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Bordass and Leaman drive home the need for simple buildings

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Speaking at a UCL masterclass Bill Bordass and Adrian Leaman said good buildings are simple, smart and well-managed

Footprint went along last week to a building performance masterclass at UCL, hoping to glean a few insights for the AJ’s Bridge the Gap campaign. The fundamental message of the most well-known double act in building performance, Bill Bordass and Adrian Leaman, was that good buildings are simple, smart and well-managed. Sharing their years of experience with the latest generation of building energy PhD students, Bordass and Leaman spoke of their frustration at the fact that ‘the world isn’t doing what it ought to be doing.’

The Elizabeth Fry Building (built in 1995) at the University of East Anglia by John Miller and Partners was one of the examples used to illustrate the effectiveness of simplicity and good management. A PROBE study of the building by Bordass and Leaman and subsequent modelling have shown it to be one of the best performing buildings ever measured. The success of this building was not down to the ‘whizzy technical stuff’, but to each phase of the project being executed well. 

Bordass and Leaman outlined the key ingredients for the Elizabeth Fry Building’s success:

  • A good client – a director of estates who knew what he was doing
  • A good design team - who had worked together previously
  • Specialist support – where the design team did not have the expertise they brought in expertise on insulation and air-tightness
  • A good, robust design - well serviced and in which technologies such as TermoDeck were integrated and not tacked on.
  • Enough time and money to do the project – but a normal budget
  • An appropriate specification – ‘not too clever’
  • An interested contractor – with a traditional contract, this included a clerk of works who worked in the client’s and architect’s interest
  • Well built – proper attention to detail (although there was room for improvement)
  • Well-controlled energy use – post-occupancy monitoring and control refit
  • Post-handover support – to incorporate findings of monitoring
  • Management vigilance – sustained (but less intense) vigilance of the building’s performance over the years


John Miller + Partners, The Elizabeth Fry Building, University of East Anglia

Even when these factors were highlighted as the reasons for the building’s success, architectural reviews of the building tended to focus on the technical and programmatic aspects of the project. Leaman deplored the lack of engagement of architects with performance: ‘The key is the word design. Architects are good at design. That’s what they’re interested in and that’s what their rather odd culture is built to reinforce. But design is not the same as reality – if you apply architectural criteria to  the real world, you get some pretty odd responses. When architects do go back to their buildings – they will be trying to put the building back into the form that they envisaged in the first place. That is a different mindset.  

Design is not the same as reality – if you apply architectural criteria to the real world, you get some pretty odd responses

‘When you study users through a post occupancy study, you get a completely different picture. Users want a quiet life and want to go home having done their job well without too much fuss. They don’t care about a wonderful aesthetic experience every day.’

Another message of the workshop was that sophisticated buildings are fragile and likely to perform poorly in a culture where facilities management is outsourced to the lowest bidder. Facility management provides a key to the performance gap. Poor investment in facilities management is magnified if architects specify overly complex technology. Occupant wellbeing results from control over the environment and comfort. Complex systems make it impossible to achieve this without very dedicated facility management. This is often absent and cannot be guaranteed.

Bordass observed that ‘really great buildings always have one person somewhere in the system working with the fine detail to make sure that it works well… it’s not about design - it’s much more about management.’

So what can architects do? 

The answer is stay involved with your buildings after completion. Persuade your clients to pay for your involvement in building handover and aftercare and learn from the building’s users and managers what really works and what doesn’t. This will make all your buildings better.

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