Contractors can’t build well without clients that lead

Did anyone see the recent news story on the Edinburgh PFI schools with structural failures? In 2016 we shouldn’t be constructing buildings with feeble brickwork. We have Victorian and Edwardian schools that have been standing for over 100 years without these problems. More ironically we have 1960s CLASP schools – built on a budget with the flimsiest of constructions – still standing and performing their role well after their sell-by date. OK, they’re usually freezing in winter and boiling in summer, with asbestos in places a power drill shouldn’t reach, but at least they’re still standing.

The reasons for these high profile failures are easy to park at the door of the PFI process. One can blame cost-cutting, absence of site inspections, and lack of quality control. Some even say that the ceding of Building Control checks to the design and build contractor is a root cause: site labour can’t be trusted to mark their own exam paper when their primary interest is to finish on time and under budget.

Some commentators blame the design process, and bemoan the loss of days of the Building Schools for the Future programme when design quality was overseen by the Commission for Architecture in the Built Environment (CABE). The erstwhile CABE may have tried to be a force for good, but project lead times become ridiculously long and expensive. And would it have prevented structural failures? Hardly likely.

The one cause of these failures that doesn’t get enough press coverage is the important client leadership and quality championing. It can be argued that clients get what clients are willing to pay for, and there’s no industry like the construction industry for delivering something on the cheap. The cost-cutting, the emphasis on time and cost at the expense of quality control – all this can be pinned on a client base that does not lead, demand, oversee, and articulate what it wants well enough to prevent the desired product being delivered at the wrong level of quality at the wrong price.

Which means that clients have to a) get wiser on what can go wrong, b) get smarter with their project management, and c) articulate what they want in terms of performance outcomes. Truly professional designers recognise this, and are prepared to guide their clients through the shark-infested waters of writing their employers requirements. But once that is done the client’s job is not over. They can’t simply hand the job over to the main contractor and turn their back until the job is complete. They need to be closely involved every step of the way – and keep key parties involved beyond practical completion and into the all-importance aftercare phase.

Soft Landings provides a chassis on which focus on performance outcomes can be built. The chassis provides the client with a driving seat to ensure that standards are maintained, along with a shared construction team responsibility to make sure the building is fit for purpose.  The forthcoming BSRIA conference Soft Landings in London on 23 June is a good opportunity to learn how this can be done. It will focus on workshops where problems can be aired and solutions worked through. It will be led by experts in the field who can suggest practical solutions for real-world projects. Why not book a place for you and a client? For more information visit the BSRIA website. 

How to procure Soft Landings

BG 45/2013 Soft Landings procurement Guide

BG 45/2013 Soft Landings procurement Guide

BSRIA has just launched its latest guidance on the Soft Landings graduated handover process.   How to Procure Soft Landings – guidance for clients, consultants and contractors is designed to help clients and their professional and building teams frame their Soft Landings requirements in a consistent and structured manner.

 The guide is a response to two clear trends in the use of Soft Landings. Primarily, clients aren’t sure what they are asking for when they call for it in tenders. Construction firms are seeing wide differences in client requirements. The initiated clients may spell it out, but for every expert client there are 20 who simply ask for Soft Landings without a clear idea of what it is.

 Many builders and contractors, particularly those not up with current thinking, are similarly clueless on how best to respond. That’s one of the downsides with an open-source protocol – the viral spread of Soft Landings is a good thing, but a lack of certification and control means that the uninitiated can easily catch a cold.

 Second, Soft Landings is being adopted by central government as a formal procurement policy. This is Government Soft Landings (otherwise known as GSL), a Cabinet Office-inspired interpretation of Soft Landings for government clients. While it’s not a million miles away from the official version published by BSRIA and the Usable Buildings Trust, GSL takes a more facilities management perspective of the process and focusses far more on getting guaranteed outcomes from the construction industry. GSL is slated to be mandated for central government projects in 2016, along with the adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM), with which Soft Landings is well-suited.

 So what we have, then, are commercial clients still a little confused in their (voluntary) adoption of Soft Landings. On top of that is an incoming group of government clients, building anything from schools to prisons to aircraft hangers,  for whom Soft Landings is a huge unknown but who will be mandated to adopt it. BSRIA’s view is that it might be a good idea to lay out the best ways of expressing Soft Landings in client requirements, pre-qualification questionnaires, and invitations to tender, so that the clients and industry alike get greater consistency in Soft Landings projects from the very outset.  

 The procurement guide has benefited substantially from the Soft Landings User Group, a BSRIA-run team of clients, architects, consultants and contractors who have learnt from experience on Soft Landings projects what works well and what doesn’t. This learning has been used to create practical, generic requirements for Soft Landings activities that can be used in project documentation. 

 A body like the User Group is absolutely vital for the practical development of Soft Landings. BSRIA knows it doesn’t have all the answers, and in any case should not dictate how Soft Landings is put into operation on real projects. Each project has its own needs and objectives, and each form of procurement throws up its own set of opportunities and challenges. The trick is to find out what works in each context, and try and find ways round thorny issues like novation and cost-cutting for instance, both of which can compromise the best of intentions.

 The guide provides specifically-worded requirements for each step in each of the five stages of Soft Landings.  The guidance is split into three sections, with requirements worded for clients appointing professional designers, clients appointing main contractors/builders, and contractors appointing sub-contractors.  Inevitably, there is some repetition, but the guide gets round that at relevant points by referring the reader to sections in the guide where a specific requirement is more logically located. 

Stage 3 - Pre-handover

Stage 3 – Pre-handover

The example shown is typical. Energy metering installations are proving to be a major problem – they are installed to satisfy Building Regulations, but are often not set up in a way that makes them useful. Although the Soft Landings Framework calls for an energy metering strategy, the procurement guide goes a step further by spelling out what should be provided, in this case at the pre-handover stage. Each requirement is supported by explanatory text that gives the main contractor, in this instance, some background context and the reasons for the requirement.

