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How “soft landings” can avoid a building crash

Rod Bunn
Rod Bunn

According to Rod Bunn, a highly regarded building expert visiting from the UK, buildings don’t crash as spectacularly as planes, but they do crash. The “soft landings” process is a way to avoid the mistakes the building industry prefers to bury.

Many buildings with big green ideas actually have technology that is not working optimally – or sometimes not at all, according to Rod Bunn, a building performance expert with the UK’s Building Services Research and Information Association.

A new collaborative process to assist manage design, construction, handover and operation of buildings, however, is promising to solve the myriad issues that can lead to gaps between design intent and as built performance.

Design and delivery is only part of the equation for achieving better, more sustainable buildings, Bunn says, and tackling the issue requires a new approach that has been termed “Soft Landings”.

One of the process’s big differences is a recognition that completion isn’t really the end of the story, and there should be extended after-care by the consultants and construction team throughout the initial occupancy period to ensure long-term performance.

The Soft Landings framework was first developed in 2009 in the UK by BSRIA and the Usable Buildings trust. The Australian version, published in late 2014, was developed by BSRIA and the Australian and New Zealand Branch of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers. In the UK, Soft Landings has gained momentum there to the extent the UK government is now mandating that all central government projects must use it from 2016 onwards.

An Australian and New Zealand version of the framework has also been developed and will be formally launched in March with a series of industry seminars.

Bringing everyone to the table

WT Sustainability director Steve Hennessy, who worked on the ANZ version, told The Fifth Estate the framework requires engagement from all building stakeholders, including the owner, architect, builder, engineers and also pre-committed tenants.

The framework requires commitment beyond practical completion and commissioning, in the form of ongoing engagement by the designer and the engineering consultants once the building is occupied, so they can identify and address any issues and also learn what worked well, and what not to try next time.

He says the people who will benefit most are the building owner and tenants, but that it also enables architects and engineers to get accurate feedback.

Adversarial habits prevent learning from problems

Typical among issues in new commercial buildings in Australia are mechanical systems that are too complicated, but comments to this effect by people such as facilities managers generally do not make their way back to the engineering consultant. Nor do FM issues often reach the ears of architects.

The framework also aims to avoid flaws in the design that will make a building difficult to use, such as lifts that won’t fit waste bins kept in the basement. This type of design issue can be picked up in the early stages if the FM is involved in the process, Hennessy says.

One of the difficulties generally, he says, is that Australian construction has traditionally been a “very adversarial process”. Soft Landings aims to remedy this.

It’s largely commonsense

The problems the framework aims to prevent are “generic to any construction”, and are avoidable largely through applied commonsense,” Bunn told The Fifth Estate.

“There is no magic alchemy. In the UK, despite the approach taken to building performance – whether it’s a fabric approach or an engineering approach – we find many buildings are not really ready for occupants [on completion]. They are not finished off properly.”

This even includes some projects that have high green ideals like being zero carbon. The finding, he says, is there are some serious shortcomings in how many buildings are being delivered.

Making sure everything works

“Soft Landings is about setting buildings up for the long term,” he says. “It is about getting technologies to work.”

Bunn says the trend of “throwing technical inputs at buildings” thinking they will lead to better occupational outcomes is proving to be a false premise. His organisation has been finding that in many buildings, there are operational issues with technology including BMS systems, window operational systems and sub-metering. Some are not working effectively – or sometimes even at all – which means a building that was designed with the aim of high performance won’t achieve it.

“The more complexity we throw at a building the less likely it is to work,” Bunn says.

There needs to be guidance for users of buildings, and more attention paid to familiarisation processes and training, especially given some of the sophisticated user control systems being installed. In many cases, the designers and engineers of these are assuming that “features equals function”, whereas many users will treat them in the same way as a smart phone and only use a small number of the features, if any.

“We have got to design control systems to be far more intuitive to use.”

Buildings are not like cars – the development team needs to stay engaged

The conversation in design stages needs to begin with asking owners and tenants what it is they want the building to do. And then the development team needs to stay engaged to help them operate it; because, unlike a car, a building is not a basic turn-key and go proposition.

“Occupants of buildings aren’t as interested in buildings as the construction industry thinks they are,” Bunn says.

He says that people will tolerate a range of discomforts in terms of temperature variations, drafts and humidity as long as their basic needs for a productive workplace are met and the building doesn’t “get in their way”.

That said, he identifies some real “pinch points” in commercial space, for example, where an office designed for 200 staff is occupied by more than 300. This, he says, creates issues around lifts, toilets, parking, noise and how staff perceive the health of the space.

Wellbeing is the next big thing

The aspect of what constitutes a healthy, productive workspace conducive to wellbeing is, Bunn says, the “next big thing” for the commercial property market. It is what firms are considering in terms of retaining their fee-earning staff, and this requires more of a focus on the amenities a building provides rather than a focus on the indoor air temperature.

While owners are looking at this in terms of negotiating leases and retaining tenants, in looking for an edge in the market everyone’s focus also needs to be on proof of building performance, he says.

“If we are serious about ‘think globally, act locally [for sustainability]’, it behoves all people to make buildings perform properly.”

Energy monitoring – needs engagement and ease of use

Bunn says that purchasing decisions, rather than building performance optimisation, is what drives most occupant decision-making. Energy use is essentially a purchasing decision, so technology like energy monitors can have great value.

But where these involve complicated controls and reporting mechanisms, they can fail to improve sustainability, as often people “can’t be bothered” engaging with that level of technology.

It is also important for a system that has exception reporting to be set at a level where every little human or mechanical blip in energy use doesn’t register and overwhelm the FM.

Small irritations can last for life

BSRIA has found a whole host of things that can be working sub-optimally in a new building – such as automatic lighting sensors set up in a manner that means they fail to detect occupants unless those occupants constantly move around. These may not be serious enough to be classed as a defect and therefore remedied under a defects warranty period, but can become lasting irritations for the life of a building if they are not identified and dealt with within the first eight weeks of occupancy.

“This first two months of a building’s life is critical for people to spot things that are running sub-optimally and get them dealt with. Soft Landings says the designer and the builder have a responsibility to get buildings running optimally,” Bunn says.

The problem with burying the bad news

Designers need to learn from experience just as the medical profession does, and adopt a way of thinking that progresses understanding of how design solutions actually perform when embodied in a building.

Bunn says the adversarial nature of the industry in the UK and its tendency to “bury bad news” through either denial or shooting the messenger is part of the problem. The contractual process is set up to penalise builders, and there is a need to “pull back and create conditions where designers and builders can manage the extra risk they perceive from going back into the building”.

The framework aims to assist all parties – including the client – to take custody of building performance.

Buildings are not static things, Bunn says. They are reactive.

“They don’t crash as spectacularly as aeroplanes, but they do crash badly in CO2 terms.”

The Soft Landings Framework ANZ is available for download here.

Comments

7 Responses to “How “soft landings” can avoid a building crash”

  • Richard Stokes says:

    Soft landings is a good idea but it is needed in the UK a lot more than in australia. Here there is NABERS, which measures actual performance of buildings. This ensures that new buildings are tuned and commissioned to meet their performance targets. The government has a policy to occupy buildings which are 4.5 stars or better and the rating is widely used with more than half of Australia’s office space rated. Also the star system is a powerful marketing tool that soft landings does not offer.

    In the UK there are really progressive design requirements but little in the way of performance requirements or ratings. The display energy certificate (DEC) is the closest but are only for public buildings. In the UK the sell for soft landings was difficult as it is common sense mostly, the clients assumed they were getting that anyway.

    I think soft landings is a good idea and does have more benefits than just energy but with NABERS already in the marketplace I don’t think there will be much client buy in here. Australia should be trying to export NABERS.

    • Jack Noonan says:

      I must agree with a lot of what Richard has said.

      We already have a framework for assessing performance of buildings – it is called NABERS. NABERS has had the issue of seeing huge uptake of one of the modules (Energy) through government legislation (i.e commercial building disclosure) which has been great as a post occupancy measure of energy efficiency, but at the same time, it has led to the unintentional branding of the tool as an Energy tool only. Once the industry becomes more aware of Water, Waste and Indoor Environment and each of these tools continue to improve (the latter two have been the subject of widespread reviews recently), building practitioners should have a suite of tools available to them to measure the performance of their buildings post occupancy. Once the suite of tools has been optimized, I agree that there is a huge export opportunity here.

      We are also seeing the emergence of Green Star Performance which will further highlight the importance of post occupancy evaluations.

      The principles underlining Soft Landings are very important and, in general, POEs need to be more widespread in Australia. However, we have the tools available to us here – unfortunately, we just aren’t using them all that much!

