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How Soft Landings can fill the building performance gap

The challenge is to champion a graduated handover process in the face of an uncertain climatic and economic future, writes Gary Clark

The Cabinet Office is due to announce next month that Government Soft Landings will be mandatory for government estate from 2016 - part of a raft of new regulatory measures including mandatory Building Information Modelling (BIM) and stringent energy and carbon emission targets which come into effect next year.

Soft Landings is a palette of activities which improves the performance outcomes of buildings because designers and contractors remain involved with buildings after practical completion. They help fine-tune the systems and ensure occupants understand how to operate their buildings.

Designed to dovetail with any procurement process, Soft Landings begins at the outset of any project, not at handover. It includes better briefing, realistic performance benchmarking, reality checking of design and procurement decisions, a graduated handover process and a period of aftercare by the project team. Equally importantly, it promotes an open and collaborative working culture.

The Soft Landings framework was conceived in the late 1990s by architect Mark Way, initially as a way to improve the transition of a building from construction into operation. Further developed by Bill Bordass of the Usable Buildings Trust and David Adamson of Cambridge University, it was championed by BSRIA, which supported the publication of the Soft Landings Framework in 2009.

The framework’s success prompted the government to develop its own interpretation to suit public sector priorities. Government Soft Landings broadly follows the same core principles.Key performance metrics of FM running costs and workplace efficiency are added to the operational energy and occupant satisfaction criteria in the 2009 document.

The updated RIBA Plan of Work, due to be released in April 2013, is already aligned with regulatory requirements of BIM and sustainability. But perhaps the most important aspect of the revision is the reinforcement of feedback within all its seven stages, and its specific reference to Soft Landings. Feedback is, of course, not new to the Plan of Work. Part M - Feedback featured in the original 1963 version, but was omitted from the 1973 Architect’s Appointment because clients wouldn’t fund it and because there were difficulties in defining services. After intense lobbying by various groups, it was eventually reintroduced in the 2007 revision as Stage L3. In spite of this, how many of you reading this article have carried out an in-use performance analysis of buildings you have designed?

The predominant approach adopted by government and industry in the quest for more sustainable buildings has been to use sustainable assessment methods that reward inputs, not outcomes. It hasn’t worked well. The focus has been too much on technological solutions, rather than improving design and construction. When combined with design and build contracts with lengthy supply chains, the result is overly complicated buildings which have been poorly commissioned and are not operationally ready at handover. This explains the massive gaps between designed and actual performance.

Soft Landings is set to become an increasingly common requirement for public sector and enlightened private sector clients. Building performance issues cannot be rectified by engineering disciplines alone; they require the synthetic design skills of architects. Used correctly, Soft Landings is a vehicle which can re-establish architects as design team leaders. The challenge for the profession is to embrace and champion Soft Landings in the face of an uncertain climatic and economic future.

Gary Clark is chairman of the UBT/BSRIA Soft Landings User Group and a project director and research associate at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. For Soft Landings details, visit www.bsria.co.uk/services/design/soft-landings

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