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How to glide a buildingMay 2008

A new scope of professional service, Soft Landings, could radically change the way buildings are designed and handed over. Roderic Bunn explains how a code of practice could encourage a culture of professional aftercare, system fine-tuning and post-occupancy evaluation.

Afraid of flying? Terrified your airliner's engines will go on the fritz mid-flight? Consider this: The airline industry is one of the safest modes of transport per passenger mile. Health and safety records show that you've more chance of being critically injured by tea cosies or toilet seats than by being strapped in a pressurised alloy tube and flung up to thirty thousand feet by two hissing bombs.

If only recent airport facilities could boast such performance. Just look at the recent debacle at the £4.3 billion Terminal 5. Whatever the reason for the building's problems, it was clearly not ready for use. It needed more proving, testing, and training for staff way before any conveyor belt saw a suitcase.

The final cost in lost business will take months to unravel, but rest assured it will be counted in millions. Millions that could have been spent fine-tuning the building and ensuring that people were familar with it, not on day one of BA taking occupation, but on the day it was ready to be used.

Terminal 5 was a headline-grabber for all the wrong reasons. But many, many more buildings, not in the public eye, are being put into service without full and complete commissioning. They are often partly complete and not even taken out for a test flight before their occupants sit down, strap in, and turn on all they've got.

So, what to do? Over the years there have been various suggestions for improving the in-use performance of buildings, ranging from the collaborative (getting facilities managers involved in design) to the punitive (contract retentions), but none of them have truly modified the industry's genetic code. What we need is a fresh, additional scope of service that closes the credibility gap between what building designers intend to happen and what happens in practice.

Ironically, given the trouble at Terminal 5, the proposed service that may achieve this goes by the title Soft Landings. The underlying objective is to obtain more certainty in delivering buildings that achieve a closer match between the expectations of the users and client, and the aspirations of the design team.

Soft Landings not only describes a way of passing a building smoothly from the build phase to the occupation phase, but also a mechanism for ensuring that the operational needs of the building are fully considered and appreciated at the design stage. In essence, Soft Landings ensures a graduated, gentle touchdown for a new building, not a painful belly-flop.

Introducing Soft Landings
In Soft Landings, the duties of the whole team are augmented during particular key stages: briefing, pre-handover, and professional aftercare. Involvement with users is increased, before and after handover, while a Soft Landings team is resident during the users' settling-in period.

In the aftercare period, actual building performance is monitored and reviewed for up to three years post-handover, using various post-occupancy evaluation tools. This creates better feedback to improve the product and the building's management, and offers a natural route to post-occupancy evaluation.

The aftercare service is an additional paid duty. Issues for action by the client's team are also clarified and augmented, along with roles and responsibilities and sign-offs.

Briefing and commissioning have to be re-thought, because the environmental performance targets will be set early on and monitored for up to three years.

Soft Landings documentation
There is always a temptation to treat design tools as 'point and go', as if the act of ticking a box magics away problems. Soft Landings isn't tick-box. What you get out is proportional to what you put in.

Soft Landings relies on two resources: the people themselves, and a set of documents that define how the people define their roles and responsibilities.

Given that each and every project has a different set of contextual circumstances, the Soft Landings documentation has more blank boxes than filled-in boxes. The whole point is for a project team to populate the blank forms in the very early stages of a project. Advice on how to do this is given in supporting material.

The 'scope of service' documents are designed to stand alongside conventional contract terms. The briefing and pre-handover stages focus primarily on the clarification of duties (rather than on adding unnecessary new ones), while the duties in the aftercare stages are specific to those stages and require additional fees.

Briefing stage
Briefing is the most crucial stage of procurement, as the seeds of success or failure are sown at that point. The more that time is made available for constructive dialogue, the greater the chance of success.

The process of briefing is often more important than the product. It's vital that the emerging expectations and performance targets result in a well-structured, logical and recorded context.

There are three sub-stages to the briefing stage: definition of roles and responsibilities, intermediate evaluation, and the setting of environmental and energy performance targets. Those targets themselves raise issues that need to be resolved:

  • The design solution must be within the ability of the users to control it 
  • There will be a greater dependence on a building management system 
  • Commonsense must be applied to averaging out the expectations.

