Keeping Your Cool

VAE Group

Ben is Chief Executive Officer of a relative newcomer to the HVAC scene, VAE Group. The initials stand for Value Added Engineering and he firmly believes that the installation and commissioning of HVAC systems is more complex than most companies or customers understand, and that the whole business needs to be taken rather more seriously in these days of the need for greater energy efficiency.

In his office in Brisbane’s often sweaty Fortitude Valley, he explained to Construction in Focus that the company’s mission – as stated boldly on its website – is “to provide value added HVAC systems that actually work.” In fact, he says, “anyone who has been involved in commercial HVAC projects will know that they seldom do actually work. You get partial coverage from them but getting them to a hundred per cent working order is hardly the norm in the construction industry. It’s a bit scary.”

The notion came to Ben during a conversation with VAE’s first client who asked plaintively why mechanical (ie HVAC) contractors can never get the things to work properly. There are a lot of potential answers because the problems are many and varied – could be acoustical problems, or a failure to get an even airflow to all areas. “There are so many factors that affect the operation of a system and we differentiate ourselves by committing to getting the thing to work.”

Ben believes there is a lot of ‘black magic’ in how to solve matters such as acoustics and many companies fail to understand the science behind it. In commercial buildings nowadays there are a number of different systems – air conditioning, ventilation, fire (pressurised stairways, for example, and smoke exhaust) – and these systems can be very complex, “unless you have the engineering ‘grunt’ you very often find the systems may be functional and the building may be habitable but getting them to perform exactly as people say they will is another matter.”

This strikes a chord with many of VAE Group’s customers, especially those on the construction side. According to Ben, “any project manager at a construction company will have a horror story to tell you about a mechanical contractor.” A case in point had arrived on Ben’s desk that day – a request to examine why a major system on an oil rig in the Timor Sea was “not working.” It is only four years old yet it is virtually impossible to ensure adequate sleeping conditions for the rig’s workers. “I asked them if it was working properly on day one and they said ‘no. It has just got worse since day one.’ It is a classic case of a poorly engineered design which has inherent problems that then worsen over time.” Because of VAE’s “engineering talent pool”, however, the company can work out an effective solution and then implement it.

Indeed, most of the retrofit jobs the company wins are a result of installations that just don’t do their job. Another current project is 33 Charlotte St in Brisbane, a government building where VAE is to recommission all the air conditioning zones because they are not right. “A lot of our work comes from fixing up other people’s mistakes,” Ben says simply.

VAE’s genesis in 2010 stems from a 1997 company, Enertec Australia, which Ben’s father-in-law owned. This business sold solar and electrical products and air conditioning to the Pacific Islands and Papua New Guinea. Ben himself spent more than a decade working with and learning from a major global HVAC player which got taken over, after which he moved to a contracting company. With the ambition to form his own contracting business, he took over Enertec when his father-in-law wanted to retire. Over the next year he won some significant contracts and formed a working relationship with VAE, and by mid-2012 the time was ripe to merge the two companies and form VAE Group, an umbrella for some nine subsidiaries.

“The whole ethos of the company is that if we win a customer, we want to work for that customer for life.” Word of mouth is as important in this field as in any other, but what is also important is that VAE is typically working to solve long-term problems that have been not so much headaches for customers as migraines, and that tends to be remembered. At this stage, work in Australia has been confined to Queensland and New South Wales, but export business is booming (please see sidebar for further details).

Ben is putting plans in place to expand within Australia during the next two years, but explains that one of the growth sectors of his business hardly requires any expanded geographical footprint. EMOB is the company’s Energy Monitoring and Operations Bureau.

That sounds vaguely sinister but shouldn’t, for it represents the latest in Building Management System technology. Any kind of commercial or industrial building, even mines and remote sites, can be linked to VAE Group’s own control centre where staff monitor facilities and their operational issues as well as minimising the buildings’ energy consumption and maximising efficiency. This monitoring system can be used to look after facilities anywhere in the world from Fortitude Valley using the internet and cloud technology, and Ben and his team are in discussions with some very big names indeed as to how VAE can help save them money.

“This science is not new,” he says, “but now many people are looking at the energy point of view and many others are looking at the operational side of things – we are doing both.” Offering monitoring solutions, and through them identifying problems in systems and providing solutions to them, will form a large part of VAE Group’s growth in the coming years.

The company’s first client in this area, a major Queensland-based commercial group, is making use of EMOB to increase its NABERS rating and VAE is providing it with a turnkey energy upgrade service to enable it to do so. The group is set up to provide a comprehensive range of building related services: a division for purely engineering solutions; a construction division that can install the solution; an automation division for the control systems; a mining, oil and gas division dedicated to projects in those sectors (which require different skill sets and specialities); a commissioning division (sometimes engaged as an independent commissioning agent); and backing up everything else is a service organisation to provide long-term building maintenance.

Accordingly, VAE Group is expanding its workforce, taking on around five to ten new staff per month at this time; currently Ben has 15 engineers and six project managers. A trusted, core group of subcontractors ensures shores up the workforce. “There is no shortage of skilled people knocking our door and wanting to work for us,” shares Ben.

Just as well, if the initial success of VAE Group and its ‘get-it-right’ approach to HVAC is anything to go by – Ben’s main concern will be to prevent the company from overheating.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

October 23, 2021, 12:15 PM AEDT