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Navigating choppy waters demands clear R&D focus

Examining the market trends that impact building services contractors and consultants is BSRIA's stock in trade. Hardly surprising, therefore, that chief executive Andrew Eastwell has powerfully-held and well-informed views about the industry's future. He shared some of them with Ian Vallely
The biggest challenge for companies over the next two years is simply to survive. That much is blindingly obvious.

However, the nature of the organisation he heads up has led BSRIA chief executive Andrew Eastwell to take the long view. Over the next decade, he believes the building services industry is going to have to concentrate far more on outputs rather than focusing solely on its inputs.

As he explains: 'Hitherto, it has really been a question of specifying products and systems, and ensuring they are installed in accordance with the specification. Although important, these are input-led activities. Increasingly, I think we are going to have to question what outputs these activities deliver.

'I use this analogy - when airlines buy aeroplanes they are not too bothered what's in them. What they really want to know is what their fuel consumption is, are they a better experience for the passengers than their competitors and how much do they cost to operate?'

The hvac sector may ask different questions, but the principle remains the same. So, for example, Andrew believes we will face a massive energy issue sometime in the next 10 years: 'Energy is either going to be rationed by price or by availability and the impact of that on businesses will be colossal. If there is a power outage and the IT goes down, business will pretty much come to a grinding halt.

Underwriting performance
'For us, the imperatives are going to be how we deal with those costs or that interruption in service. This means that, as designers, installers and manufacturers, we are going to be asked to underwrite to a higher degree than we do now the performance of the things we produce.'

However, because we have lacked the mechanisms, we are not good as an industry at assessing the outputs we provide (such as energy and comfort). Andrew again: 'That is true throughout the chain. We are not very good at separating the effect of what we do in providing the asset and the way users use the asset.

'You often hear the excuse: 'I can't guarantee the performance of the building because I don't know how people are going to use it.' You can't. But what you can do eventually, if you work at it, is begin to separate out what those effects are.

'Take the example of a motor car: The showroom might say that it will do 56mpg at 60mph, and it will - there is a standard test for proving that. It's unlikely you'll ever achieve it because you don't drive like a standard test. But the showroom has begun to separate out the way the asset performs and the way users use the asset. Over the next decade, I think we are going to have to learn how to do that in the building services industry.'

Searching for the gap
In other words, we are going to have to get better at 'finding the gap'. Andrew explains: 'There is almost inevitably a gap between the design performance and the actual performance of a product or system and it is always the wrong way. Calculation methods assume a perfect construction and this is virtually impossible to achieve. For example, there isn't a piece of insulation that has ever been improved by putting a nail through it, but you have to attach it somehow.

'So, the challenge, I think, is to better understand the things we deliver as an industry; not just the designers designing them on paper, but how they are constructed and the system performance of the installation because guarantees and expectations from purchasers are going to increase.'

For Andrew, the need to concentrate on outputs is being forced on us by a strongly articulated desire from the Government for zero carbon buildings: 'Whatever else it is, this is about reducing the cost of ownership of the building in the long term. It's expressed in Building Regulations and the various pronouncements of Government about green buildings. I think green equals money, or it should do. That's what we need to deliver.'

And part of an enlightened delivery process involves working more closely together: 'You can't produce an environmentally benign building if you haven't got an integrated process behind it. I am an absolute supporter of an integrated construction process. It doesn't mean that we all have to be expert about everybody else's job, but it does mean that our responsibility is not to our own particular skill; it is to the end product.

'The winners that emerge from this dismal period will be the companies and supply chains that can supply systems that work in an integrated and co-ordinated way.

'They will be far more systems that product oriented. So the supply chain or company that can come up with systems that are properly defined and engineered, that the user can understand and use are going to be the winners.'

Hard facts about soft landings

Soft Landings is a process developed by BSRIA for designers and constructors to improve the operational performance of buildings and provide valuable feedback to project teams.

It requires designers and constructors to remain involved with buildings beyond practical completion, to assist the client during the first months of operation and beyond, to help fine-tune and de-bug the systems, and ensure occupiers understand how to control and best use their buildings.

But Andrew Eastwell believes there is a common misunderstanding by elements in the building services industry about what Soft Landings is actually intended to be. 'Some associate it only with measuring the performance of a building after it has been delivered - so-called post-occupancy evaluation. That is a fundamental plank of Soft Landings, but only in the sense that what we would like is a process through which the design team learns quickly the results of their endeavours, good and bad. For example, they may learn that what they have designed is a good system, but is just too complicated for the operator to use.

'Soft Landings is not there to give the contractor a hard time; rather, it's so they have a self-improvement process because if they get it right first time their costs will go down.

'At its best it is a process that ensures there is complete transparency of endeavour. That is fighting an uphill battle because, traditionally, we don't work that way; each discipline tends to work in silos and cost cutting is a primary concern. (There is, incidentally, nothing wrong with cost cutting, but let's ensure we cut the right ones).

'But the Soft Landing principles are about the end-to-end construction process.'
See for more details.

Time to turn the tide on profligate energy use

BSRIA chief executive Andrew Eastwell has recently returned from a gruelling seven-week, 3,500 mile sailing trip from Panama to French Polynesia. For him, the experience has brought energy use (and abuse) into sharp relief.

He says: 'The energy budget for the boat required that three people got all their lighting, fridge and navigation from the output of two solar collectors and a wind turbine. Leave the lights on and you have runny butter.

'The water budget was 5 litres per person per day for washing, drinking and cooking. That compares with an average of around 140 litres per person per day in the UK.

'Having a finite supply of fresh water focuses your mind incredibly. I'm not suggesting hair shirts, but I am saying that the kind of mind-set we had on the boat is what we, as a society, need to begin to move towards. So much water around us but so little that is actually useful.'

The need for properly funded research

The drive towards getting our building stock to operate more efficiently has been under funded and under resourced for the last decade, according to Andrew Eastwell.

He believes that, although the Technical Strategy Board (TSB) is helpful because it funds research and development (R&D), we have not adequately covered R&D to support the kinds of demands that are being placed on the building services industry.

The TSB's stated aim is to 'accelerate economic growth by stimulating and supporting business-led innovation'.

Andrew has no problem with this, but believes that it is not enough on its own. He says: 'The TSB's fundamental remit is to develop wealth and, although it's not at odds with the public service approach, we rather lost our way about a decade ago when the responsibility for funding R&D in construction moved from DCLG to BIS.'

He believes this led to the loss of fundamental construction R&D as a focused activity designed to support public requirements such as regulations and standards: 'In a sense, we have lost the R&D infrastructure that drew in experts from industry as well as experts from academia. If I had a wish list, at the top would be bringing that back that in one form or another.'

For Andrew, the consequences of the change in structure have been profound. 'Green Deal would be better if the evidence base behind it was more secure. I'm not saying the Green Deal is wrong per se, but one of its big issues is the guarantee as to whether it is going to perform or not. Our knowledge of systems is not good enough to be able to answer that question accurately because of a lack of fundamental research...

'Where is the real thinking going into understanding what the requirements are going to be in the long term? It is so distributed among different government departments at the moment that there isn't really a focus for it. I think that's a shame.

'It's time to for a rethink. We are not talking about vast sums of money; we are simply talking about using the money we've got more effectively.'
10 September 2012


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