Flip the system: demanding time with occupiers.

Eimear Moloney

Eimear Moloney, Associate Director, Performance

Let’s eliminate the echo chamber.

Extracted from the 2019 CIBSE tech symposium debate:

Several years ago, I bumped into an old client of mine in a coffee shop. I asked him how the building that I had designed for him the previous year was working. It was a small, very architectural lecture theatre. He said that everything was fine, but that fan in the lobby was excessively noisy… to put it politely.

Now, this fan he mentioned was designed to be used during big events, when there were maybe a hundred or so people milling about during the intermission. So, I commented that he must have been busy with all the events they were hosting but he looked at me blankly and asked what I meant. Long story short, it turns out that fan had been switched on continuously – a misunderstanding of how the system was designed to run.

Despite numerous discussions and lots of training at handover, he had not understood what was supposed to happen.

So, what are we to do?

Are we to rely on serendipity? Hoping to bump into clients? Of course not.

But whose fault is this? Well, I’d like to propose that it was neither person’s fault, but rather that it is the system that is broken.

A colleague from UCL said to me recently:

“Traditionally, a design team is involved in the building development process, but is expected to leave once the building is physically complete, so end-users end up with a building they are unlikely to fully understand.”

I would go one step further… it’s not that end users are just unlikely to fully understand, rather – they don’t even have a chance of understanding!

So why are we allowing this to happen?

Why are we not standing up for our designs and our industry, and shouting that this is wrong? It’s unfair to both the design team and the building users.

The clear majority of us are good designers. We design a building in a certain way for a very good reason. Yet we are allowing ourselves to be blamed because the system is not set up to allow us to help our clients get settled in.

Why isn’t there a method to force this serendipitous situation?

The more savvy of you will be thinking: “…but Soft Landings!” On paper, Soft Landings is brilliant. However, in reality it’s a different story. More often than not, it is misunderstood and poorly executed. I do believe the bare bones of the solution is in there, but the framework must evolve so that it better suits our clients.

I’m still frustrated by how design teams work in an echo chamber; we think we know the answer, but often clients feel differently. We need to listen to them better.

The good news is that occupier engagement can – and has been proven – to work.

When a client actively engages with their design team post-completion on a formal basis, the risk of poorly performing buildings is almost eliminated.

At Hoare Lea we’ve done this with the University of Oxford and had hugely positive outcomes, not least in helping the Estates Team be named Building Performance Champion at the 2018 CIBSE Building Performance awards.

So ultimately, the answer lies with all of us.

We need to demand that we are given the time to show our occupiers how solutions work and why we designed them that way – and then finally we’ll have end users who truly understand their buildings… and buildings that perform to their best.