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A student perspective of UCL-Energy's building performance events

20 June 2013

Architecture Population Habitation

On Wednesday June 12th, the UCL Energy Institute hosted Bill Bordass and Adrian Leaman, who lead ‘Building Performance: The bigger picture’ masterclass for research students. This was followed by an evening lecture by Bill Bordass: ‘Improving building performance: Sparing no expense to get something on the cheap?’ Steve Selkowitz, from Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, briefly reported about performance gap issues from the USA via a remote link and reiterated several of the issues discussed by Bordass.

Both events were set against a background of increasing recognition that the building industry’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions and to procure usable buildings are being jeopardised, caused by a whole host of reasons, briefly touched on in a previous blog.

It is impossible to report back on the full day’s event in one blog, so instead I have written below about what I found memorable and of interest, including an attempt to capture the online and offline discussions on the day and following on since then.

The performance gap: is it just about energy?

Evidence from actual building energy use is indicating that the performance gap between predicted and actual energy use is significant: in non-domestic buildings actual energy use is - on average - 1.5 to 2.5 times as high as predicted.

But it is important to realise that the gap is not just about energy, but also about usability and occupant satisfaction and comfort. Bordass’ and Leaman’s work highlights that many buildings don't work for their users, despite the higher than predicted (energy) cost. Crucially, buildings last a long time so good performance is in the national interest, yet we are bad at constructing buildings that actually work.

Why are we so bad at constructing buildings that actually work?

The division of construction procurement, where each stage is often undertaken by a different team, leads to a lack of continuity in building design and construction and hinders inter-disciplinary working. Inter-disciplinary teams are considered a good thing: it has the power to combine different views and expertise to unpick and better understand issues and find solutions. Worryingly, poor specification, poor quality control, poor commissioning and poor information flow appear to be endemic in the building industry.

While construction related institutions require their members to understand sustainable construction; without understanding the real, actual, measured consequences, this understanding is limited and hampered. In addition, wallets are empty and corners are cut so much so that we do not get the basics right. The result is ‘dictatorial buildings’: they require too much energy to provide comfort levels and user satisfaction. Often this squandering of energy is justified by saying that renewable energy is provided. But this is very wrong and no excuse for an inefficient building.

New buildings often involve new ‘hi-tech kit’, but innovation and sophistication is not about hi-tech kit; we also have to be careful not to make sophisticated buildings that are fragile. For example, automation can work in buildings for things people are not good at but are inappropriate to automate what people are good at. Unfortunately, often a ‘fit and forget‘ approach is undertaken, when in actual fact management and/or maintenance are required for operation. Also, many designers rely on the ‘habitual’ understanding of buildings (i.e. through constant use), but many buildings are not habitually used, so there can be no habitual learning. The solution is therefore designing with context and for usability with ‘affordance’, i.e. the ability to do things easily.

When designing to context, allowance is needed for buildings to be robust changing contexts: buildings are here for a long time and need to be able to adapt/change with time.

The role of Facilities Managers

Corporate management of companies are interested in ‘productivity’ and how this is influenced by the interaction between people and buildings. But Bordass and Leaman warned that this should be approached with care, as productivity is just one measure of the bigger picture of how a building performs and people’s responses to the building environment. Interestingly, from their work on a small sample of 20 buildings, Bordass and Leaman found that a significant variable was a motivated facilities manager: A badly performing building may perform better with an engaged and enthusiastic facilities manager. (Though presumably a good Facilities manager may not turn a ‘bad’ building into a ‘good’ performing one?) 

This sparked an interesting on- and off-line discussion about housing and smaller buildings without facilities managers: if motivated facilities managers can make a bad performing building more forgiving, what does this mean for buildings that do not have building managers at all? Some argued that home-owners are after all ’facilities managers’ in their home; while Carrie Behar pointed out that “dwelling-occupants have different motivations to facilities managers” […] we cannot expect them to constantly think about energy”. Bordass briefly referred to this in his evening talk: “will ordinary people be able to look after buildings when there is complex technology? Meanwhile this complexity has spread to housing.”

The role of architects/designers

Facilities managers are not the only ones able to influence building performance; so can architects through their building design and by being mindful of the 'human factors' affecting building energy use. Architects however got criticised for their lack of engagement with building energy use and that they only seem concerned with ‘design’.

The RIBA had an ‘in -use’ Workstage in the Plan of Work until 1972. But as clients did not seem interested this workstage was considered redundant and then completely removed from the procurement process. The ‘In-Use’ Workstage has since been reinstated in the 2013 RIBA Plan of Work (Stage 7). Bordass’s and Leaman’s outlook was pessimistic however and predicted that if the culture of disengagement with building performance does not change, then the RIBA in-use workstage won’t mean anything and won’t change anything. This current prevailing culture of disengagement is summed up by Prof. Stevenson’s tweet: “architects design, see their buildings get built, but do not check if design expectations met. They move on to the next one.” Others pointed out that this is not just architects’ fault, but lack of Client interest and willingness to pay to undertake this work.