 Some Soft Landings stages may have more than one worded requirement. Some optional requirements have also been provided, for instance in the aftercare stages where it may be important to spell out precisely who should be involved and for how long.

 For example, under the core requirements for main contractors appointing sub-contractors, contractors have the option of requiring a subcontractor to be retained to assist the client and other members of the project team during handover, and afterwards to monitor the building’s performance. Some sub-contractors may be required to be based on site full-time during the initial aftercare period to assist with end-user queries and to undertake fine-tuning of systems. This would not typically apply to a ductwork sub-contractor, but it would usually apply to a controls sub-contractor. More critically, it could apply to any contractor whose systems or components come with automatic controls, particularly those with bespoke communication protocols (seemly most of them) which can only be adjusted by the supplier after payment of a fat call-out fee. If you’re nodding at this point, you know how it is. The Soft Landings procurement guide now covers this issue, and many others like it.

 An opportunity has been taken to fill gaps in the Soft Landings Framework, published back in 2009 when practical experience was a bit thin on the ground. For example, the guide contains a generic design work stage which was not included in the Framework. The procurement guide also provides more detailed advice on principles of procurement and tendering, how to include Soft Landings in tender processes and interviews, and some advice on the best way to budget for Soft Landings.

 The timing of the guidance also coincided fortuitously with the publication of the 2013 RIBA Plan of Work, which gave BSRIA the opportunity to align Soft Landings stages against the new RIBA stages, and those published by the CIC. There’s also a public sector Soft Landings decision tree included to help government and local authority clients dovetail their procurement requirements with Soft Landings requirements.

 Building performance research is identifying many critical aspects of procurement where clients and the construction industry need to tighten up their respective acts. The commissioning manager is a critical role, and the earlier they can be appointed the better. The procurement guide offers some advice on how to do this, and what their role should be in Soft Landings.

 Soft Landings is not job in itself but a set of roles and responsibilities shared among the client and project team. However, on large jobs particularly a co-ordinator may be needed to make sure the administration is carried out. Paperwork – which could include updating operational risk registers in BIM models for example – needs to be done by someone. If this isn’t covered, Soft Landings might fail ‘for want of a nail’.

 BSRIA hopes that How to Procure Soft Landings – guidance for clients, consultants and contractors will provide all that clients and project teams need to put Soft Landings into operation.  It is a practical guide to accompany the Soft Landings Framework – still the industry bible on what Soft Landings is about, and why you should adopt it.

 With all this talk about the performance gap between design and building operation, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the act of procuring a building and constructing it is a team enterprise. No-one goes into the process with the intention of doing a bad job.  Events, like many things in life, can conspire against it. What Soft Landings tries to do is provide toeholds for everyone involved to do a better job in the face of budgetary, time and skills pressures.  How to Procure Soft Landings – guidance for clients, consultants and contractors provides a whole load more toeholds for everyone.

 BSRIA BG45/2013 How to Procure Soft Landings – guidance for clients, consultants and contractors is available from BSRIA bookshop.

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…

How will you invest in Soft Landings?

Budgeting for better building handover

Soft Landings is an open source process designed to overcome problems after handover. It is arguably an increasingly important part of procurement philosophy. Three year periods of aftercare are regularly being considered a core element of project plans; however, with Soft Landings comes great responsibility. The question is whose responsibility is it to include Soft Landings and ensure it gets done?

All clients want high performing buildings but are not always willing to pay additional costs for the aftercare process. On the other hand the building industry has a right to demand additional fees if they are taking on more responsibilities and higher risks. This standoff won’t resolve itself without some easing of tensions.

As an advocate of better building handover, I believe that both clients and contractors need to change their expectations. More fundamentally, both sides of the contractual fence need to recognise that although they may share an ambition for a high-performing building, it does not become such until it is proved to be. This means troubleshooting the building and fine-tuning it way beyond resolving snags and defects.

Once a client acknowledges that it wants its project to adopt Soft Landings, it needs to ensure that the methodology is expressed throughout the entire process. The client should not assume that the contractor will take responsibility for it all; BSRIA has seen a number of documents that puts the responsibility of Soft Landings completely with the contractors when it should definitely be a result of negotiations between all parties involved. A client also needs to be specific in what they expect from their consultants and sub-contractors. Therefore such a project should unquestionably be a collaborative effort with equal responsibility and realistic expectations shared by all.

However, this commitment can’t come for free, which begs a question of where the costs lie, and what they amount to.

Setting aside a budget

It is essential that clients acknowledge that a budget needs to be set aside for Soft Landings, especially if they want a three year period of aftercare. A reasonable place to start is by feeling a nominal budget and then to discuss how it can be best invested, all projects are different but BSRIA believes that 0.1% of the total contract value is a good place to start. Then comes the hardest part, how do you distribute such a budget?

The budget needs to include the three year aftercare period but also other additional Soft Landings activities required during the design and construction process, such as periodic reality-checking. It is also important for clients to note that they will have additional costs at later points if they take into consideration the need for independent building performance monitoring. So, overall, does the 0.1 per cent rule hold true? By and large it’s a good place to start.

If the budget proves inadequate for the client’s ambitions, then those ambitions either need to be scaled back, or the budget increased. Undoubtedly, all parties to the aftercare process stand to gain from the lessons learned, so it is absolutely in their professional interest to meet each other halfway. 

If an agreement and a clear plan can be put into place early then it is entirely possible for such a project to be successful.

To gain a better understanding Soft Landings procurement and budgets read the full article here:

 http://www.bsria.co.uk/news/soft-landings-budgets/

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