Soft landings for public sector

Soft Landings has become one of those buzz words in the Construction Industry but how many people know how to apply it in practice? How does Soft Landings deliver improvements to the performance of buildings once the keys have been handed over?


The Soft Landings Framework was launched by BSRIA and UBT in 2009 and has attracted much interest and support, including from Central Government who launched their own version, Government Soft Landings (GSL) in 2016. Adoption of Soft Landings has been frustratingly slow in the UK and appears to be mostly led by the Higher Education sector.  Public Sector take up remains patchy according to  Mike Chater from Hampshire County Council, the first Council to adopt Soft Landings unilaterally on its new build projects. Mike is a senior architect and has been a keen supporter of Soft Landings since its beginning. He is determined to see wider use of the process to improve both quality and operational performance of building projects.

This case study is about how Hampshire developed their own version of Soft Landings and how it is being applied in practice across capital build programmes in Education and Adult Services.

Adapting Soft Landings to Public Sector

The Soft Landings Framework is basically a list of activities and checks that need to be carried out during the key stages of a project. Both BSRIA and GSL frameworks work well for larger and more complex projects but don’t necessarily suit the breadth of project scale delivered by Local Authorities and Public Sector clients. It was clear that Soft Landings (within the context of local government cuts) would only gain traction as an idea if it could be delivered at low or zero cost. On smaller projects (below £5m) it is difficult to justify the expense of yet another consultant so Soft Landings needs to be delivered in a much more strategic way;  Soft Landings consultant input is limited to the facilitation of  2 workshops and a series of one to one meetings at strategic points during briefing, design and construction. Success is dependent upon the project lead (usually the architect) taking on the role of the Soft Landings Champion within their existing fee allocation.

Bottom Up

The first project to adopt the Soft Landings process was St John’s Primary School for Reading Borough Council completed in 2015. The project was a complicated, multi phased refurbishment and new build and was one of the first projects in the UK to formally adopt the Soft Landings process from inception to completion. Despite a lot of time and effort, the project had quite a hard landing at point of handover but through fine tuning and perseverance was able to eventually meet performance expectations (demonstrated in a post occupancy evaluation study.) Reading Borough Council then commissioned Hampshire to apply the Soft Landings process across their £60m Education Capital Programme and it was on these projects that Soft Landings for Public Sector ( SLPS)really developed. Since then Hampshire Property Services have applied the process to its own Education and Adult Services capital projects worth £85m and have taken the step of unilaterally applying Soft Landings from the start of this year.

Inception and Briefing

One of the biggest misconceptions about Soft Landings is that it is solely a handover tool. It is undoubtedly very useful in helping to deliver a smooth landing but it is most effective when applied from the beginning of a project. The workshops are the most important element of delivering SLPS so the timing of these and working out who attends is critical

One to one meetings during briefing stage and scheme design introduce the process to the design and delivery teams. These meetings also tease out the robustness of the briefing process; is the project aligned to other programmes of work, has sufficient consideration been given to how the asset may change or need to be adapted over its life time?

Site Strategy Workshops

One issue that is of special importance to school design is where to ‘land ‘ the building on the site or campus. This decision is all too often taken by building professionals and educationalists without due regard to a wider group of stakeholders; head-teachers, teachers, parents and pupils. Moving forward without fully testing assumptions can have costly consequences. So in order to ensure a smooth takeoff, HCC now runs two site strategy workshops for new build and expansion projects. The first workshop analyses the existing site in terms of positive and negative attributes. The second workshop is then aspirational; about how the site could be developed. Although the final decision as to exactly where to locate the building is still taken by the architect and client; the process ensures that the development is right for the site as a whole and involves the whole school community determining this key part of the brief.

