Researcher spotlight: Daniel Daly

Tackling the challenge of improving the energy performance and sustainability of buildings

This month we are focussing on United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, to raise the profile of researchers and projects working toward this important goal to ensure we protect our environmental future.

Daniel Daly is an Early Career Researcher (ECR) within the University of Wollongong’s Sustainable Buildings Research Centre. The key aim of Daniels’ work is to help tackle the challenge of improving the energy performance and sustainability of our existing buildings. He says he has a passion for multi-disciplinary research, research with impact beyond publications, and research that improves people lives.

We spoke to Daly about his current projects, challenges he faced during COVID and the importance of setting targets like the UN’s SDGs.

What role do you think the SDG’s have played in organisations and nations setting energy goals and targets?

It has been great to see the SDGs become more entrenched across the University of Wollongong, and to see more and more organisations commit to serious targets. Obviously, Australia is something of a laggard in these stakes, but looking to the United Kingdom and Europe it is clear that meaningful action on climate change is going to require a substantial shake-up to business as usual, and the longer we leave it before we start to plan for the transition, the more of a shock it will be.

All across the built environment sector, government and organisations are going to have to come up with plans to address the emissions of their operations.


What does “Net-Zero planning” actually mean?

Net Zero planning is used to define a trajectory of how to get to the eventual target of Net Zero. Different groups define net-zero differently, for example, some allow the use of offsets or off-site renewable generation, others only look at an individual site, but essentially it is getting to a point where an organisation’s operations do not emit any net carbon emissions over the course of a year.

Setting a target (e.g. Net Zero) and a date (e.g. by 2050) allows an organization to work backwards and set interim targets that will need to be met to stay on track (e.g. 45% reduction by 2030, as recommended as a minimum by the IPCC). Setting this trajectory is vital in ensuring that all organisational decisions are working towards a common goal, and investment in new technology or buildings considers the impact on the net-zero plan. 

Planning for the realities of climate change is common sense, and as these realities become more apparent the politics and regulation will follow. Many major organisations are already doing this, those that don’t risk having to play catch up.  


Tell us about your recent project ‘Maintenance, management and the mid-tier (3M): Resolving socio-technical impediments to building energy efficiency‘?

The project aims to understand how repair and maintenance practices can contribute to better energy performance in Australian commercial buildings. The 3M project was recently funded by the University of Wollongong’s RevITAlise Research Grant Scheme (RITA), is a continuation of work that Dr Chantel Carr from ACCESS has been leading, looking into how Heating Ventilation and Air-conditioning (HVAC) systems are managed and maintained in the commercial building sector. 

 HVAC is the largest used of energy in commercial buildings. In the top end of town, we are seeing Australian premium commercial office buildings be recognised as world-leaders in sustainable buildings. Our project is looking at the other end of the sector - older, poorer quality buildings, known collectively as the mid-tier.

Mid-tier offices make up 80% of the office floor space in Australia, but typically have much poorer energy performance. In part this is due to the older, smaller, poorer quality of the buildings, but a key factor is the ownership. Premium buildings are typically owned by large investment groups, with corporate social responsibility policies, sustainability targets, and effective asset management. The mid-tier by contrast tends to be owned by individual investors or trusts with limited intrinsic environmental motivation, who often just want to limit their up-front costs. 

Our team recently ran the largest national survey of HVAC Technicians and Facility Managers to date, to get the view from the plant room on how HVAC is being managed in the mid-tier (the results can be seen at Our RITA proposal was to take this amazing data set (including expert interviews, focus groups, and the survey) and re-analyse the data through an Academic lens – there is almost nothing published in this space at the moment, and it is crucially important to address if we are going to decarbonise society. 

The interdisciplinary nature of the team was a no-brainer. Interdisciplinary teams are essential for understanding the social, economic and technological factors at play in transitioning cities to a clean energy future, as energy transition is fundamentally a ‘wicked problem’. Failures to advance energy transition can be attributed in large part to inadequate attention to its socio-technical nature. 


What kind of challenges has your research faced during COVID-19? 

Certainly COVID has thrown up some challenges. I had a great seed project funded through Global Challenges, working with Peter Andersen in Education and Michael Jones in Business, to develop an environmental education program for primary student to teach them about how the built environment impacts on the natural environment, and what we can do to mitigate the impacts.

We were due to pilot this at Balgownie Public School, but unfortunately this went by the wayside with COVID shutdowns. We still have the basis of a great project, so fingers crossed another opportunity comes up. My other projects have been evaluating upgrades in Schools and Aged Care facilities – we are still on track, but needless to say there have been complications!

I’m lucky to live in the Shoalhaven, so when I write this we are not in lockdown. While there are many challenges of working from home with young kids and endless Zoom meetings, I can’t complain too much while watching my teaching and home-schooling colleagues manage through lockdown. 

What does an ideal future look like to you?

What a tough question. What I would say is that there is plenty of evidence that living in more sustainable and considered ways has positive benefits on quality of life indicators. If we probably account for the externalities of our decisions, that is the cost of environmental damage and carbon emissions, the financial imperative for action would match the environmental one.

As a society, I think we are yet to appreciate the scale of the transition that is going to be required to mitigate and adapt to climate change and a warming world. Scientist collectively have done a good job of creating awareness around climate change, but awareness without action is not enough.

It is interesting to think what the University would look like if it was restructured to create a future generation ready for the seismic changes. Certainly we would have a plan for reaching Net Zero Emission as soon as possible. But we would also be reshaping our education and research agendas to align with this challenge.