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A challenge to AJ readers

Spend a day getting to grips with the actual performance of one of your recent buildings, writes Pete Halsall

I would like to put a challenge to readers of The Architects’ Journal. Pick a building that you have completed recently, but not too recently (a minimum one year ago) and spend a day there. Befriend a building performance specialist to take along. You will marvel at their enthusiasm. Go over how the building really works. Take a thermal image camera and heat flux meters with you. Choose some building elements at random to examine in greater detail.

This is not just something for techies. If you can’t develop a basic understanding of building performance, then you’re going to struggle as a design manager and also a design detailer. When you walk around, don’t focus on the building’s defects. Engage informally with some of the people who live and work there. Focus on its overall performance. Focus also on what it’s like to live and work in the building. But, most of all, focus on your own attitude as a professional.

If you can’t develop an understanding of building performance, then you’re going to struggle

Next, if you really want to get a grip on the performance gap, read the PROBE reports published in CIBSE journal in the 1990s. PROBE was a research project led by Bill Bordass et al that investigated – as far as one can – the actual performance of buildings. It goes to show there is nothing new about all of this.

My own thinking about green development was impacted by this work. The establishment of the Good Homes Alliance as an expert body of collaborating sustainable developers, who work together in closing the gap between aspiration and reality, provides a perfect framework for my developments, enabling research into their in-use performance.

Building performance is the start of a process, and not the end

Building performance is the start of a process, and not the end. After visiting the building, hold a workshop on what you’ve learned. By now, your new friendship with the building performance person should have blossomed. Review the early Technology Strategy Board findings and – I humbly suggest – some recent case studies by the Good Housing Alliance. Now you’re ready to produce your own ‘bridging the performance gap’ strategy.

As the second generation of green development projects came into occupancy after BedZED from 2002 up to, say, 2010 – including the Building Schools for the Future projects – many of us rightly took issue with how the buildings were performing. The craziness of biomass boilers aside, were these buildings actually delivering on energy and CO2 savings? Were they comfortable to live in? Can green schools raise educational standards?

Technology in the industry has moved on, but the process and attitude have not. We don’t just need to design buildings. We also need to design the process of design, construction, commissioning and management, and it needs to be integrated. It is unacceptable and, in my view, unprofessional not to involve the building management discipline in the design process. You will learn enormously about the real life of buildings and what those who occupy them think about them.

The current Technology Strategy Board’s building performance evaluation (BPE) project is one of the most rigorous research projects undertaken in this field. It will produce rich data, project experiences and know-how of building performance in terms of energy and CO2 and occupant comfort and satisfaction. Study its outcomes. As architects, don’t look at Stage M as a novel add-on. Soft Landings, an established framework, should be integrated into your design and management processes. Recession aside, put this in front of your clients at the outset of your projects..

  • Pete Halsall is chair of the Good Homes Alliance

The Good Homes Alliance with Local Authority Building Control, is running free training sessions on the performance gap, funded by Construction Skills. For further details, visit the Good Homes Alliance website: www.goodhomes.org.uk

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