Design

The first Soft Landing workshop takes place prior to detailed and technical design stage, before or shortly after planning submission ( RIBA stage 3). The workshop brings together stakeholders with the design team, client (and contractor if already appointed.) Part of the challenge is getting clients to appreciate who all the stakeholders are and to be willing to give them a voice.  For example, on a care home project stakeholders could be a diverse group that includes people already in care, night staff and cleaners as well as facility managers, the care provider and client. There is a tendency with consultation to defer to those with management responsibilities when consulting on key decisions; this misses out the opportunity to gain valuable feedback and lessons learned from a wider base. The first workshop is often the only chance to have all these key stakeholders in one room at the same time. Participants are encouraged to voice any potential issues that might compromise the success of the project from their perspective. It is basically a hunt for banana skins; the issues which have the potential to cause slip ups, delays and defects, either in the run up to handover or once the building is in use.

Although Soft Landings has its origins in Building Services and Carbon Management, once applied in practice, it becomes quickly apparent that it can be used to flag up any operational issues, whether it be about materials, interior design or landscaping. Mike has undertaken a lot of these workshops but in each one there is usually a new issue that takes him by surprise. For instance, during a workshop for a large secondary school project, the business manager requested that the landscaping in front of her office didn’t obscure her view of a courtyard with tall flower spikes. This was because maintaining clear views across this courtyard was an important part of the school’s strategy for safeguarding. It is this kind of issue which is rarely picked up in ordinary design reviews because it takes insight and critical thinking.

Write it Down

The problem with workshops is that they become talking shops. To ensure a tangible output is achieved, notes from the workshops are collated into a spreadsheet; these list specific (operational) risks to the project that have been identified alongside lessons learned from other projects. It then also highlights a series of actions to mitigate the risks which are apportioned to the designers, those managing construction/commissioning and finally facilities management. Regular reviews of this document are then encouraged to check whether the actions to mitigate the risk have been completed.

The industry is accustomed to managing risks to cost, programme and Health and Safety, but less good at focusing on performance risk. The Operational Risk Register is a crucial document because not only is it a record of the performance risks identified, it is also a record of the ways in which those risks were managed or avoided. Alongside registers from other projects, they build up an invaluable library of knowledge which can then inform design on new projects moving forward.

Construction

Managing Soft Landings has often been equated with baton passing in a relay race. Continuity is often a problem on construction projects and complex forms of contract only serve to compound this. Soft Landings for Public Sector requires the identification of 2 champions; one client side (the architect) and another contractor side (usually the site manager). The majority of projects are procured through the Southern Construction Framework, adopting its two stage procurement process. This early engagement with the contractor is very useful from a Soft Landings perspective. ‘Value Engineering’ is often a fraught process; early engagement can de risk this to an extent but it is still vital that during such discussions both contractor and client team refer back to the risk register to ensure that knock on performance implications of design changes are fully understood. The risk register is included within tender documentation such that the whole team, client, designers and constructors can take ownership of this responsibility both pre contract and within contract.

Pre Handover

A second workshop is scheduled three months prior to handover or first major sectional completion. It is usually held in the site cabin with the contractor, end users and client and is essentially about working backwards from the completion date; to ensure that all parties fully understand their responsibilities with respect to ordering, supply and installation. Any competent contractor should have a clear idea of what their responsibilities are. The problems usually arise from the interface between where that responsibility ends and another party’s begins. An example of this might be supply and install of fire fighting equipment. Usually the end user client will already have a term contract in place so becomes a client supply - contractor fit item. Working through requirements for pattressing, advance access etc are all things which need to be established ahead of occupation and usually require co-ordination between the different parties involved. By working through these issues, everyone has sight of what they have to do and when; it takes a lot of stress out of the process.

Handover and Aftercare

Enabling a smooth landing is one of the many bonuses of adopting a Soft Landings process.  A smooth landing depends upon early engagement of both building users and those who will manage the facility. One of the outputs of the second workshop is to ensure that there is a realistic programme for both user training and building familiarisation.

