Getting life cycle costing right

Stuart Thompson

Stuart Thompson,
Senior Design Manager,
Morgan Sindall

A guest post by Stuart Thompson of Morgan Sindall 

The NRP (Norwich Research Park) Enterprise Centre project is an Exemplar Low Carbon Building, which is targeting BREEAM Outstanding and Passivhaus Certification.

The project for the University of East Anglia (UEA) is being delivered using a collaborative single point of delivery system by main contractor Morgan Sindall and its team, which includes architects Architype, civil, structural and environmental engineers BDP and Churchman Landscape Architects.

The centre has been created to achieve a 100-year design life and aspects of the development will be constructed using traditional methods. Locally sourced materials including Thetford timber, Norfolk straw and heather, chalk, lime, hemp and flint will be used and the lecture theatre will be constructed of rammed chalk while various buildings will be thatched. The development is expected to be completed in early 2014.

A key aspect of delivering the Exemplar Low Carbon Building at UEA is ensuring that the project has the lowest life cycle cost possible. The life cycle cost of a project is often discussed in construction but not usually followed through therefore it’s been fantastic to work with a client team which is happy to dedicate time and resources to evaluating this aspect of the development in such detail.

As part of the life cycle costing process, the design team met with consultants from BSRIA to consider how the building’s Passivhaus specification might affect its life cycle output. It was reassuring to know that the early analysis proved that the Passivhaus specification has life cycle benefits. You can watch a film about our workshop below:

 

Following the initial life cycle study, we followed up with a workshop that included a mixed group of various representatives from the client team. We learnt more about which issues were of particular interest to the various client representatives, such as predicted energy costs, climate change considerations, maintenance, robustness of filters and the type of finishes used. The debate did not simply focus on the initial capital costs, but also about legacy issues, robustness and replacement. We covered a full range of topics, including energy source, landscape materials, PV and roofing, lighting and floor finishes. The client maintenance team fed back to the group about their current issues and concerns too.

BSRIA's Peter Tse at the workshop

BSRIA’s Peter Tse at the workshop

What was interesting following such detailed debate was we were able to address the long term issues and this changed our initial concepts within the life cycle analysis. Our changes have made our project report totally specific and the real use and maintenance scenarios follow the life of the building. For example, how often timber windows will be re-painted, how often timber floors will be sanded and sealed and whether the LED light fittings will be able to handle the lamp life and transformer life claims. The workshop allowed the group to ensure that the life cycle analysis is extremely relevant and targeted to this specific project and we will now be able to use the information garnered during the process to shape the scheme over the next few months when detailed design commences.

This landmark project is part-funded by the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund (the largest single ERDF project in the region in the 2007-2015 funding round) in addition to funding from UEA, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and BRE.

An intelligent building is one that doesn’t make its occupants look like idiots

Air conditioning controls in an office in Adelaide

I’ve spent about nearly 20 years in the post-occupancy evaluation (POE) of buildings, many of which were designed to be sustainable and low energy. Some even claimed to be intelligent buildings. If only they were. Sadly, as many working in POE will despairingly concur, unmanageable complexity is the enemy of good performance.

It’s important to remember that the term intelligent building is very much the lingua franca of the controls and building automation community. It’s not a natural phrase in architectural and engineering lexicons. You won’t find many clients using it either. It’s also a very ‘nineties’ term, like its not-so-distant relation, sick building syndrome (which, somewhat ironically, seems to have died a death). Most of the design community is now working to the ‘keep-it-simple, fabric-first’ definition of intelligence. Why? Because the high-tech approach has proved to be a mirage.

Time and time again, almost without exception, systems and technologies that rely on complex automation in order to achieve energy savings usually fail because practice doesn’t mirror design theory. Practice is a heady mix of:

  • Over-complicated design with little understanding or appreciation of what occupants really want
  • Design that is difficult to apply in the real world, leading to poor detailing, poor installation quality, inadequate commissioning, and the unwitting introduction of technical risks by contractual and product interfaces that go unnoticed until it’s too late
  • Incompatibility of components that require constant adjustment or re-work
  • Over-sensitive and/or hard to adjust controls and settings
  • Excessive need for management vigilance over systems that were assumed by designers and the supply chain to be fit-and-forget, but which become fit-and-manage in practice,
  • General lack of usability, compounded by false assumptions that occupants will take an interest in controlling and optimising the operation of building systems, where frankly they don’t want the responsibility
  • Unexpected consequences and revenge effects: systems modulating automatically annoying occupants, systems that don’t allow enough occupant override, or which people don’t understand because the controls are not intuitive to use,
  • Systems that default to an energy-saving condition rather than putting occupant expectations first (in severe cases causing a breakdown in relations between facilities managers motivated to maintain set-points come what may, exacerbated by a professional belief that things are best controlled centrally)
  • The creation of a maintenance and aftercare dependency culture, where the building owner is dependent on expensive call-outs to maintain or modify the settings of digital systems for which they do not have the expertise to maintain, nor the access rights (and software) to modify themselves.

Is all this intelligent or just stupid?

The essential question a building designer needs to answer is simply this:  what problem are you trying to solve? The solution needs to be the simplest, the most appropriate, the least costly, and the most robust and reliable.  

Designers need to understand more about what end-users actually like and dislike about buildings and their systems. Although making things simple may not be the top of every designer’s list, they need to remember that buildings are intended for people – they are a means to an end not an end in themselves. Automation, in itself, should not be a goal. Building intelligence should therefore, above all else, lead to intelligible and sensible systems. Those systems shouldn’t challenge, they shouldn’t alienate, and they shouldn’t lock building owners into an expensive maintenance dependency.

Most of all, automation mustn’t disenfranchise occupants from making decisions about their working conditions, and prevent them acting upon them. It’s important to give occupants what they actually want, not what they don’t want but what designers think they ought to have.

As the author Guy Browning said: Most problems are people problems, and most people problems are communication problems. If you want to solve a communication problem, go and give someone a damn good listening to…

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