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.

 

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. 

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