Clearly, if buildings are part of problem, they need to be part of solution. But if we don't understand them, how can we improve them? At the same time the industry often buries bad news, and looks for good examples, yet the ‘bad’ examples are ‘good’ to learn from!

The role of Researchers/Academics

Bordass reiterated again that while we (i.e. researchers/engineers/architects etc.) are great at achieving energy savings in the virtual world, it ultimately is about how things perform in the real world, not how they are ‘supposed’ to perform. They also said that is crucial that academic research is related to the real-world and to industry, which Bordass argued was often no longer the case.

Is a 0% gap possible and should we focus on this?

Energy use in buildings has many variables. We should focus on these to better understand and improve, but even this will not lead to a ‘zero’ gap between design intent and actuality. Though as the gap closes and our understanding increases, a variable for ‘in-use’ could be included at the predicted stage.

Part L 2013

Bordass closed by saying that he hoped there would be no Part L 2013 improvements. His view is that the industry has enough to deal with first to get right.

I am not sure I agree with this: it would be rewarding ourselves for doing badly. But I seem to be in the minority on this view going on the AECB Facebook page. One AECB member, Jake White, even started a government e-petition calling on government to “Address the performance gap in low carbon buildings before setting higher performance standards“, which you can sign here. However, Ken Neal thinks Part L step changes should stay on course as planned and sums it up well: “A drop in designed performance on a higher standard is better than a drop in performance on a lower standard. Let's not drop our vision for the future but build on what we can achieve.”

Bridging the gap

Some points to move forward and help the industry bridge the gap, include:

1. Review and change of construction procurement processes: Interventions are required at different stages in the construction process to reduce the performance gap.

2. Keep it simple!

3. Building management: do not build what you cannot afford to maintain and manage

4. Make performance visible, with intended and achieved performance. DECs are a start

5. Policies needs to converge instead of conflict with in-use performance

6. There is need for a new professionalism: professionals need to engage (at an individual but also collective level) with building performance. A review is needed of professional ethics and practice.

7. Do we need a ‘Building Use’ or ‘Building Performance institute’?

8. Lastly, acknowledge that Energy efficiency is a ‘wicked problem’. This term indicates the problem of energy efficiency as particularly complex, fragmented and involving many different stakeholders, as identified by the Centre for Sustainable Development; Energy Efficiency in the Built Environment (EEBE)Research Programme, Cambridge University

On a personal note, it struck me that while we think we may know all the answers and solutions, it became apparent from discussions with different people, that we do not all agree nor can we say for definite what will work and whether or not trying to fix something will reveal or lead to other unintended consequences in the process. It is indeed a ‘wicked problem’!

Moving forward: November 2013

At the London Loughborough Centre for Doctoral Training (LoLo CDT) we now intend to continue this debate with a gathering of research students (both presenting and attending) in November. I particularly enjoyed the presentations by some of the Doctoral researchers (Carrie Behar, Sam Stamp, David Veitch and Faye Wade), which gives a taste of research undertaken at the UCL Energy Institute/Lolo CDT and its relevance to the industry and building energy performance.

So save this date in your diary: Friday 22nd November 2013 from 10am - 5pm. More details to follow.

Recent related events and publications include:

Bordass also spoke at the Building Centre’s/Buro Happold’s ‘Mind the Gap’ event, alongside UCL Energy Institute Prof Bob Lowe; the Architects’ Journal ‘Bridge the Gap campaign’ was launched this Spring; while the launch of the RIBA/CIBSE/UCL Carbon Buzz platform took place just earlier this month. Additionally, there was the announcement of the CIBSE 2014 Building Performance Awards, based on actual building energy performance not design intent, while the Passivhaus Trust awards also work along similar principles. Furthermore, the Institute for Sustainability published a freely available guide to Building Performance Evaluation, while earlier on in the year, the Zero Carbon Hub announced its ‘Designed v As-Built (DvAB) research’, particularly related to the performance gap in dwellings, which follows on from the NHBC’s 2012 report ‘Low and zero carbon homes: understanding the performance challenge (NF41)’.

Earlier this month, Christopher Gorse from LeedsMet wrote on ‘Closing the Performance Gap’ at STN News while this week UKGBC Pinpoint is undertaking a discussion on BSRIA’s Soft landings framework and AECB members are adding their weight on online discussion forums and by setting up a petition.

The Government’s Soft Landings policy: "Post Operational Evaluation will be used as a collaborative tool to measure and optimise asset performance and embed lessons learnt." This is proposed to apply to all new and major refurbishments in Central Government during 2016.


By Sofie Pelsmakers