Spare a thought for building aftercare

Soft Landings

Written by Roderic Bunn, principal consultant in building performance analysis, BSRIA

Since the launch of the free-to-use Soft Landings Framework in 2009, clients and project teams behind new schools have been keen to adopt the soft landings process of graduated handover. Many are learning the hard way that schools are not operationally ready. They need bedding-in, fine-tuning, and professional aftercare before they work properly – the basis of the soft landings approach.

Headteachers, unfamiliar with procuring their shiny new schools, have been shocked at the higher energy costs and management effort that result from taking charge of something that might have cost upwards of £30 million.        
Local authorities, also expecting their massive investment to work ‘out of the box’, are surprised to find that school and academy buildings are unfinished at occupation and full of technologies and controls that don’t work very well and that no-one understands. Throw renewable energy systems into the mix (and many do appear to be afterthoughts), and the problems often multiply.

Teachers are finding that even simple technologies, such as motorised windows and automatic lighting either don’t do what they are supposed to do, or do it too often, too noisily, or just randomly. Occupants feel alienated and out of control by the very systems installed to make their teaching lives easier. While they may not hanker after their old crumbling school, with its draughts, dark corners and wayward heating, teaching staff have rightly expected far more of their new buildings. They feel short changed. Irritated. Let down. This is not a good advert for the building industry. 

The way that we do it
More often than not, the technical shortcomings of new schools lies not with the technology, but far more with the way we procure and deliver schools and academies to an unsuspecting educational community. In other words, it’s not what we do, it’s the way that we do it. And the way we do it is by fixating on time and cost, rushing to get on site, rushing the commissioning, and rushing to get paid and get off site as fast as possible. This leads to all sorts of operational shortcomings. Eliminating those problems is what soft landings seeks to address.

Smoothing the transition

Soft Landings is a step-by-step process designed to smooth the transition of a new school from the construction phase into use. With soft landings, the handover of a school or academy is treated as a gradual process, rather than the standard way of doing things where the tape is cut, the head teacher given the keys, and the builder allowed to leg it into the night with a cheque in the back pocket. You might laugh at this image, but even today building contracts are written that encourage that approach.

A project that is built around the soft landings process forces everyone on a school project to think differently from the outset. Blind faith in technology and the infallibility of architects and builders is replaced by a better and more direct understanding of how the school is to be used and managed. A culture of post-completion follow-through is written into client requirements, professional appointments, and the procurement of builders and contractors.

Design reviews, reality-checking, and building fine-tuning are a key part of the process. Project teams are engaged to support the school up to three years post completion to make sure everything works as it should, and that the energy and environmental performance targets, promised at the outset, are actually met.

That, in a nutshell, is soft landings. The construction industry is well aware of its existence, and arguably all that local authorities, schools partnerships and free schools management teams need to do is make it a requirement for their new build or refurbishment projects.

Soft landings is a free-to-use protocol. It is not part of a licenced system, nor is it controlled by any one organisation. Official records of its take-up therefore don’t exist. However, the publisher of the Soft Landings Framework, the research consultancy BSRIA, is detecting seismic movements, and there is growing evidence of its adoption in many sectors, particularly schools.

Take Estover Secondary Community College in Plymouth. The comprehensive school and visual arts college is part of a £39 million project funded by Plymouth City Council under the One School Pathfinder Initiative. The design, by architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) and AECOM uses various passive techniques such as high thermal mass and summertime night ventilation.

The college is being constructed in seven phases. When the project started, the architect worked with the main contractor Keir Western to establish a better approach to phasing, handover and aftercare. Special effort was placed on the pre-handover stage and post-occupancy aftercare. Summary soft landings checklists were developed and the Kier Western site team used these alongside their standard handover processes.

The handover review found that the soft landings processes were good. Although soft landings activities were introduced late into the project, Kier Western found that benefits would accrue from the school’s facilities staff committing to monitoring the building actively, with the environmental data also feeding into the school curriculum.

