Council Buildings – Results and Trends from over 1,000 Sustainable Small Facility Assessments

Lucy Carew-Reid

Council-owned buildings present many management challenges, one of which is embracing sustainability opportunities at both small and large facilities. Most councils focus on managing larger facilities so they operate effectively and efficiently. In contrast smaller facilities often have no systematic sustainable management process, despite there being many easy opportunities to save large amounts of energy, water and money.

Results from over 1,000 Sustainable Small Facilities (SSF) assessments undertaken by 17 Australian councils and various consultants have enabled Ironbark to make estimates of current energy and water performance and potential benefits for the average council across different facility types. See key outcomes and more details below.

Key Outcomes

By implementing all audit recommendations, the average facility can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 53%, water by around 43% and can improve the sustainability rating from 2 Stars (fair) to 4 Stars (very good). 

For a council with 200 sites, it would cost around $8.1m to implement all audit actions, and the simple payback on investment would be 11 years. It would save $742,000, 3,300 tonnes of greenhouse emissions (CO2–e) and over 200ML of water per year. This is equivalent to taking around 770 cars off the road or filling around 86 Olympic-sized pools with water. See Table 1 for details of costs and savings for both 200 facilities as well as one average facility. 

 200 FacilitiesPer Facility
Savings ($ p.a.)$752,000$3,800
Capital Cost ($)$8.1m$40,500
Payback (years)11 years11 years
eCO2 Savings (tonnes p.a.)3,30016.3
Water Savings (ML p.a.)2140.7


Table 1: Costs and savings of implementing all SSF audit recommendations.

Just over half of possible CO2–e savings is attributable to efficiency works, while the remainder comes from installing solar panels.

12% of energy and water cost savings can be achieved immediately by undertaking minor and easy retrofits during the audit site visit. This equates to around $440 of on-the-spot savings per site with a payback of between 0.5 to 4.5 years. 

Outcomes of Different SSF Star Ratings 

Star ratings are a useful tool for tracking the performance of small facilities. They provide a snapshot of where each facility is at and how much room for improvement there is.

SSF assessments give a star rating for current building performance, as well as a ‘possible’ rating should all audit recommendations be implemented. It should be noted that it is often impossible to achieve 5 Stars due to certain building infrastructure and cost restrictions.

Figures 2 and 3 depict average greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption figures before and after average buildings are brought up to their highest possible star rating. Note that buildings that can achieve 5 Stars already start off as being relatively low energy spenders. Water spend starts off relatively even across different sites.

Several councils around Australia have established – or are about to establish – environmental performance targets for council-owned buildings. Ironbark suggest aiming for 4 Stars, which would be both ambitious and achievable as 93% of council buildings can achieve 4-4.5 Stars whereas only 26% of buildings can achieve 4.5+ Stars.

Outcomes of Different Facility Types

This section focuses on how various council facility types perform. Figure 4 outlines the average CO2–e consumed by various small facility types (per site).

Libraries and public halls emit the most CO2–e out of all the smaller facility types, most likely due to libraries having long opening hours and public halls having high energy consuming infrastructure such as high bay lights and central heating and cooling systems. 

Most other small facilities – except for Maternal and Child Health Centres (MCHCs), Picnic Shelters and Public Toilets – generate a similar amount of CO-e. It is self-evident why this is the case for the latter two – they simply don’t have much energy consuming equipment. The reason for the MCHCs consuming less than other sites is due to the small building size, staff numbers and limited opening hours. 

Figure 5 outlines how much each facility type can save on average each year should all audit recommendations be implemented. The graph also profiles the percentage savings of CO2–e and water for each site (see the green and blue lines). 

All facilities have high greenhouse and water percentage saving potential. And not surprisingly, the largest and more complex facility types, Commercial and Council Offices, have the most money saving potential. 

All facilities can achieve an average cost savings of above $2,000 per year except for MCHCs and Public Toilets. In the case of MCHCs, they are generally very small buildings that are only open 2 days per week – so they already have a minimal energy spend.

Retrofit Outcomes

Ironbark’s preference is to retrofit while conducting SSF assessments because it achieves immediate outcomes and makes the most of the site visit. 

Average on-the-spot retrofit outcomes per site include:

  • 12% of total possible energy and water savings (see Figure 6);
  • Happy site occupants;
  • 1.2 tonnes of CO2–e and 2.4 kL Water saved per year;
  • Around $440 savings per site with a payback of between 0.5 to 4.5 years;
  • Sustainability Rating increase from 1.8 Stars to 2 Stars.

In terms of outcomes, "happy site occupants" isn’t to be taken lightly. As an auditor a frequent remark made by occupants is that they are tired of reports and would prefer to see ‘something done.’ All SSF programs involving retrofits have been very well received by occupants.

85% of sites included in this analysis cost between $300-$600 to retrofit with an average payback of around 3 years. See Table 2 for the range of retrofits performed on some of the sites, and the average payback for each. 