Design for manageability should be a guiding principle.

Pre-handover stage
Many of the common post-handover problems can be traced back to inadequate demonstration of interfaces and systems, particularly with building management systems and similar complex electronic controls. Soft Landings stresses the need for the design and construct team to spend more time on these systems.

The Soft Landings pre-handover workplan requires the professional team to consider the factors critical to a successful handover, such as a commissioning records check, training programmes for operating and maintenance staff, migration planning, and environmental and energy logging.

Soft Landings requires the professional team to compile a building users guide, covering the operation of heating, lighting and cooling systems, and the energy and water efficiency features of the building. It is vital to explain to users the principles of design and operation - especially where they're not obvious.

Soft Landings recognises that the first two months of a building's operation are critical. Minor problems can so easily turn into long-term chronic drawback unless they are resolved early. The Soft Landings protocol therefore sets out specific aftercare requirements for the first eight weeks following handover.

The activities include review meetings, the logging and reviewing of energy use to provide the basis for comparison with the energy plan, and the fine-tuning of systems to cater for seasonal changes and to match any emergent patterns of use.

It follows that team members should have good people skills, a hands-on approach and be able to solve problems. The latter will require continuity with the project.

Simple walkabouts are valuable as a way of spotting emerging issues and to observe how the occupants use the building. Informal focus-group user meetings should be held to enable the design and construct team to explain to users why they are there.

There should be a formal launch of a building users guide, along with a helpline and/or an intranet bulletin-board.

Technical guidance on the building should be available on the day of occupation, and this should be updated or amended in the light of issues that emerge over the first eight weeks of occupation. The facilities team may be expanding or moving over from an existing facility, and they need to be brought into the fold.

The main focus in the first year should be on settling things down, fine-tuning and logging usage and change. Regular reviews should continue, although the residential presence of design and constructor team members may taper off fairly quickly.

Having completed the traditional defects liability period, activities during years two and three will be similar, but with the emphasis on recording the operation of the building and reviewing performance. An independent occupant satisfaction survey should occur in year two, and the results used to inform future actions. The survey can be repeated in year three to confirm the success of any remedial measures.

Financial backing and incentives
Soft Landings needs funding up-front. While it's not too difficult to argue that operational savings can significantly offset the investment required to resource Soft Landings, the traditional separation of capital expenditure from operating budgets tends to militate against it. Having said that, the costs of professional aftercare can be a very small proportion of the total construction budget.

Depending on the size and complexity of a project, Soft Landings can be funded for as little as one percent of the construction budget. This is a sum that can be agreed by all parties in a design team, and easily lost in the noise of tender variations.

For more complex projects, this process may require changes to industry forms of contract, and in work plans such as the RIBA Plan of Work. If these mechanisms can include Soft Landings as a specific contract deliverable, it might become a routine contract sum rather than an exceptional item.

It is not unreasonable to introduce financial incentives for environmental and/or energy targets. But if so, the incentives should be kept simple and free from heavy legal bolstering. They should also reflect the spirit of mutual and open co-operation.

These sums could either be built into the project contract sum or stand outside it as a liability on each side. In any case, the amount need not be very high, say, £30,000 on projects of £15-20 million in value. The sharing ratio could be predetermined, for example 20 percent each for the architect, M&E engineer and M&E contractor, and 40 percent for the building contractor.

The funding for Soft Landings should include a sum to update the operating and maintenance manuals so that they reflect changes to systems and equipment.

Next steps
BSRIA is working with industry bodies to turn Soft Landings into an industry framework or code of practice that is flexible and adaptable for application to all construction projects.

In its present, nascent form, Soft Landings will benefit from being applied to a few major projects, led by clients prepared to put the time and effort into improving the performance of their property estates.

Soft Landings offers the best opportunity for closing the loop between design expectation and operational reality. Without such a mechanism we're flying blind. Airlines wouldn't regard this as a safe mode of operation, so why should the construction industry?

In the near future the industry will be grappling with designing truly carbon-neutral buildings. Soft Landings could be one of the main mechanisms to achieve it.

For more information contact BSRIA:

Tel: +44 (0) 1344 465600


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