Although there was no contractual requirement to carry out post-completion fine-tuning, the project team stayed on site to offer support. This was aided by the fact that the project team are being retained to deliver future phases of the school. Kier Western has shown its commitment to soft landings by incorporating it within the Kier Care Commitment – a tailored version of soft landings aftercare that the builder will offer to its clients.

The way we procure
Clients are also waking up to the potential of soft landings. Birmingham City University (BCU) has revised its entire procurement process for a new 21 000 m2 campus building on soft landings. Prospective main contractors have been required to bid in partnership with a mechanical and electrical contractor to ensure that the soft landings activities involved shared roles, responsibilities and risk.

The main contractor will also be retained for three years post completion, with full maintenance responsibility included. An interesting and very insightful modification to the usual appointment is that the successful contractor will be extended to include user familiarisation with controls systems – something so often lost in the rush to complete a project and get off site.

BCU has included soft landings requirements throughout the entire project, including three years post-completion. Of course there is a cost to this – the design consultants charged an additional one per cent fee for their post-occupancy involvement. While this was a large uplift, BCU recognised it as a value-added investment. As an expert client, BCU realised that even if they didn’t budget for it, they could well lose high sums later through underperforming systems that would otherwise not be finished off properly, nor fine-tuned in operation. Soft landings should ensure that problems are identified and resolved, leading to energy savings that will offset the initial investment. 

Environmental design

Government and local authorities have long been using environmental assessment methods, like the BREEAM environmental assessment and certification scheme for new non-domestic buildings, to try and ensure new schools are sustainable. All public sector projects are required to achieve BREEAM ratings of Excellent or Very Good. While BREEAM and similar methods are valuable for concentrating the minds of design teams on sustainable features, whether it be solar power, wood chip boilers or rainwater recovery, having a high BREEAM rating offers no guarantee of sustainable performance in operation.

The process of issuing Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) has also mislead local authorities and headteachers to believe that their new school’s impressive design rating of ‘A’ will be achieved in reality. Many have been shocked to receive a Display Energy Certificate rating of ‘D’ 12 months after opening, with electricity consumption three to five times what they were led to expect.

So there is much-needed convergence between environmental design assessments and the soft landings way of thinking. And with perfect timing, the latest edition of the BREEAM scheme now allowing credits for undertaking soft landings activities, and for following-through after handover.

Soft landings champions

Launched in March this year, BREEAM New Construction, includes credits for the client, the building occupier, and the design team and contractors to be involved in contributing to the project’s decision-making process. This includes identifying and defining roles, responsibilities and contributions.

Soft landings calls for the creation of soft landings champions – one on the client side and a matching person on the supply side. Both champions should be people involved for the full duration of the project. Under BREEAM, three new credits are available for the appointment of a BRREAM accredited professional. Quite apart from specific BREEAM responsibilities, there is no reason why this individual could not also become one of the soft landings champions.

BREEAM 2011 requires a schedule of training identified for relevant building occupiers and the premises manager. Again, the soft landings work steps provide the means by which operation and maintenance staff can get training and familiarisation with the building and its systems. Training should include demonstration of the building management system and its interfaces. Occupiers need to be made familiar with all allied controls systems, know that they are operating correctly, and understand how to use and fine-tune them. The convergence between BREEAM and soft landings will make this more likely to happen. 

As soft landings moves into the mainstream, and the results from better handover, fine-tuning and aftercare support begin to show dividends in lower energy consumption and better performing building systems, soft landings should become routine. And the feedback from successful school projects, where the energy savings predicated at the start are actually achieved in reality, should then inform the next generation of school buildings. For without a soft landings approach, we cannot deliver low carbon schools. Low carbon designs, yes, but not low carbon buildings.

For further information, Soft Landings for Schools – Case Studies, detailing feedback from the early use of the Soft Landings Framework in schools, is available as a free PDF from or

Roderic Bunn is a principal consultant in building performance analysis at BSRIA, working for the Carbon Trust on its Low Carbon Buildings Performance programme. He manages the soft landings initiative at BSRIA and is a Building Performance Evaluator for the Technology Strategy Board.