Chairman’s Letter: Australia Sweeps Test Series

Blog Author: Richard Saxon CBE

No, this isn’t about cricket. It’s about learning from Australia how to deliver buildings that perform as specified. In October 2017 I wrote about the ‘Soft Landings’ concept as a way for designers and builders to incorporate facility management needs into their process and ensure that buildings perform properly. This tool is part of the Government’s version of BIM Level 2, but not widely understood or used beyond that. We remain a country with published aspirations to achieve high physical performance in buildings but with a woeful record of underachievement. Why is this?

The UK uses Building Regulations Part L, BREEAM (the BRE Environmental Assessment Method) and EPCs (Energy Performance Certificates) to motivate and deliver good energy performance. But they don’t seem to deliver much. We are focussing on compliance, not on achievement. Measuring actual performance in buildings with EPCs from A to G reveals that some low-scoring buildings work better than some high-rated ones. There is hardly any pattern relating design intent to performance delivered, due to inept value engineering, weak supervision of construction and commissioning and poor training of operators. At one stage there was a plan to make building owners put certificates of actual annual energy use on their lobby walls, alongside the EPC. It was killed off, possibly because it could have been very embarrassing.

The Better Buildings Partnership (BBP), a group of 31 UK developers (including Australian firm Lend Lease) determined to produce more effective assets. They discovered that in Australia commercial buildings were achieving high measured performance on several sustainability indicators and doing so beyond regulations. Since 2002, Melbourne new-builds have decreased energy use by 80%. This is due to the introduction of a standard for results to be achieved, not characteristics to be incorporated. The public sector published an approach, without which it would not occupy rentable space. The development community picked up on it and now competes to produce the best outcomes possible. The base-build (the developer’s shell and core) is targeted separately to the tenants’ fitout. Good simulation at design stage is followed by strong teamwork, outside review, fine tuning at handover and early use, with verification and disclosure of results. Feedback reveals how to improve. Encouragingly, the higher performance is not causing higher capital costs, but simplifying design. These better buildings are also healthier and more attractive to staff: a far bigger payback than energy savings. The approach seemed so sensible to the visiting Brits that they report it as like ‘hearing from a higher civilization’.

The British Council for Offices has joined with the Better Buildings Partnership to develop a UK version of the National Australian Built Environment Rating Scheme (NABERS). The UK edition is being called ‘Design for Performance’, considering the different characteristics of the UK market. Six pilot projects are now being run by members of the BBP. The BCO Specification for 2019 will incorporate Design for Performance, with activities listed at RIBA Plan of Work stages. Factors the UK needs to include are our weak maintenance culture and our rising use of sensors and analytics. Maintenance here is often a matter of ticking off listed activities, avoiding finding problems as they will cost the maintainer money to fix. Condition-based maintenance gives the maintainer an incentive to lower future operating costs by sharing in savings. Smart technology and the Asset Information Model provide far better data to run buildings efficiently and to do pre-emptive maintenance to avert breakdowns. But the BCO/BBP team recognise that the changes needed are cultural rather than just technical.

This is Soft Landings with a commercial edge; far more likely to be taken up here. There is a procurement aspect too. Early contractor involvement is needed, plus early engagement of the specialist services subcontractor and facility manager. This collaborative trend follows the pattern encouraged by the use of BIM.

The witty choice of the acronym for the Aussie scheme must be one reason for its success; after all, ‘everybody needs good NABERS’.