Until buildings are installed exactly as designed and developers are involved with building performance in the long term, we will never achieve whole life value

Peter Caplehorn

Whole life value underpins sustainability. It means designing and constructing buildings that perform as optimally as possible throughout their lives. However we know that the current generation of buildings don’t deliver day to day performance so have no chance of performing well over say 60 years.

The Government Construction Strategy 2025 sets out a number of substantial challenges including the notion of whole life value. This will take the combined efforts of industry and government to realise.

The strategy emphasises good procurement strategies and well organised procedures to achieve positive outcomes. I suggest this is a bit of a misconception as the barriers and challenge of achieving anything of a whole life nature is extraordinarily complex whether this is cost, value or carbon.

Consider for one moment what this actually means. What particular values and metrics are applied over how long a period and how much variation over time is allowed for the outcome to be considered successful? Much has been said and written on this topic and we even have several international standards setting out suggested methodologies and outcomes. Despite all this discussion and effort, there is very little practical and focused information on how to achieve whole life outcomes and what these look like. While the concept is obvious and the goals desirable, the reality is as intangible and elusive as any fictional character.

To bring the concept of whole life value to everyday projects requires aspirations to be matched to reality

A whole life view of a project must be clearly set out from the beginning. The core values must be maintained throughout the twists and turns of design and development and seen safely through the procurement process. Practically, this means that the established performance of every component, fixing, material and assembly coupled with how it will be installed onsite is exactly as designed. This is the only way the anticipated whole life carbon and quality values can be realised in the completed design.

Once the completed building starts being used an equal or perhaps greater level of vigilance and application is needed. All the maintenance, cleaning and usage patterns must follow the prescribed path. In most cases this will be over a number of decades which means the attention to detail and perseverance needed to see this through is substantial.

The odds of this actually happening are very low. Most of the industry separates the interests of the developer from the long term uses. Inevitably developers have little involvement with building performance long term. Before we can make whole life value work we need to fix this disconnect.

There is the additional challenge of long term change. All projects will go through social and economic changes, fashions come and go all of which will destroy this carefully crafted life. These changes have the potential to make a perfectly good quality building obsolete or worthless.

Like many things in life we can only judge success after many years. There are examples where whole life values have been established at the beginning of projects but these are the exceptions. To bring the concept of whole life value to everyday projects requires aspirations to be matched to reality.

Currently whole life is commonly talked about as if a proven reality and can be switched on with a flick of a switch. The only way we will ever achieve whole life value is honest recognition of these barriers – then we can start to address this challenge properly.

Peter Caplehorn is technical director at Scott Brownrigg