Construction quality could be catching up with other industries

This blog was written by Lynne Ceeney, Technical Director at BSRIA

If you order steak and chips at a restaurant, but the waiter delivers hake in strips, you would be rightly annoyed. Instinctively you blame the waiter, but it could have been a problem with the ordering software, a misreading in the kitchen or just the wrong dish being picked up.  Whatever, you would send it back – it is not what you ordered.   In new buildings, this happens all the time.  Poor communication during the briefing, design and construction process, and poor handover and operation leads to a building that doesn’t deliver the performance the client thought they had ordered in the first place.  Unlike a dinner, it’s not practical to send a building back and wait for the one you asked for to be delivered.  Instead extensive snagging lists, expensive defect resolution and defensive “best we can do” fixes by the facilities team are often used to try and get the building closer to its intended performance – and “closer” is usually the best that can be achieved. The owner and occupier end up with a disappointing building, and the designers and construction company are left with a disappointed client.  The blame chain spreads, and it’s hard to pin down the fault.

The impacts run way beyond disappointment.  Occupier discomfort impacts staff retention, and the increased societal focus on wellbeing indicates that employees will expect higher standards from their place of work.  Poor commissioning or confusing controls mean building systems that don’t work properly and need constant attention or premature replacement, as the uncomfortable working conditions impact on worker productivity.  Inefficient buildings use more energy requiring more cash and causing more carbon emissions.  In fact buildings contribute 37% of UK green house gas emissions from gas heating, and consume 67% of the electricity used in the country.  It’s no wonder that larger investors are taking much more of an interest in the sustainability and performance of buildings rather than just the upfront capital cost.  Good buildings are an asset, poor buildings become an expensive liability in terms of operating costs and void periods. Competitive property markets compound this situation.

With a typical building having a life expectancy of at least 60 years, we are building in problems for this generation and the next.  We’re not great at mass retrofitting, (and the high demand for additional building stock means a capital, skills and material shortage) so we need to get it right first time.  Effective management tools with this aim abound in other sectors, for example DRIFT, (Doing it Right First Time), Six Sigma, LEAN and Zero Defects.  We see the approach being used in food manufacture, car making, pilot training, and patient healthcare, to name but a few sectors.  So what about construction?

Soft Landings is the equivalent tool for the construction sector.  This tried and tested process was developed to help to produce better performing buildings – not necessarily exceptional in performance, but buildings that deliver in operation what they were designed to do in the first place.  Getting a building right requires a shared focus on operational performance of the building right from the start, and throughout the design, construction and commissioning process.  The use of Soft Landings delivers this shared focus, improving communication and collaboration between all parties in the building delivery chain.  It helps everyone to avoid the pitfalls that diminish operational building performance. It fits with RIBA stages, integrates into existing construction processes, and does not require a specific building procurement model.  You can download Soft Landings guidance from the BSRIA website .

However it is always helpful to find out about real world experiences, and to talk to others who are using Soft Landings to help them to produce better buildings.  With this in mind, BSRIA have organised the 2017 Soft Landings Conference (June 16th 2017 at RIBA, Portland Place, London W1B 1AD). You will hear from a range of speakers from different parts of the construction process – including clients – who will explain how they have used Soft Landings in their projects, and the value that it has delivered for their buildings.  You will also hear their hints and tips, and there will be plenty of time to ask questions and take part in discussion both in conference and over lunch.

It’s time for the construction industry to catch up with other industries in terms of quality, to produce buildings that perform as expected, through a delivery process that gets it right first time.  Soft Landings is a process that helps the delivery chain to do this.  For more information on the conference please contact our Events Manager, Tracey Tilbry.

 

Government Soft Landings

This is a blog by Peter Corbett, Principal Quality Inspector at Essex County Council

This is a blog by Peter Corbett, Principal Quality Inspector at Essex County Council

As a Local Authority employee I am well aware of the push for both savings and value for money, it is therefore reassuring to see the importance the Government is affording their version of ‘Soft Landings’.

The Cabinet Office sees soft landings as the ‘golden thread’ of BIM, rather than a delivery tool, and is looking for three key benefits from its implementation, those being; Improved Environmental Performance, Improved Financial Performance and Improved Functionality and Effectiveness.

The Government’s Soft Landings policy drawn up in September 2012 recognised that ‘The ongoing maintenance and operational cost of a building during its lifecycle far outweighs the original capital cost of construction, and GSL identifies the need for this to be recognised through early engagement in the design process.

To help the development of GSL a stewardship group was formed to which all government departments and agencies were invited. This group generally meets quarterly with around twenty department and agencies represented. It seeks to update the GSL implementation progress across departments, develop training ideas and determine ways of measuring the benefits that could be gained from the process.

GSL has been the archetypal snowball, steadily gathering pace as it moves toward 2016 when the Cabinet Office has asked for its adoption by all central government departments and agencies, and gradually increasing in size, as with each stewardship meeting more departments and agencies are in attendance.

I was fortunate enough to receive an invite to the last GSL stewardship meeting through my links with the BSRIA Soft Landings User Group and as a Local Authority representative, and was encouraged to see the enthusiastic approach to soft landings from some of the more engaged departments, they like ourselves see the advantages soft landings could offer (albeit from an FM focussed approach that more considers the ‘In Use’ benefits) and are eager for the evidence of this that case studies and their like could provide. Of course as with most matters concerning Central & indeed Local Government the journey is never straight-forward, and as could probably be expected the speed of soft landings adoption varies greatly both in levels of commitment and of development between each Government department and agency.

So what next for GSL? On Friday 7th November there was a GSL supply chain engagement day, to which all Government departments and agencies were invited and encouraged to extend invites to their design, construction and facilities management partners. Attendees were treated to seminars on what Government Soft Landings actually are, why they should be used and how they should be implemented, as well as what training and ongoing support could be provided.

Soft_Landings_logo-highIt was fairly evident from the nature of the questions from Government department representatives that there remains a lot of work to do to obtain both a participative and consistent approach across all departments, as well as the difficulty in impressing on the supply chain providers that success on a project is not merely about building to budget and programme. As pointed out by one contractors’ representative ‘We know of Soft Landings, but that’s where our knowledge ends’, a better description of what GSL actually is was requested with examples of what ‘success’ actually looks like, and also recognition that there is a clear shift from Capex to Opex in the governments construction expectations. All evidence that there is still much to do to achieve wider engagement in soft landings throughout the industry.

But there remains a high level of commitment to soft landings from the Government as evidenced by this event, and this is likely to soon have an impact on those of us in Local Government. In my own Authority we have been using the principles of soft landings in order to help improve the delivery of our projects in areas that have proved problematic; this has predominantly centred on the handover and defects resolution stages, and also end-user training on their new building. For us the ethos of soft landings has been extremely beneficial, but we have been fortunate enough to get the buy-in from our framework of contractors, again some contractors are more engaged with the practice than others, however with the Governments push for the use of soft landings it should encourage everyone’s participation in the process, and hopefully to the benefit of all involved; commissioner, client and contractor.

 

Blogger profile

My working career began early 1980’s in civil engineering, after taking various qualifications I moved into construction after an acquaintance encouraged me to become a clerk of works at the age of 21.  I joined Essex County Council initially as an assistant clerk of works and have remained with the authority for almost thirty years, latterly as the authorities Principal Quality Inspector. I have more recently acted as the construction performance manager on Essex County Council’s Contractors Framework, for which I am undertaking the role of Soft Landings champion. I am a Fellow of the Institute of Clerks of Works and the Construction Inspectorate having first joined the organisation in the 1990’s.

Design Fine Tuning?

 

Julia Evans, BSRIA Chief Executive

Julia Evans, BSRIA Chief Executive

BSRIA has been involved in many recent projects including an independent assessment of the realised performance of low energy / environmentally conscious buildings.  This includes projects associated with the Technology Strategy Board’s Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) programme.

The emerging results for more than 50 non-domestic buildings have now been analysed by BSRIA to look at what works well, and when things don’t, why this is the case.  It’s always difficult to generalise based on such a diverse building stock, ownership profile, procurement route, supply chain capabilities, and operational approach, but its clear that in many of the buildings there is a significant performance gap between design intent, and realised performance.  Analysis of such data is always a challenge.  How does one attribute, for instance, any shortfall in performance between the specification, design, construction, commissioning process, and to operational issues such as sub-optimal energy management and / or changes in operating regime such as an extension in occupancy hours.

However one lesson inferred from the analysis is that with some low carbon (and / or energy) buildings one of the unintended consequences is that sometimes the building has been finely “tuned” to minimise carbon (and / or energy), and capital costs at the expense of the building’s resilience in the face of, say, changing patterns of use or internal gains.  Put simply, if a building has been engineered to reduce energy and or carbon for a particular set of operating conditions, and one way of achieving this is to simply size ventilation, and air conditioning plant in line with those conditions, what happens if say internal gains increase as a result of higher occupancy loading?  In practice it is found that some environmental designs lack the flexibility to cope with changes in business use because of limitations built into their design.  This happens with more conventional buildings, with the difference for environmental buildings being more pronounced because the design in many cases is more finely “tuned” as we move ever closer to “near zero”, or “very low” energy / carbon buildings.

BSRIA’s experience identifies many of the good practices required to ensure environmental buildings work well, and also the impact of poor practice.  Overly sensitive design is one cause of poor performance in practice.  So the question is why do some clients and their design team include a sensitivity analysis to design services and size plant so as to ensure resilience, whereas others adopt an approach best characterised by “lowest capital, highest environmental ranking, never mind about actual performance in use”?  The likely answers are complex.  Those found by others like Latham and Egan come to mind for some instances: informed clients recruit supply chains who know their business, and both understand implications of design decisions; post-occupancy-evaluationanother is the chasm which can often occur between those who specify, procure, and lease buildings, and those who occupy and manage them.  Perhaps a third is that once a building has been occupied, too seldom is thought given to how the building will actually work in the face of changes in occupant requirements.

The question for BSRIA is how we can provide a steer and guidance to our members and the industry as to how best to ensure that we build the next generation of environmentally sensitive buildings to be even more resilient in the face of likely changes those buildings will face over their lifetime.  A building which has a very low carbon and / or energy design use, but which fails to provide a productive environment in the face of foreseeable changes in operating conditions can’t really be described as “sustainable”.

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Chief Executive, Julia Evans. For more information about BPE you can visit our website or visit the TSB’s BPE pages where you can look at case studies and methods of BPE (you may need to register to access these). 

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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