Building Performance: Follow Through

For too many of us, the rites of passage of opening party and glossy architectural photography mean it is time to turn our back on our buildings.

But to leave the fruits of months if not years of effort to often unguided facilities managers and users is to miss a trick.

While those facilities managers and occupants get to grips with our work they learn how the design performs, what it really does for the occupier and how much it costs to run. Architects usually learn little of this and start their next project without that feedback. If they are lucky, the same client comes back and some of the knowledge is accessible. A worse scenario is that the unaided experience of the client will put them off coming back. A rare exception to this is the work of architect Mark Way. His Soft Landings research project with the University of Cambridge defines architectural services that would ensure the building works as well as possible for its users, and would have someone resident through the move-in and shakedown cruise.

A conference and exhibition at Olympia next week (September 16-17) focuses on the life of buildings after they are built. Called Building Performance, it is led by the British Property Federation, the Institute of Facility Managers and the RICS. The RIBA is not involved, but I am.

As much is spent every year on repair and maintenance as on new building, and even more on operating costs. Architects’ design decisions influence these costs, but we don’t market our services to facilitate better performance or lower costs and so we neither learn nor earn. Different approaches to changing that are required for different clients. Corporate clients, the private organisations who build or take space, are paying their own occupation bills and are very receptive to considering investment to improve performance, especially their own corporate performance in the building. Public Sector clients are instructed now to seek “best value”, meaning high performance and low lifetime costs. They can achieve this through outsourcing (PFI/PPP) or by sensible direct procurement, but they want to hear about net present values more than first costs.

Commercial developers are the jokers in the pack. The British Property Federation claims that owner occupiers of property waste £18 billion a year in holding and using space uneconomically. It argues that corporate and public clients would save that money if they rented well-managed, efficient commercial space. But at the same time, the development world is least able to benefit from lowering whole life costs and improving occupier performance. The result is that commercial buildings are rarely examples of high performance.

So, we need a new deal here, which allows occupiers to reward developers for lowering their costs and raising their performance, thus stimulating developers to provide better buildings. PFI is an imperfect attempt at this idea. Landflex, the Land Securities offering, is a good step forward. Where developers retain and operate space, they can align their interests more closely with those of their tenants, delivering better value.

Architects can’t help much until they see the whole life cycle as their market and learn how their buildings actually work.

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