The great and the good had departed. The new Centre for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, UK, was complete. All that remained before the official opening by the Queen was to ensure that the building services were running properly.

Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge

In the control room, where the building management system was to be operated, the facilities manager stared, transfixed—eyes wide with concern and incomprehension—at the banks of dials and gauges facing him. “Like the cockpit of a Boeing,” he said, expletive deleted. Of course, he had been given various operating manuals. But those manuals hadn’t given him enough understanding of how to properly manage the building services and utilities, much less to optimise them and keep the energy use down to what had been required in the users’ brief, and then promised by the designers. It was apparent that there would have to be a much better system for the users to optimise the management of their new buildings after occupation. And so, as the next building, the new Centre for Computing Science, neared completion, it was decided to develop a system to engage all the main players to optimise commissioning and through-life use of the building.

A program of visits for building users was set up during the latter stages of construction. The visits were to ensure that users could get a good feel for how the building would work for them, and could discuss issues with the designers and contractors. The handover manuals were drafted many weeks before project completions, with architect and building services engineers discussing systems with those who would operate the building. After the building handover, the project architect and the contractor site manager set up a shared office in the new building and worked from there for a few months. They got to know the building users, and were able to explain how the building should really work. They were able to discuss and address problems onsite. By working together, the project architect and the contractor were often able to sort out problems much quicker.

Soft Landings was Born

In sum, Soft Landings is the graduated handover of a new or refurbished building whereby a period of professional after-care by the project team is a requirement. Soft Landings is planned from project inception and lasts for up to three years after project handover.

In the early days, a working group representing all aspects of A/E/C met with construction lawyers to develop and codify a Soft Landings system that could be taken off the shelf and included by agreement in the appointment contracts for designers, managers and constructors. An assessment concluded that Soft Landings costs were less than the costs resulting from the disruption, extra work, and legal hassles from faults being reported by users.

There has been a major priority shift in UK A/E/C toward building performance, user/ owner “happiness,” and environmental standards through the life of the building. This trend is growing for several reasons: voluntary and imposed environmental pressures; the growing realisation among owners how much higher through-life building costs are than the original capital design/construction costs; and designers and constructors increasingly value repeat business and longer-term relationships. Post-occupancy research has shown how much more energy is used to run buildings than had been specified, promised and designed; building owners and users are increasingly unwilling to accept that, and calls for legal or financial redress suggest a parallel being drawn with the VW emissions scandal.

The Soft Landings procedure has spread widely. In May 2011 the UK government announced that all its tax-funded procurement should incorporate its version of Soft Landings as standard practice by 2016. Soft Landings was also spreading in other countries, including some progressive architectural practices in the US and Australia. In UK an organisation called Soft Landings Network produced a helpful website for users, and British Standards, the basis of building specifications, has a Publicly Available Specification (PAS) on Soft Landings.

The most extensive early development of Soft Landings was by a UK-based organisation called The Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA). Many of its guidance documents can be downloaded at no charge. The most helpful for those new to Soft Landings is “The Core Principles.” There also is a Framework document and a “reality check” document called “Pitstopping.” Soft Landings was generated by BSRIA as a free, public-interest open-source methodology.

The first stage of Soft Landings encourages earlier appointment of key specialist designers/ advisors relating to control systems, commissioning, facilities managers, ICT, lighting and control integrators, and more. A Soft Landings champion is appointed at this early stage.

In the second stage, during design development and then construction, there is a review of those aspects of design that will affect managers and users of the building. Also at this stage, the building’s operations are compared to recent buildings of the same type, and there is agreement about how metering and energy monitoring will work. Supervised tours of the building are arranged by designers and constructors for future users and managers of the building.

Stage 3 is pre-handover/commissioning, when building energy and other control systems are tested and training on their use is completed. As in previous stages, Building Management System (BIM) or other forms of CAD provide an efficient framework for SL procedures. The UK government is very firm that SL is adopted for all tax-funded projects within the context of BIM.

In the fourth stage, construction and building services (and/or architect) design representatives stay in the building for 6-8 weeks. During this final stage, there are scheduled meetings led by the SL champion for at least a few months after building handover to assess manager and user feedback, the latter being ever richer and more complex with wider use of social media. These post-occupancy meetings fit in well with the preparation for a post-occupancy evaluation (POE). They do, of course, require commitment from the building owners and managers. With that commitment and the presence of designer/constructor representatives onsite for at least the first couple of months, problems get fixed much quicker and less acrimoniously. After-care continues to a pre-agreed extent for the first three years of occupation.

How do we know how much good Soft Landings does? Is it worth the trouble? Those who use the Soft Landings model say that they can see the benefits in building performance and better user-satisfaction with fewer contractual problems, but it is difficult to quantify the specific benefits. The Soft Landings procedure is open-access so no one can put a number on how much it is used. And as every building is different, it is difficult to run statistical control studies to compare projects that do and don’t use the SL model. However, there is clear evidence that projects that have incorporated the Soft Landings model have higher occupant satisfaction and fewer energy gaps between specified and actual. Designers who use Soft Landings have higher rates of repeat business.

In sum, Soft Landings is best thought of as the process of aligning the interests of those who design and construct an asset with the interests of those who use and manage it. It aims to improve both client and user experiences with fewer and less disruptive re-visits, as well as to give a product that performs better to client expectations and to higher environmental standards. This should assist in achieving the seismic shift required in A/E/C to achieve the industry’s Holy Grail: demonstrating how well-designed, energy-efficient and well-managed buildings can result in improved occupant well-being and productivity.

David Adamson is a Fellow of the Institute of Civil Engineers, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in UK, a visiting professor at University College London, on the UK’s Construction Industry Training Board, and was director of construction policy for the UK government.

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly.