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Soft Landings goes globalMarch 2011

The Soft Landings initiative is gaining ground both in the UK and abroad, with Australia keen to adopt the new professionalism of project feedback and follow-through, as Roderic Bunn explains.

Changing an industrial culture is always a gradual process, particularly true when it comes to the conservative UK construction industry. It takes a bit of pushing and pulling, with exhortation and regulation operating together.

Back in the 1990s it required three government-sponsored reports 1 two by Sir Michael Latham and a follow-up by Sir John Egan 1 for partnering and framework agreements, for example, to become common practice. Even so, primordial practices of pay-when-paid and retentions are still around. Just ask any sub-contractor.

So we know that Soft Landings is on a slow burn. In the last 18 months since BSRIA published Soft Landings Framework, interest in adopting graduated handover for buildings 1 and all the planning that's needed during the early stages of a project to make it happen 1 has risen steadily. Clued-up clients are demanding it, canny main contractors are embracing it, and consultants have realised that doing it won't wreck their PI cover. Even more recently Soft Landings has become a recognised credit on BREEAM 2011 (see slide 19 of a recent presentation held on the BREEAM website).

Lots of work remains to be done: we need enlightened procurement, and better forms of contract that are flexible enough to allow Soft Landings to happen. Financial arguments need to be constructed to convince the wary that remaining engaged after building handover won't add cost and risk.

Soft Landings also needs a budget. Where capital budgets are separated from operational budgets, one cannot easily be used to fund the other. The cost benefits need to be demonstrated.

Soft Landings is now being recognised at the highest levels. In Autumn 2010, the Government's report Low Carbon Construction (News, page 4) recommended that "Government and the industry should routinely embed the principles of Soft Landings into their contracts and processes, so that a building is not regarded as complete until it performs in accordance with its design criteria."

The report also called for a programme of independently-conducted studies of the energy performance of buildings in the public estate, built since the introduction of the 2006 revision of the Building Regulations.

This is very helpful, but of course the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is already investing £8 million into building performance assessments over the next four years. TSB is specifically looking for buildings under construction where the project team are prepared to adopt Soft Landings. So, again, the wheels of change are moving in the Soft Landings direction, and picking up speed.

Soft Landings User Group

BSRIA is playing its part in accelerating the take-up of Soft Landings through its Soft Landings User Group. This body of Soft Landings practitioners, comprising around 20 clients, consultants, and contractors, convenes quarterly to share ideas and experiences and identify areas for development.

Guidance for contractors and sub-contractors is needed urgently. Clients and main contractors are asking m&e contractors and specialist contractors to deliver Soft Landings, but no guidance is being issued to them, and there is also a high risk that it will be made a contractual requirement as opposed to a shared activity. Integrated teams have a much better chance of making Soft Landings succeed. Delegating responsibilities in contracts simply won't work.

BSRIA has set up a contractors' group, working within the Soft Landings User Group, to develop guidance for contractors specific to Soft Landings. Led by John Whyte of MJN Colston, the contractors' group intends to generate guidance for main contractors who advise and appoint m&e and specialist contractors, and also for sub-contractors, who need to know how to respond. The sub-group also aims to devise pre-qualification and tendering guidance, and clauses that can be used in forms of appointment.

Reality-checking procedures

Guidance is also required on reality-checking design ambitions as projects progress through design to construction and handover. Design is fluid, and things change over time. Assumptions made at the early design stages 1 particularly outputs from thermal models and the like 1 may no longer be valid as outline design turns into detailed specifications, and specifications turn into actual products and systems.

BSRIA is working on a reality-checking procedure called Pitstopping. This is a step-by-step process that project teams can follow to ensure they don't lose sight of the client's original objectives 1 and the needs of the end users 1 when designing and procuring buildings. This applies equally to passive technologies and their user controls as it does to complex and often management -intensive renewable energy systems.

Pitstopping will help project teams plan for preparation for handover, commissioning, energy monitoring end-user training, and fine-tuning during building operation. BSRIA guidance is planned for publication in early 2011.

Soft Landings has undoubtedly entered the construction lexicon. Far-sighted consultants, builders and contractors are signing up to it enthusastically, and 1 by and large 1 in practice not just in principle. Those who pay it lip service will get found out, so it's best that it's properly embedded in the procurement policy of clients and main contractors, rather than just be a policy of instructing others in the supply chain to deliver it.

As government departments wake up to the potential of the Soft Landings way of working, questions about regulation, certification, and acceditation begin to surface. These things may have a place, but great care will be needed to prevent Soft Landings from mutating into yet another tick-box assessment system, or to become too deeply rooted in the low carbon agenda.

Soft Landings is not just about low carbon design. It's about buildings, and how they can be made to perform. It calls for greater customer focus, with well-informed and well-expressed client's requirements, thorough briefing, closer forecasting of building performance, and extra care during construction, handover, and operation.

Targets should therefore not be just about energy and carbon, but also about maintainability, usability, manageability, occupant comfort, and productivity. in response, the construction industry needs to embrace a new professionalism, where performance evaluation, follow-through and feedback become routine.

Roderic Bunn is a principal consultant at BSRIA and a building performance evaluator for the Technology Strategy Board. For more details on Soft Landings contact

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