How “soft landings” can avoid a building crash
Willow Aliento | 19 February 2015
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.