Delivering buildings that really work

The pioneering work for ‘The soft landings framework published by the Usable Buildings Trust and BSRIA was carried out by Mark Way while the Centre for Mathematical Studies was being constructed at the University of Cambridge.

How many buildings are delivering their full potential? And how many could realise much more of their potential with a little help? Enter a new approach to handing over buildings.

When architect Mark Way of RMJM first took up residence in an office in a particularly leading-edge building that RMJM had designed for a major pharmaceutical company to use its facilities just like a member of staff, while observing the building in use and occupants at work, he had no idea that his experiences would lead to the development of a fundamentally new approach to the way buildings are handed over and brought into use.

Mark Way describes his period in residence as ‘a transforming experience, providing major insights that I had suspected, but not experienced in 30 years of professional practice’.

Among his observations was seeing people not understanding how things were supposed to work, such as solar blinds linked to the BMS, and he was able to explain the design intent.

He also spotted over-zealous presence controlled lighting — as well as features that were good but not understood by the building occupants.

A subsequent project at Cambridge University, the Centre for Mathematical Studies, led to the applications of the principles of soft landings being developed for real in a no-blame culture, including a post-occupancy evaluation, which is an important part of the approach.

A project led by Mark Way himself to see if the approach at Cambridge might become more of a standard procedure was joined by Bill Bordass of the Usable Buildings Trust. Preliminary documentation was produced in 2004, and it was in the middle of last year that BSRIA became involved in the preparation and publication of ‘The soft landings framework’.

It is described by Roderic Bunn of BSRIA, project manager of ‘The soft landings framework’ as a sea-change in the way buildings are handed over and brought into use. He also says, ‘BSRIA believes that soft landings is one of the most significant pieces of work the association has ever undertaken.’ And it is easy to find out more and become involved — as explained towards the end of this article.

The purpose of soft landings is to provide the structure for project teams to stay involved after the practical completion of a building — for as much as three years. Contrast that continuing involvement with designers and builders going away as soon as work is physically complete and handed over. Signing up to soft landings will no longer see practical completion being synonymous with the disbanding of professional teams — with architects, engineers and contractors vying with one another to get off site as soon as possible.

During the first few months of the actual operation of the building, systems can be debugged and fine tuned and operators given the understanding of how to control and best use their new work environment.

But while that initial and continuing post-occupancy involvement is seen as important to reducing the tensions and frustrations that often occur during initial occupancy and which can easily leave residual problems that persist indefinitely, there is much more to soft landings.

A sea-change in the way buildings are handed over and brought into use — Roderic Bunn.

As developed, soft landings is embedded in the entire procurement process— from initial scope to well beyond project completion.

During the procurement process, soft landings is designed to set and maintain client and design aspirations that are both ambitious but realistic — and manage them through the whole procurement process and into use.

Support will be provided during initial occupancy to detect problems and provide fine tuning, rather than just dealing with snags or reported failures.

The final, and longer-term, stage is post-occupancy evaluation and feedback. It is during this stage that lessons can be learned from closer interaction with the occupiers and from evaluating actual building performance in use and sharing that knowledge to the benefit of all stakeholders.

Applying the principles of soft landings in practice will not be difficult, since its procedures are designed to augment, not replace, standard professional scopes of service. The procedures can be tailored to run alongside most industry-standard procurement routes to suit individual projects. It is not necessary to make major revisions to industry-standard documentation.

As to cost, soft landings requires only a small amount of extra funding, well within the margin of competitive bids. Indeed, many functions of the soft-landing process are already part of the current construction process, but perhaps not carried out systematically.

Extra costs are involved during the 3-year aftercare period, which typically involves the architect and building-services engineers, but these costs are seen as modest in relation to the value added to the client’s building.

Future support for ‘The soft landings framework’ is provided by a user group that has already been set up and which will feed into the long-term development of the framework.

‘The soft landings framework’ can be downloaded free from www.softlandings.org.uk — a simple registration is required.

Summarising BSRIA’s involvement, Roderic Bunn says, ‘We are delighted that we’ve been involved in creating something that transcends the normal traditional boundaries of building services and architecture. Soft landings is truly multi-disciplinary. As the HVCA and ECA themselves reported in the past year, the route to truly sustainable buildings lies with integrated design and construction teams. We hope soft landings provides the runway for that to happen.’

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