    • Robert Cohen says:

      Great article, great comments. As someone at the coal face trying to introduce actual performance based ratings for buildings in the UK, I completely agree with Richard’s assessment. There are whole building and base building rating tools developed in the UK, but they are not used, apart from DECs for public buildings, which, to everyone’s horror, the UK government is now threatening to abolish – oh yes, don’t imagine the grass is greener over here when it comes to action on energy efficiency. As it happens, I’ve just posted a blog about these UK government proposals, if anyone wants to read more: https://www.2degreesnetwork.com/groups/2degrees-community/resources/should-decs-be-abolished-or-improved/. There’s quite a few people in the UK highly envious of what you have achieved with NABERS. My frustration at our lack of progress has triggered me to come and see for myself how you do it – I’m accompanying Rod on his Soft Landings ANZ industry seminar tour next month. I look forward to meeting you all and finding the way to five stars and beyond.

  • Roderic Bunn says:

    In respect of “no-one uses it”, perhaps readers might be interested to know that UK Central Government has mandated Soft Landings from 2016 onwards. While Local Authorities in the UK are not mandated, many are including Soft Landings requirements in their employment requirements and tenders. The Soft Landings User Group is now nearly 40 strong and includes Architype AECOM, AHR Architects, Arup, the AWE, Balfour Beatty, BDP, Bouygues UK, Buro Happold, Coventry University Estates, The Energy Solutions Group, Edocuments, End Systems, the Engineering Services Consultancy, Essex County Council, FES, Hampshire County Council, Hoare Lea, Kier Western, Max Fordham & Partners, Morgan Sindall, Mott MacDonald, Next Controls, Nicholas Hare Architects, Boom Collective, RG Carter Ltd, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanksa, Skelly & Couch, Wates, Wilkinson Eyre, and Willmott Dixon Construction. These are just the ones we know. Soft Landings is open-source so that industry far and wide can pick it up and use it to a lesser of greater degree. Perhaps the UK property market lags a little behind, but there’s no reason why it should.

  • Joanna says:

    As an Australian working in London in property I can tell you that the Soft Landings framework is really brilliant. It’s a good document, nicely set out and looks easy to use.

    Unfortunately, absolutely no one uses it except for a handful of government departments, for the same reasons why this framework is difficult to implement in Australia.

    Good idea though – it just doesn’t work in practice – and I would say that private investors and development firms are the biggest hurdles in the UK market.

  • Great article, I concur with Max. In particular the aspect of common sense, feedback loops, and re-thinking the process are of interest. There is often a disconnect. Architects too often rely on engineering, technology and others to bring their design within the realms of sustainable standards. In order to make a quantum shift in sustainable outcomes architecture needs to play a more significant role. Rather than relying on engineering fixes, architecture has the opportunity to directly respond to its context, and become naturally, passively efficient. Encouraging users to engage with the process. Thereby relying less on set and forget, and overly complicated systems that alienate users and facility managers.

    Building design professionals should be more involved, and open to the on-going feedback from users throughout the life of buildings. We have explored some of these ideas in projects as documented in my paper “Elastic Design – Regeneration of Education through architecture”

  • Max Deuble says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this article and have been waiting a long time to see these principles ‘land’ in Australia/New Zealand. From my PhD research background on the subject, and now quickly supplemented with practical experience/expertise in this area, I have often viewed first hand the errors encountered during building occupation that could have been easily averted given some forethought.
    As my thesis suggests, occupants, especially those within green buildings, are the missing link to optimal building performance, energy efficiency, occupant comfort and satisfaction. Indeed, the ideals of occupant empowerment, engagement and feedback lay at the heart of sustainable buildings and feature prominently in Soft Landings, which is now a part of the new Green Star Design & As Built tool.
    Soft Landings will dispel the dangers of the current industry view to design, build and move onto the next project. And while the beta-testing of buildings can be said to be the commissioning phase, Soft Landings goes that one step further and brings in the most important part of the building: its occupants! As buildings are built and designed for their intended occupants, they are often done so without consideration of its occupants (until eventual completion and occupancy – which is far too late). Soft Landings, founded on the basic principles of Post-Occupancy Evaluation which stemmed out of the UK in the late 1960s, will lay the foundations for more efficient building design, operation, performance, and occupant satisfaction, and I am one proud to see it finally here and hopefully to stay

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