The Lyncinerator on… Bathroom taps

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

Don’t get me started.  We’ve all been here.  You’re out and about, maybe having a meal, going shopping or visiting offices, and you have to use an unfamiliar bathroom.   You approach the basin to undertake that most basic of human hygiene tasks, washing your hands.  And looking around, you realise you have absolutely no idea how to turn on the tap…  and in many cases, you have absolutely no idea where the tap is.  If you are lucky, there is an obvious spout from which the water should come out.  However in many cases, the detective work starts here – the spout might not actually be in a tap, it might be be under the shelf, or embedded in the granite.  Second detective task:  getting the water to flow.  Sometimes it is a button.  Sometimes a toggle. Sometimes something to turn.  Sometimes a sensor – which sometimes works.  Let’s assume you have managed to actually get some water to use, and you can start on your third detective task – getting the temperature you want.  Often helpful “danger” notices warn you that the hot water is hot (really Sherlock??  – well, I guess putting up a notice is easier than sorting out the supply issue). Clearly many, tap designers are a fan of puzzles, and assume you are too.  No clues to indicate how to adjust temperature, no blue or red symbol to help you out.  You have to eliminate the suspects until you find a way that works.  And after the application of a lot of thought and puzzling, hopefully you get to wash your hands.

Presumably someone thought these taps look great – but ‘clean lines’ are triumphing over clean hands. Whilst this functional obfuscation is frustrating for the average user, it is nigh on impossible for people with learning disabilities, confusion or dementia, something that we can expect to see more of in an aging population. It leads me to wonder what the tap designers and those who chose the bathroom fittings were thinking about.  Probably not the user.

Why should you have to solve a series of problems in order to undertake such a basic operation as washing your hands?

Surely the purpose of designing a functional object is to get it to work, and that requires a combination of form, technology and human behaviour.  The human / technology interface is a critical element of design.  It is irritation with taps that has prompted my thinking, but it led me to wider thinking about the design of buildings and their systems, and a series of questions which maybe we should use as a checklist.

Human error is cited as one of the problems leading to poor building performance, but isn’t it really about design error?  Are we more concerned with what it looks like rather than how it will work?  Are we introducing complexity because we can, rather than because we should?  Why don’t different systems work with each other? Are we thinking about the different potential users?  Do we understand the behaviour and expectations of the people who will use the building or are we expecting them to mould to the needs of the building? Is design that confuses sections of the population acceptable?   Are we seeking to enable intuitive use or are we setting brain teasers? Do we care enough?

We should wash our hands of poor design.  But once we have washed them we have to dry them.  And you should see this hand dryer.  Don’t get me started…

Lynne Ceeney will be contributing a bi-monthly blog on key themes BSRIA is involved in over the next year. If there’s something that ‘gets you started’ let us know and we may be able to draw focus to it in another blog. 

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. 

University of Reading Research Study: Indoor Environmental Quality and occupant well-being

Gary Middlehurst is a post-graduate student at the University of Reading's School of Construction Management and the Technologies for Sustainable Built Environments

Gary Middlehurst is an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) student at the University of Reading’s School of Construction Management and the Technologies for Sustainable Built Environments (TSBE)

Looking at a new approach for determining indoor environmental quality (IEQ) factors and their effects upon building occupants, BSRIA has provided the University of Reading’s School of Construction Management and the Technologies for Sustainable Built Environments (TSBE) Centre access to their Bracknell office building known as the “blue building”.

 IEQ factors are proven to affect occupant well-being and business performance, however, for the first time, actual environmental and physiological field measurements will be compared. New research therefore has been developed by the University of Reading, which will seek to understand these relationships and the potential impacts of known IEQ factors on perceived levels of occupant satisfaction and well-being.

Understanding fundamentally how IEQ factors can affect building users, will allow system designers to finally visualise occupant well-being, personal satisfaction and productivity as part of a holistic business performance model. Based upon empirical measured IEQ factors and surveyed occupant data, the research hypothesis proposes that high-density occupation can reduce office workplace environmental footprints significantly when physiological impacts are understood.

The research methodology brings together measured environmental characteristics, physiological performance measurements, POE survey responses, and then uses an Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) to assess existing workplace designs.

Gary Middlehurst blogReducing operational costs and increasing occupant satisfaction and well-being is seen as a distinct competitive advantage, however, businesses remain focused towards meeting the challenges of energy security, demand side management and carbon commitments. The research, therefore, will provide empirical data to create informed business decisions focused upon these challenges. This is done by increasing the importance of well-being and by defining performance as a key metric.

Field research is currently underway on the top floor within the “blue building”, where 4 willing volunteers are participating in physiological sensory measurements and POE response surveys. The project will be running for 12-months, with the initial current 2-week data acquisition period being repeated a further 3 times during winter, spring and summer of 2015/16.

The research is also being conducted at two other similar office environments in Manchester and London, and seeks to support the hypothesis that hi-density workplaces are a further sustainable step in designing and operating more efficient and effective intelligent buildings.

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