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Hand Over and Deliver

14 October 2009

Cambridge University where Soft Landings was first trialled

Building services engineers used to disappear over the horizon leaving the FM to pick up the pieces if the building failed to perform. Peter Excell explains that a new culture called Soft Landings is changing all that.

THE COMPLETE LIFECYCLE COST of a building dwarfs the initial construction price. The salaries of those occupying a commercial property, for example, are estimated at around 90 percent of the total life cost of that building. Keeping those occupants happy, healthy and productive has to be the main preoccupation of any FM.
Heating, ventilation, lighting and air conditioning are critical to providing the necessary conditions for occupants to thrive in their indoor environment, yet the technical experts with the best knowledge of how to make them work properly are rarely seen on the premises once the building has been ‘handed over’. It is a fundamental flaw that has created plenty of disappointment over the years as too many buildings have failed to match their occupants’ expectations and needs. FMs have a multitude of issues to grapple with and are the people who best understand how a building is being used and, therefore, what indoor conditions they require. However, if the building services are not up to the task, they often embark on a course of ‘quick fixes’ that push up costs and rarely solve the problem.
The current economic downturn and the emergence of Energy Performance and Display Energy Certificates (EPCs and DECs) highlighted the difficulty FMs have in getting buildings to match the energy efficiency targets aspired to by their original design teams. Even some relatively new buildings are missing their targets and the problems can be traced right back to when they were designed.
“Clients rarely think about whether they can afford to run a building – they just decide if they can afford to build it,” said CIBSE technical director Hywel Davies during a recent debate on the subject. “Often the most trivial details can have a profound impact on the long-term cost of operating a facility.”
The ability to take a long-term view rather than a low cost first approach has dogged many efforts to ensure the systems we design today will still deliver in 20 or 30 years’ time without having to be radically and expensively altered. However, ironically the recession might just be working to our advantage by changing people’s priorities.
“In light of the economic downturn and increased environmental awareness the focus is now shifting from eco-friendly new buildings to ultra efficient existing buildings; developing a healthy relationship with property owners to achieve optimal facility performance,” according to Professor Tony Thomas of London South Bank University, which has developed a training programme to help FMs tackle ongoing operational issues. However ‘new build’ comprises only a small percentage of the built environment landscape…existing buildings provide the major opportunity to reduce emissions and energy consumption from buildings.
There is a growing enthusiasm among FMs for resource efficiency, but to fully understand where your building is going wrong and to introduce measures to tackle it, some investment is required in measures such as energy audits, recommissioning programmes and new, low carbon emitting technologies. Traditionally, there has been very little crossover between the professional design team and the people who end up operating the completed building. Design engineers equipped to tweak and fine tune energy consuming systems like HVAC and lighting, are nowhere to be seen when the building runs into trouble further down the line.
Soft Landings was a principle first studied by the Estates Department at Cambridge University and included designers, contractors, and was led by the architect Mark Way, of RMJM London. It can complement the standard procurement system, but places an increased emphasis in five main areas:
● Briefing
● Managing expectations during design and delivery
● Preparing for handover
● Initial aftercare in the weeks immediately after handover
● Extended aftercare and feedback over the first three years of occupancy.
Soft Landings has been adopted by BSRIA which is spearheading a campaign to have it adopted across the building sector. It seeks to transform the whole approach to design and handover of building projects – including major refits of existing buildings – by extending the influence of the design team beyond the first three years of occupation through five stages (see top right).
“Soft Landings requires designers and constructors to remain involved with buildings beyond practical completion, to assist the client during the first months of operation and beyond, to help fine-tune and de-bug the systems, and ensure the occupiers understand how to control and best use their buildings,” explains Roderic Bunn, who is project managing the campaign for BSRIA. “It dovetails with energy performance certification, building logbooks, green leases, and corporate social responsibility.”
The process, set out in BSRIA’s framework document (BG4/2009) is designed to revolutionise how building services engineers approach delivering building projects to their eventual customer – the occupant – by focusing them on long-term client satisfaction. It is a radical change of approach, but one that is badly needed and, in fact, must go further. Buildings are responsible for over 50 per cent of the country’s entire carbon emissions and about 80 per cent of the buildings that will still be in use in 2050 have already been built. By that year, the Government is legally bound to have cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent.
The principle of Soft Landings should be extended and adapted to take in as much of the existing building stock as possible. We cannot achieve the massive reductions in energy waste and carbon emissions that we must if we only concentrate on new build. The feedback that Soft Landings gathers in the first three years of a new building’s life through occupant questionnaires; energy audits and energy performance certificates can equally be applied to buildings that have been in use for longer. De-bugging those systems is a tougher task, but a systematic process of recommissioning underperforming building services should be an obvious first step for any FM looking to re-boot a building that is upsetting its occupants and costing far too much to heat and/or cool.
There is much that can be achieved by tackling basic inefficiencies in building services such as re-setting or installing for the first time full control systems for heating and cooling. Systems should be defaulted to ‘off’ rather than ‘on’. When pumps and motors are due for renewal, FMs should as a matter of course, look to replace these with modern energy efficient variable speed models, and energy efficient lamps are now available to replace much of the lighting currently in use in commercial buildings.
In many instances, occupant discomfort is linked to poor energy performance. If the heating and cooling is poorly balanced, people at one end of the office will have totally different conditions to those at the other. You will then have some people opening windows to reduce overheating and others bringing in additional heating in a bid to warm up cold spots – the dissatisfaction of the occupants will only be matched by the fury of the financial director when he sees the fuel bill.
Many building services contractors now have experience in energy monitoring and targeting, aftercare services including the use of postoccupancy feedback techniques and remedial programmes because more of their clients now insist on it. Service and maintenance programmes are a key element in helping FMs maintain comfort levels and meet energy efficiency goals and the guidelines set out in the HVCA’s SFG20 best practice guidance are now widely adopted to that end.
Training and familiarisation is also a must if FMs are going to get the best out of any technical fix in their building. It is also important for building owners to understand what technologies are appropriate and realistic for their building. Wind turbines might look great as a statement of ‘green’ credentials, but in many urban settings they deliver very mixed results and the money would have been better spent improving insulation, upgrading the glazing and improving the boiler.
Having a Soft Landings team in place does, of course, cost money. However, BSRIA believes this could be as little as 0.1 percent of the total contract budget. Considered in the overall context of the lifecycle cost of operating a building, this is an extremely small price to pay.
Peter Excell is chairman of the HVCA’s Service and Facilities Group and associate director of Rollright Facilities Ltd. 

Soft Landings – five stages
Inception and briefing: where time is allowed for detailed discussions about long-term hopes and aims with the end client
Design development and review: where the whole team looks at how the building will be operated Pre-handover: which enables operators to spend more time on understanding interfaces and systems before occupation
Initial aftercare: when the professional team will carry out post-occupancy surveys to gauge user’s levels of satisfaction with the facility they are now using
Years 1 – 3 extended after care and post occupancy evaluation: during which the team completes the loop between design, expectation and reality.



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