of rolling it out across their assets, according to Clarke.

“This project certainly set the benchmark for a future trend,” he says, "virtual engineer programs are the way forward for more efficient building management."

The data analytics platform used by Dexus has now been internationally recognised through IBcon, an Intelligent Buildings conference held in San Diego in the United States this year. 

“Having a 24/7 eye on your building without human error is going to be business as usual for the majority of the major owners,” Clarke says. 

“Data is a powerful currency and this program provides information about a building which has not been possible with traditional methods such as Building Management Systems. 

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