You work at it, you complete it, you celebrate it and you go home feeling warm and fuzzy. And the next morning your client moves into an office that's too hot and too cold. Architect Mark Way has a way to stop this happening. We find out how
"Soft landings". The name sounds like a marketing term for something you probably don't need. In fact, it may be just what clients have been looking for – a way of getting perfect buildings first time. The idea, which is to give the designer and contractor a way of determining whether their building is really, really finished, first appeared on earth in the brain of Mark Way. He is a former chairman of architect RMJM and now head of research at the firm; he got the idea when he set up an impromptu office in an RMJM-designed building. The scheme in question was the Glaxo Wellcome House in Greenford, Middlesex, completed in the late 1990s.

Way put a sign on his office identifying himself as the project architect, and the new users took an interest. "They used to pop in and ask questions," he recalls. "They ranged from questions about the building itself to the niggles they had with systems, such as air-conditioning." The experience crystallised what Way felt was a gaping hole in the service offered by construction teams. "There doesn't seem much interest in getting feedback from what we do. The building industry is curious in that respect."

Unsurprisingly, Way's view of the lack of post-completion interest from the industry was shared by clients. One of them, David Adamson, director at Cambridge University Estates, was bemused by the process he saw at handover. "I found it very odd," he says. "In any project there were two teams. The people who built it would all leave, then the users would come in. I thought they should work with a much more continuous relationship."

The two schools of thought came together when Way spoke at the Cambridge Estates Open Day in 2001, presenting his initial ideas on augmented services offered by project teams for easing occupation of new buildings. Way's ideas immediately sparked Adamson's interest – he persuaded a group of architects, consultants and contractors to put up the cash for Way to flesh out his thoughts in a study and practical guide. The document was finished last month.

As the title hints, the guide centres on "soft elements" of the buildings, namely the systems, such as lighting, ventilation and heating, mostly controlled by central building systems. "These are things that really pee people off," says Way, adding that they need to be speedily dealt with. "Why should people live with these small defects? It's the minor things that become chronic." He sees the first 12 months of the building's life as crucial. "People will begin to get very irritated with the building, regardless of the design, which is a great shame."

Way's guide outlines the duties of project teams after the scheme is handed over. These include:

  • Spelling out attendance duties at the appointment/contract stage
  • Involving user groups during occupation
  • Showing building managers and users how best to run the building
  • Assessing the building's performance for up to five years
  • Offering bonus payments to designers and contractors dependant on building performance
  • Forecasting the running cost.

The main requirement is for project team members to maintain a presence on site for about two months, meeting the facilities management team, walking around the buildings, logging energy readings and so on. "You gradually hand over to the FM team. It's a nice baton change," Way explains.

For Adamson, who is looking to roll the system out on Cambridge University projects, Soft Landings should offer reduced services costs: "It should save downtime in the buildings, hassle and real costs if you can get these things solved."

He adds that it lends a unique selling point to firms offering the service. "A lot of clients want the benefits of PFI without going through the PFI process; the conception of building where the life costing is taken into account. It means that the project team's reputation is on the line."

A lasting relationship: Soft Landings’ committed approach to handover

The aim is to achieve a closer match between the client’s and user’s expectations of a building and the aspirations of the design team. At the project briefing stage
  • Define the roles and responsibilities of the team
  • Hold intermediate evaluation workshops to ensure stakeholder commitment and input from key users
  • Set environmental performance targets
  • Set the structure for dates for key decisions
  • Decide on incentives to be rewarded if the design team/contractor meet pre-agreed building performance targets.
Before handover
  • Review and agree a routine for environmental and energy target logging
  • Ensure the site programme is updated before the start of commissioning
  • Ensure commissioning records are in order and agree items requiring post-handover commissioning
  • Agree scope of maintenance contract and appoint contractor pre-handover
  • Ensure the client’s building management team are adequately trained
  • Demonstrate the operation of the building energy management system
  • Plan the co-ordination of the client’s move into the building with ongoing site activities
  • Create a home on site for the after-care team
  • Compile a building users’ guide for the occupants
  • Provide detailed operation and maintenance manuals.
First eight weeks of occupancy
  • Ensure core team members are resident on site and are contactable
  • Introduce users to the operation of the building
  • Spend time with the client’s FM team to explain the building’s systems
  • Set up a helpline
  • Ensure design team’s and contractor’s representatives roam the building to spot emerging issues.
Throughout year one
  • Participate in regular on-site meetings
  • Log and review energy use, compare actual energy usage with target figures
  • Monitor energy usage
  • Fine-tune the building for each season and record changes in the operation and maintenance manual
  • Update helpline
  • Roam building on a regular basis
  • Participate in end-of-year building review.
Years two and three
  • Similar to year one but with a focus on recording the operation of the building and reviewing its performance
  • Undertake an occupancy survey.