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How Soft Landings actually works

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Max Fordham has trialled Soft Landings at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank and Keynsham Town Hall

Soft Landings is a topic where the reality is a lot more interesting that the theory. It’s about getting the job done as it should be in the first place. During last month’s GreenSkyThinking week, Max Fordham hosted a talk sharing their recent experience trialling the Soft Landings framework.

Speakers included:

Gary Clark of AECOM presented a compelling case for Soft Landings, citing the performance gap, the subject of the AJ’s Bridge the Gap campaign. Soft Landings enables designers to develop a nuanced understanding of how their building actually performs. This knowledge can be used to respond to issues on a specific project and can be applied to future projects.


Tamsin Tweddell (c) Rosie Lodge

Tamsin Tweddell of Max Fordham outlined a Soft Landings blueprint with five main points.

Get a good start
Soft Landings starts at the beginning of the process. It is important to know what you are trying to achieve and make sure that the whole team know how success is going to be measured. At briefing stage, Max Fordham uses workshops with the design team and all stakeholders with an operational role to define the parameters by which the project’s success will be measured. In the case of Studio E’s Heston Leisure Centre, these workshops concluded that success would be defined by visitor satisfaction which was measured by increased visitor diversity as well as visitor numbers. 

Have a vision of the completed project
Know what you are trying to achieve and reflect on past projects to inform how you are going to achieve it. 

Operational risk management is very important
Identify what might go wrong and what might be done about it. Tweddell spoke about setting out an energy risk register and look for ways of mitigating these risks. One way of managing energy use is by setting out an energy budget for each part of a project. On Aedas’ Keynsham Town Hall, the goal was a DEC A rating within two years, rather than BREEAM Excellent. Energy budgets were established for each energy use and it was laid out exactly how these would be delivered and who was responsible: client, design team, or contractor. For example, the contractor was responsible for the energy capacity of the lights but not for the hours of use. 

Procure a Soft Landings contract
If you have completed the first three task, then there will be enough information to draw up defined and codified roles and responsibilities for each stakeholder and consultant.

Fine-tune the building
Tweddell talked about the need to fine tune the Hayward Gallery refurbishment in order to achieve the stable conditions needed for a gallery. This is an iterative process that involves, ‘getting into the controls with a fine tooth comb.’ Often solving one problem reveals another hidden one. The first year involves debugging and the second involves optimising the system so it requires a minimum of two years to get a building working the way you want it. 

Howard Tinkler of Sir Robert McAlpine, gave the contractor’s view of the Soft Landings process. He outlined problems which have resulted from the inconsistency of its current application and the lack of understanding of the value that the process brings to a project. According to Tinker, an 18 month engagement at the end of a project is too short to be effective. ‘If you don’t ‘close the loop’ or learn from your aftercare, the value is not realised.’ Soft Landings’ benefits include stronger and longer relationships with clients which can lead to further work. Better projects results from real on the job learning.  Finally, risk is reduced by a better understanding of what can be achieved.


The panel (from left to right) Tamsin Tweddell, Howard Tinkler, Mike Chater, Bill Gething and Gary Clark (c) Rosie Lodge

Mike Chater, an architect at HCC Property Services suggested ways to sell Soft Landings to clients and contractors. It’s all down to costs. For clients, investment in Soft Landings should be sold as the ‘most cost-effective approach.’ For contractors, it’s about, ‘just doing what we do but better in order to save fees.’ According to Chater, architects are well-suited to the role of Soft Landings champion and will earn respect of the project team because they have to break down the silo culture. 

Two key questions emerged from this talk. The first was, ‘how to avoid Soft Landings becoming a box-ticking or bureaucratised chore like BREEAM?’  The answer was that it is NOT a certification system. It is about learning, specifically team learning. If it is done in ‘spirit’ of learning, then it will bring value to the whole process.

The second question was: ‘This all seems like a lot of effort; is there a way to do Soft Landings ‘lite?’  The answer is that the Soft Landings framework outlines the minimum required to do the job well. Gary Clark made the point that projects go awry in the ‘middle’. Preparation for handover needs to be started from the beginning, not just tagged onto the end. 

This talk reinforced the classic Stewart Brand quote, ‘All buildings are predictions and all predictions are wrong.’  Getting buildings right requires an adaption process, even if designers have been diligent in engaging with the occupants throughout. Soft Landings is about tailoring that prediction to reality.

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