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/

Measuring happiness: what do your customers value?

Competitive tender is the norm in our building and construction world. Awarding a contract to the lowest price bidder may seem to be both the easiest and fairest way. However, there are adverse side effects to this practice. The most obvious issue is that the whole industry becomes far too cost-focused. Everybody is trying to be more productive whilst delivering the job at the lowest cost, and as a result they are sometimes cutting corners without considering the long-term impact of this attitude, including on their customers.

Customer satisfaction is widely known as being crucial to a company’s success, and can impact the following areas within a company:

  • Driving market share
  • Customer retention ratings
  • Stock price
  • Process improvement

Customer satisfaction surveys can provide a useful wake-up call if you are not really satisfying your customers, and also provide a good way forward for process improvement. Surveys can establish areas for development in a company and help you to stay ahead of the competition (techniques include the Likert scale, and tools like the ACSI, below).

Competitive Advantage

Recent research studies show an important relationship between customer satisfaction and economic performance (Fornell et al., 2006). Firms that receive positive customer feedback are likely to improve the level and stability of their net cash flows, and even benefit from high return with low risk.

Customer satisfaction, as measured by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), can be correlated to the market value of equity. It has therefore been suggested that securities research needs pay closer attention to customer satisfaction and the strength of customer relationships. From a corporate CEO perspective, it is clear that the cost of managing customer relationships and the cash flows they produce is fundamental to value creation.

Customer Value Models

Achieving higher customer satisfaction may require more resources and incur higher costs. So, it’s important to invest well. With data from a carefully designed customer satisfaction survey, we can develop a Customer Value Model for our customers and find out what services or produces they most value.  For example, should you invest in hiring more engineers or instead invest in new technologies? Customer Value Models can help a company focus on the highest value areas, and hopefully benefit from the bigger financial return.

Example:

A client has asked for a quick response on a service request. A.) Your engineer could spend a few days preparing a thorough quotation whilst the customer is waiting. B.) Alternatively the engineer could respond with a basic quote and deliver the service with a short lead time.

You know your customers – your Customer Value Model indicates that they place a high value on quick results. Go with B.) and as a result the client will feel you listened to their needs, and your company will be the winner.

Yes, it can be that simple! Do you have a model in place – and when’s the last time you measured your customer satisfaction? Are they happy?

The next question is how can you put a proper process in place to work things out?

References

[1] Claes Fornell, Sunil Mithas, Forrest V. Morgeson III, & M.S. Krishnan (2006), “Customer Satisfaction and Stock Prices: High Returns, Low Risk,” Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 70 (January 2006), 3-14

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[2] Claes Fornell, Donald C. Cook Professor of Business Administration and Director of the National Quality Research Centre

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