It is also important to understand how and who will be running the facility and making sure that the Building Information  is in a useable format ; to this end HCC Property Services  require three levels of information; the normal Building Manual, a quick start guide of key asset information (for facility managers / caretakers), and finally a Building Users Guide.

Last but not least there needs to be some definition around what ‘Aftercare’ looks like and who will be delivering it. Most contractors offer an aftercare manager but at handover itself it is important to obtain some firm commitments to a series of defect review meetings and also to set dates for the seasonal commissioning of building services.

Cost

The single biggest barrier to adoption of Soft Landings has been the perception that it creates an additional level of complexity and therefore additional cost. The stock response to this is ‘you can’t afford not to’ – in other words, that the long term, whole life cost benefits of adoption far outweigh the very modest sums of additional fee. (Anecdotal estimates of the contribution Soft Landings can achieve in terms of annual energy savings are up to £350k per annum on a large secondary school.) The problem with this is that however impressive, these savings are usually picked up by the end user and therefore benefit a different budget stream which can’t be traded. Soft Landings for Public Sector acknowledges this issue by being strategic about the level of specialist consultancy input required. This is paired down to a facilitating role with occasional interventions and workshops, making designers and constructors the people who undertake the responsibility for actual delivery. As this is about being more coordinated and better organised at the start of a project, in order to save time later, the expectation is that Soft Landings should be delivered from within existing fee structures.

Impacts and Benefits

The most noticeable impact from running Soft Landing for Public Sector  is that projects have been found to be more considered and prepared at critical stages. HCC run a Gateway Review process which is showing that  SL projects are noticeably more prepared for handover at an earlier stage when compared with projects that didn’t run Soft Landings. Feedback from end users (mostly head teachers) has been very positive, stating that the process made them feel more involved and listened to. Positive feedback has also been received from clients, contractors and design consultants.

Another qualitative benefit is that Soft Landings has been a catalyst for embedding a lesson learning culture across the department; a series of recently completed education projects had a shared design but with site specific interpretations. Site visits to all the projects were carried out post completion by the wider team with specific focus on lesson learning; what worked well, not so well. The observations from these visits alongside the completed Soft Landings risk registers are being fed back into the next generation of school expansion projects.

Quantative benefits of running Soft Landings are harder to define. Firstly, because it takes time for buildings to reach their optimum performance; they need to ‘bed down’ and be fine tuned within the 12 months defect period. The projects that have adopted Soft Landings are at various stages with a relatively small number at this point. The main way of testing performance is by undertaking a Post Occupancy Evaluation (P.O.E.) at around 12 months. POE’s can be quite expensive and so need to be undertaken sparingly; e.g. taking one project out of a group of similar projects. HCC is looking to develop its own in-house service for delivering these studies.

Secondly, to really understand the quantative advantages, say in terms of energy saving between a project running SL and not running SL, one would need to have a control; a project as close as possible  in terms of scale, complexity, site, form of contract etc; there are just too many determining factors to be able to form a clear picture. Rather than try and focus on the net added value, a better approach is to study longer term impacts of adoption from a wide variety of sources. At Hampshire this will hopefully include a growing data base of POE findings, key performance indicator scoring and perhaps most importantly of all, anecdotal feedback from our Property Management Surveyors who have greatest level of continuity with individual buildings through the Service Level Agreement.

Conclusion and Additional Information

This case study hopefully demonstrates that the adoption of Soft Landing for Public Sector on an individual project, or programme of work, can help achieve better levels of performance and functionality from an asset, reduced defects and smoother handovers. Furthermore, it need not add any significant costs to a project – especially important given the current contect of Local Government fiunding. A more wide-scale adoption of the process can bring additional benefits in terms of building resilience and a learning lesson culture into systems of procurement.

If you have found this of interest and would like to know more about how Soft Landings for Public Sector could help your organisation, please contact:

Mike Chater
Soft Landings for Public Sector
Property Services
Winchester
SO238UL