Help at hand

As an international consultant for a booming construction market, EC Harris had to make quick decisions over its future when the downturn arrived, only to find that its advice was needed more than ever, says Middle East MD John Williams.
Help at hand
EC Harris Middle \nEast managing director, \nJohn Williams.
By Stuart Matthews
Thu 14 Oct 2010 04:00 AM

As an international consultant for a booming construction
market, EC Harris had to make quick decisions over its future when the downturn
arrived, only to find that its advice was needed more than ever, says Middle
East MD John Williams.

Two years ago EC Harris’ John Williams, like so many other
professionals in the construction industry, moved from a country with a
dwindling economy to the land of opportunities.

He had the world at his feet; a company that was doubling
the size of its workforce every 18 months, a huge portfolio of work and the
prospect of long-term growth. “Dubai
was a hub of activity. If you were going to build anywhere, this was the place
to do it,” he recalls. “Projects were massive and I had the accountability for
helping built capability in the commercial property sector.”

With nearly 100 years experience under its belt, EC Harris,
an international consultancy, was already famous for acting as a trusted
advisor for clients seeking assistance in everything from planning and
executing projects through to handover. Dubai
would only generate more business for the company, or so Williams thought.

“It became a different story in terms of what happened in
the market here. We had to take a long hard look at diversifying our portfolio,”
he explains. “I’ve been on the same rollercoaster as many other people.”

Luckily, EC Harris invested in building infrastructure in
the oil and gas sector prior to the downturn, which helped the business to
remain stable and, over the last 18 months, it has focused on building a client
base in the education and health sectors.

But, that wasn’t enough for Williams and his team; not only
did they branch out into other industries, they also broadened their service
offering to meet client needs.

Change of strategy

During the boom times, projects were built to sell and there
was no shortage of investors willing to hand over their cash. Now, of course,
the situation has turned around and developers are finding that they have a lot
of stock that they need to manage. However, rather than sitting on worthless
assets, they are realising that they can get value from their portfolios. Enter
EC Harris.

“We advise them on how to create asset departments. The
financiers, who will now be looking at them as an asset owner rather than a
developer, will want to know about charges, annual maintenance agreements and
so on. There is a real need for data control so we help them to set that up,”
explains Williams.

“In the past there was a ‘let’s build, build, build’ approach.
Now we’re starting to operate, we’re starting to own, and we’re starting to
have better tenant relationships,” he adds.

Another reason why developers should learn create value out
of their built assets is because they need to maintain a good reputation in a
highly competitive market. The service provider sector is rapidly expanding and
there is a risk that construction companies’ brands will be damaged if their
services aren’t up to scratch after handover.

In light of this, explains Williams, developers such as
Emaar Properties are creating their own service providers, and EC Harris is
even advising clients on how to build and grow their own FM organisations. “A
developer should see the key issue as brand protection and enhancement – what
is best for his customer is best for his brand,” he says.

“The current market has a limited number of quality service
providers so many developers are forced to set up their own services companies,
just to make sure that their customers are being looked after.”

FM route

So, if developers are to manage their own stock, what do
they need to understand about the facilities management sector?

“Developers need to understand that they have a completely
different business model to that of an FM company. One is project based and the
other is service based. In addition, a quality services business needs a
certain scale to be able to offer customer service 24/7,” Williams says.

“Also, a developer cannot make a short-term commitment to
this market as a service provider. This is a long term proposition where the
market will take a few years to mature and deliver solid returns. Owners and
occupiers are increasingly looking to live or work in a safe or well maintained
place. So, that means forming a strategy around the environment, safety,
communications, interaction and so on. It is a lot more than just fixing light
bulbs.”

But shouldn’t a
construction company focus on its core business rather than offering services
it isn’t specialised in?

“You’ve got to look at it almost like a sliding scale. If
you’re a developer with good clout in the market place and you have good
suppliers and strong service level agreements, you could be quite happy to have
outsourced service providers.”

And, a number of developers have already created services
businesses, according to Williams. “We think that the market will consolidate
over the next two years to a smaller number of larger providers and one or two
boutique firms.”

Best of both worlds

At a time of crisis, EC Harris saw a gap in the market to help
struggling developers. But sometimes creating value means paying high
short-term costs to gain long-term savings.

“I think environmental social consciousness is higher than
ever but people at times of belt tightening worry about their wallets. And, its
push comes to shove time. Will people pay more now for lower heating bills or
more now for a building where the sustainability profile has been thought
about? I just don’t know.

“We find that, at times like this, the people that will lead
this agenda will be the public bodies and the very responsible developers
because they will know that they need to sustain a position on sustainability,”
Williams suggests.

EC Harris is also generating value for its own businesses by
working on projects in Saudi Arabia
and Qatar.
New projects are also pushing the company out of the GCC and into places like Jordan. But
Williams insists that Dubai
is still a good place to do business.

“Interestingly, we are starting to see people investing in
the market again so, by the end of the year, we’ll probably start to see a lot
more work here and maybe some movement in some of the projects which were
partially finished.

“This gives us two opportunities – one is to close out some
projects that we were involved in before, but equally, there’s an opportunity
for us to effectively help those with distressed assets.”

EC Harris Middle East head of client solutions Simon Light
lists seven simple fixes to slash your built asset’s carbon use.

Buildings are responsible for at least 40% of the world’s
greenhouse gas emissions, according to reliable estimates. But the good news is
that seven straightforward tried-and-tested suggestions can make a massive
difference to a built assets’ carbon footprint.

Implementing all of them should cost between US $100,000 and
$150,000, depending on the size and nature of your building. But they should
pay for themselves within just three years.

In 2006, we helped Britain’s
Department for Education to renovate its Sanctuary Buildings headquarters in
central London.
The reconfiguration cut the department’s carbon footprint in London by around 50% and is saving the
taxpayer £10 million every year in rent and rates alone.

Of course, the best way to be energy efficient is to design
better newly-built property in the first place, but few companies and
institutions have the luxury of starting from scratch.

The measures may add 4% to 6% to the cost of a new building,
but they could increase its value by between 3% and 8%. Also, energy efficient
buildings are easier to sell, and more popular with tenants, helping you to
minimise voids in rental revenue where there are
no occupiers.

So here are some quick and easy to-implement measures that
EC Harris has employed
to reduce your built asset’s carbon footprint.

1. Automatic Meter Reading

The first question to ask is; how much energy are you using
at the moment? You might be surprised how difficult that is to answer. The
chances are you are consuming too much.

Many buildings still have electricity, gas and water meters
that are read manually. However, there is a more
reliable and far cheaper way: Smart Meter Reading. Utility meters send readings
using web-based wireless technology, such as ZigBee.

Modern databases and dashboard software can instantly
display and analyse energy consumption from all the buildings in a company.

This puts building owners and occupiers in control. Managers
can see how much energy is being used, and so they can focus on how much is
being wasted, and where and when it is being wasted. They can even set up
automatic alerts to warn them that energy use is spiking.

2. Make sure your controls are set properly

When did you last review the setting on your existing
heating, cooling and lighting controls? They may have made sense when the building
management systems were first installed, but that could be years ago. If
settings for time clocks and thermostats don’t align with the way people use a
building, then you are probably wasting power.

Set points need to be challenged and reviewed. Evidence is
suggesting that IT server rooms can be run to a higher temperature of 25 to 27
degrees, without any increase in risk. Every one degree temperature difference
can save up to 10% of energy consumption so challenging the norm and setting to
22 or 24 degrees can result in significant savings, subject to having suitable
de-humidifying systems in place.

3. Reduce voltage

The official voltage in the UAE is 220V, but in practice
that can vary. Often, the actual voltage can be higher - and that is bad for your
equipment. That means more frequent breakdowns and higher replacement costs.

One common solution is to fit a regulator on the main
electrical supply to your premises. This will stabilise to an appropriate
voltage to lengthen the life of your equipment and save power too.

4. Good housekeeping

Dust and grime builds up even in the best-run heating and
ventilating systems. When grilles are blocked by dirt, fans have to work extra
hard to force air through them. That is wasteful so make sure that they are cleaned
regularly. Dirt also misleads sensors, and can force air conditioning to
operate when it is not needed.

5. New lighting

One of the quickest ways to cut energy consumption and get a
swift return on investment is to replace old-fashioned lighting. Newer
technologies such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are increasingly replacing
halogen spotlights in shops and hotels, as well as offices.

In addition to producing more light per watt, they also
create much less heat and will therefore cut the load on air conditioning
equipment.

For bigger spaces, consider fitting the latest T5
fluorescent tubes. They are smaller than traditional fluorescents, and much
brighter. They have a longer life, which is important for factories and
hospitals where inaccessible lights can be inconvenient to replace, and
it also means lower maintenance bills too.

Look at automatic light sensors too for warehouses and other
buildings, particularly in low-use areas such as escape stairs, plant and store
rooms.

A well-calibrated motion sensor system will turn on lights
only when people enter that area. Push button switches for meeting rooms are
also an option and can be set for a certain length of time before switching
off.

6. Free hot water

Air conditioning units pump a huge amount of heat that has
been removed from office spaces and inside buildings into the atmosphere.  That wasted energy can supply piping hot
water for your building for free, if you fit a variable refrigerant flow
system.

7. Empower your staff

Involve your staff in saving energy. Changing people’s
behaviour can cut energy bills by 5% to 20%. Encourage staff to switch off
lights and power down computers. With so much public concern about global
warming, you might be surprised how willing your employees are to save energy,
and money. You just need to empower and permit them to do so. Be positive and
reward them for their efforts.

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