The industry is in denial, buildings should perform as expected all the time.

Neil May

There is a lot of talk about the performance gap in building projects currently. The performance gap, of course, is not confined to building projects. Performance gaps exist in every area of life and are well known in some sectors, such as healthcare.

They are nothing more than the gap between our intentions or expectations (sometimes formalised as policies or standards) and what happens in reality. They exist in government, industry and personal life. Of course, your partner may not understand what you mean if you say “there is a performance gap in our relationship”, but he or she will almost certainly understand about expectations not always being fulfilled.

What do we mean by the performance gap in buildings? In the work on this subject in the Zero Carbon Hub and CLG the focus is on closing the gap between designed energy performance and actual. However, it is becoming obvious to everyone that there is also an equal or greater gap in ventilation performance, comfort (particularly overheating) and general environmental performance.

In our business we are also concerned with the gap in fabric durability, usability and in what we term as “delight”, which covers issues such as daylighting, spacial layout and quality of finish. These are all important because buildings are more than just energy machines. They have a considerable impact on our well being, culture and environment in many ways.

there seems to be an acceptance of the performance gap as an inevitable consequence of the complexity of buildings

In the building sector there seems to be an acceptance of the performance gap as an inevitable consequence of the complexity of buildings and the interaction of people with each other and with technologies. This acceptance is convenient to mainstream practice as it is a way of not addressing these issues, and not having to change practice and process in the industry. But is this acceptable? 

Most of the problems arise in the design and construction (or renovation) of buildings which could be addressed by better knowledge, more care, and using a joined-up process such as Soft Landings. True, it does require legislation and policy which is realistic and focuses not on world beating technologies or single focus targets, but on long term all round performance. However blaming governments is no excuse for most of the performance gaps. 

The industry has to stop being in denial. Delivering buildings which are not healthy, or comfortable or usable is not only irresponsible, but is unprofessional. Good buildings should not be an added value offering, but the standard offering. The bar has to be reset. Those projects which fail to meet the performance which is required for a good building should be seen not as average but as unacceptable, as failures.

In resetting the bar and widening the notion of performance, we can not only drive much needed changes in practice in this sector, but also raise the public status of building as well as industry self-respect. We can also start to reduce the importance and viability of those players who don’t care and whose only concern is the gap in their profits. It is time to get real.

Neil May is managing director of Natural Building Technologies