Retrofit ItemsCostPayback
Window Draft Blockers$300.8
Door Draft Blockers$463.5
Hot Water Insulation$501.2
Compact Fluorescents$231.9
10W LED Downlight to Replace 50W Halogen$791.9
Reposition Fridge$502.2
CFL Spot Lights to Replace 120W Par 38$553.3
Light Removal$203.4
Toilet Water Savers$200.2
Tap Flow Control Valves $203.0
Low Flow Showerheads$451.0

Table 2: Retrofit items, average costs and paybacks – if completed on-the-spot

Audit Recommendations

Audit recommendations cover the following: 

  • Heating and cooling;
  • Passive thermal performance; 
  • Indoor lighting;
  • Outdoor and security lighting;
  • Hot water systems;
  • Appliances;
  • Fridges and freezers;
  • Water devices (taps and showers);
  • Water appliances;
  • Renewable energy; 
  • Water harvesting.

Around 80 different recommendations have been made in all the audit reports. Figure 10 below relates to one council area where all 103 Council-owned facilities were audited and retrofitted. The figure doesn’t outline the full plethora of actions; instead, the intention is to provide a quick snapshot of potential cost savings for a few items.

Solar power is a clear winner in terms of savings and the payback is relatively good. Fridge and freezer replacement and insulation also achieve great savings and have very favourable paybacks. 

Domestic air conditioners – most commonly split systems – are found in most council facilities and according to auditor observation, numbers are rapidly increasing. Ironbark suggest push button timers, some simple technical specifications that can be provided to contractors and maintenance combined with guidelines for building occupants to ensure efficient systems are installed and operated wisely. 

Councils are implementing the actual audit recommendations in varying ways. Here are some of Ironbark’s anecdotal observations:

  • Some councils select the actions with the most appealing savings and paybacks and implement them across all facilities. Some councils have payback policies, where any actions under a certain payback are implemented;
  • Some councils choose to improve sustainability at one building at a time;
  • Others focus on the buildings with the lowest ratings;
  • Some implement works either as a dedicated sustainability project or within Energy Performance Contracts;
  • Incorporating key actions into regular maintenance works is another approach; 
  • Investment in solar panels continues to be popular; and 
  • Adopting building technology and design specifications and guidelines for maintenance and capital works staff to follow is on the rise.

Addressing Existing Council Facilities: Trends and Advice

Most councils have sophisticated programs in place to improve the sustainability of their larger buildings. They often follow a three-year cycle of detailed audits followed by a couple of years of capital works. In terms of environmental performance standards for existing large buildings, many use NABERS for their large offices, Green Star Performance is now also available for public buildings.

Sustainability at smaller facilities is sometimes addressed in batches of facility types. In our experience, sports pavilions and childcare centres / kindergartens appear to be favourites. However a lot of the time, smaller facilities are often ignored in favour or focusing on the large buildings.

There are some easy wins to be made at the smaller facilities and the paybacks can be reasonable. Our recommended approach to small facilities is to assess and retrofit as much as possible in the one visit within a 4 to 5 year cycle. This is because on an individual basis they simply don’t warrant too many visits as their energy and water spend – and opportunities for savings – are relatively low. At some facilities we have taken this to the max and conducted: 

  • Sustainability Rating (5 Star);
  • Retrofits – quick and low-cost actions completed immediately;
  • Audit Recommendations;
  • Education and Behaviour Change;
  • Meter Number Collection;
  • Other ratings such as disability access, waste and heatwave ratings.  

In terms of the quantity and type of facilities assessed, many approaches have been taken for Council-owned facilities: 

  • A Pilot Program of between 5-15 sites;
  • A range of different facility types to get a taste test of each type;
  • One facility type e.g. childcare and kindergartens, or community centres);
  • A complete program that covers all small to medium sized buildings owned by Council.

In Ironbark’s opinion, the SSF program is ideal to first run as a pilot program at a range of different facility types. This allows the experience needed to then consolidate a tailored process that suits council’s needs. Councils can then roll out the program to all small facilities, either over a period of years or all at once if budget allows.

Data Included in the Assessment

Ironbark worked with information from just over 1,000 SSF assessments generated by various building consultants and councils. This data was narrowed down to 525 different sites that have the most comprehensive and robust sets of data. 

Almost the entire range of different council facility types have been assessed using the SSF program – including some larger buildings such as commercial facilities and council offices that traditionally have more detailed audits performed.

Facility TypesPercentage Represented
Community Service Centre17%
Pavilion & Sporting Club24%
Pre-School/Kindergarten/Child Care Centre28%
Commercial3%
Council Offices2%
Library Services4%
Maternal and Child Health Centre3%
Operations Depot5%
Picnic Shelter1%
Public Hall4%
Public Toilets6%
Senior Citizen5%

Table 3: Council facility types included in the SSF results

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