Soft Landings – it’s not all about the cake!

A guest post by Stuart Thompson of Morgan Sindall

Soft Landings Workshop

Soft Landings Workshop

Following on from my previous post regarding the UEA low carbon project I’d like to share our progress with the inclusion of Soft Landings.

Last week our soft landings champions met for our fifth workshop, habitually in the cafe over some cake. Rod Bunn from BSRIA joined us this time to check that we were still on track, almost a year after he helped me to introduce the soft landings framework to our UEA project stakeholders. We are in Stage 2 of the framework and we are really getting a grasp of what it’s all about, Stage 2 focuses on design development, reviews similar projects and details how the building will work. Over the last two months we held some ‘reality checking’ workshops on various topics and have gathered some great feedback on our RIBA Stage D design. This will be used to shape the detail as we move into RIBA Stage E design.

During our soft landing gatherings, the champions are challenging ourselves with thoughts like:

  • are the BREEAM Outstanding & PHPP figures really relevant to our building users? How do we demonstrate their great value to the users?
  •  ensure that our soft landings champions are empowered, to ensure that they are accommodated by the wider project team
  • can we recognise and utilise people’s talents and abilities and identify the environment in which they function most effectively?
  • has the soft landings process captured all of the creative ideas from the wider project team? 

We are also looking to create a back-casting report on Post Occupancy Evaluation and occupancy satisfaction by the

Soft landings delivery plan

Soft landings delivery plan

next meeting. We glanced through a few examples of what the client would like to see. Thinking about this report now (that will be needed in say 2 years time), is an example of how the  progressive, forward-thinking approach of soft landings will provide benefit to the client at no additional cost.

Our soft landings meetings are productive, I look forward to these, and it’s not simply about the cake!

Have you included Soft Landings in any of your projects? What are the challenges and achievements you’ve faced?

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…

Room temperature measurement

Measuring temperature in a room is one of the things we do most often as building services engineers.  It seems straightforward, but is it really as simple as it appears?

Specifications often state that a certain temperature must be maintained in a building, but what does this mean? Designers need to know what they are designing for. Contractors need to know where to put the sensors. Commissioning engineers need to know how to confirm the building meets the specification and last, but not least the occupants need to be satisfied and comfortable.

I would like to know what you think and what you do for temperature measurement….

  • Do you measure air temperature, radiant temperature, environmental temperature or something else?
  • What height do you measure it?
  • Where in the room? At desks or in the centre?
  • At the worst spot, the best spot or the average?
  • How long do you measure for?
  • Should you take the average over time, the lowest or the highest?
  • How long should you leave the system to warm up or cool down?
  • What do you use to measure temperature; liquid in glass bulb, thermistor, thermocouple or infrared?
  • How is your thermometer or temperature sensor calibrated and how often?
  • Should we really be specifying temperature at all?  It is often occupant comfort that matters most.

This might lead to a Best Practice Guide or a series of guides because we could also look at other measurements for building services such as water temperature, humidity and air flow. You can feedback using the form below or by commenting on this post.

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