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The secret of delivering complex buildings – simplicity

Many of the frustrations experienced by building operators can be traced back to poor decisions made during delivery and commissioning, says Andy Sneyd.

The construction supply chain is a tricky animal. Technology is powering ahead; buildings are becoming increasingly sophisticated; and clients are waking up to the importance of energy efficiency and the impact sound building engineering can have on their profitability and productivity.

Yet, our supply chain still looks far too much like it did in the Victorian era when the ‘builder’ called the shots and everyone waited in line for their instructions.

That traditional hierarchy is not suited to a modern, fluid, collaborative industry.

Louise Ellison, head of sustainability at retail developer Hammerson, told a recent industry conference, organised by CIBSE,that her company found it bewildering that many new buildings were among the worst performers in terms of energy efficiency.

She noted that clients were now far more likely to “look under the bonnet” to identify the long-term management risks for their companies posed by the buildings they buy.

“We need better data from the industry,” she told the audience.

“You have the information. Please share it with us so we know what we can expect and so that we don’t simply design just to comply with legislation.”

Performance gap

Many buildings suffer from what has been termed the performance gap, which means they use a lot more energy than they were designed to.

There is also an expectation gap, whereby clients hope to get a building that works well, but are often disappointed and left bemused about why things have gone wrong.

Often the explanation is that decisions are based on lowest first cost and just doing enough to comply with legislation. In this day and age, we simply have to do better than that and hand over buildings that are safe, fit for purpose and comfortable, but also deliver long-term operational efficiencies.

The great irony is that the sophisticated technologies aimed at reducing energy usage and improving comfort actually can make a building more complex and, therefore, harder to manage and control.

The good news is that some of that complexity can be ironed out through better collaboration and communication at the commissioning stage.

To get this right, subcontractors need to get their heads up and recognise they are part of a bigger picture.

Whether you are providing air conditioning or heating systems or installing complex controls, you need to have an appreciation of how your task fits into the wider brief for the building and how that affects the ability to hand the finished product over in a way that leaves it operationally sound and likely to hit its energy and, therefore, running cost targets.

Sometimes your individual task may look straightforward, but because you are interfacing with the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) trades, you are automatically a key component of the design engineer’s overall vision for the building.

If you change something, or receive an instruction to change something, what effect does that have on everyone else, and does it fundamentally alter the long-term operation strategy?

If your part of the programme does change, what effect will that have on the overall schedule?

Building engineering systems need commissioning time – this is absolutely critical, especially these days when heating, cooling and ventilation systems are increasingly laden with complex control systems, which must be set, programmed and tested in situ.

In far too many cases, that crucial commissioning time gets squeezed in a last-minute bid to get the project over the line.

That can be the fatal for the operational strategy.

You cannot just switch these systems on and expect them to work properly, but you’d be amazed how often that happens in multi-million pound buildings, effectively rendering the technology impotent.

A key principle – in buildings as much as it is in life – is to keep things simple. Make sure there are clear lines of communication with other supply chain partners and check that the design is complete and everyone is aware of their areas of responsibility. As Bob Hoskins once told us on the BT adverts, it’s good to talk.

Changing the culture

The development of process improvements such as Building Information Modelling is as much about changing the culture of the industry as it is about adopting new technologies and investing in expensive software.

It becomes compulsory on all government contracts from 2016 and private clients will not be far behind.

BIM might one day save us money and make our processes more efficient – it isn’t doing that at the moment – but it will first drive massive change in the way we all interact and exchange information.

If we can’t keep up with this change, we will be dropped from the process and other people will step in.

BIM sits very neatly with offsite fabrication, which is a good way of simplifying things and taking out some of the most risky elements of a design package because everything can be built and tested in factory conditions.

This minimises commissioning time and speeds up delivery.  It is the interfaces between specialisms that can produce complexity and create conflict so, while we need to recognise our role in the bigger picture, by also focusing hard on the potential pressure points, we can smooth out the whole process.

HVACR contractors need to interface very carefully with the rest of the supply chain if the project is making use of offsite fabrication because, while it simplifies many of the technical processes, it depends even more heavily on everyone sticking to the project schedule and being co-ordinated.

Getting this right adds considerable value to the building in question; getting it wrong – no matter how small the contractual element – can throw the whole performance specification off course.

Don’t stand in line

That all sounds pretty much like common sense, but contractual obligations can be where things go off the rails.

One legacy of the ‘traditional’ supply chain is the way contracts are produced and work is packaged out, but within the membership of B&ES we are clear that new ways of working take us across the old boundaries and out of our silos.

There may not be anything specific in your part of the contract relating to commissioning, for example, but you still have responsibility for ensuring the whole package gets handed over in a good condition.

This will increasingly be part of the contracts let out by clients as they move towards performance guarantees and look for ‘soft landings’ ie the process whereby operational problems are ironed out post-handover.

It is also a mandatory part of the government’s BIM requirements and means that poor performance will be revealed and will have to be put right.

How we all get paid in this brave new world of contracting is a whole other story, but one thing is for sure: specialist contractors should not simply be standing in line for their orders.

Instead we should be getting in there and influencing the process to make sure it works, and, similarly, we should not be standing patiently with our hands out hoping to get paid.

We are all part of the professional team, with a heavy responsibility for the success of the whole project and deserve to be rewarded as such.

Andy Sneyd is president of the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES) and head of design at Crown House Technologies

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