Qantas HQ, Sydney

There is often a world of difference between design intent and how a final building operates. One approach to closing that gap is called Soft Landings. It not only keeps the building contractor on the job for another 12 months or even up to three years after practical completion, it brings the FMs into the front-end planning – and it works.

When Cromwell Property Group took on the redevelopment of its Qantas Global Headquarters asset, it decided to implement an extended commitment principle.

This meant the principal contractor was not only engaged to deliver the buildings to practical completion, they were had an ongoing role for a further 12 months across the entire site, and a commitment to “tune and review” for a further three years after that.

According to was Phil Cowling, head of development and sustainability for Cromwell Property Group, at first the principal contractor, FDC, was concerned about how the commitment would play out, but in the end realised the mutual benefits.

“The result was a progressive and well-managed hand over of operation over several years,” Cowling says.

“This helped Qantas to concentrate on their business and provided support as their teams took up responsibility over many new systems and innovations that had gone into the new buildings.”

This approach of follow-through into the operational phase instead of the traditional pattern of contractors leaving a site at practical completion, is part of the Soft Landings approach.

Originally developed in the UK, Cowling was involved in adapting the framework for the Australian market along with WT

Steve Hennessy, WT Consultancy

Sustainability director Steve Hennessy.

Both will present on the topic as part of the Speaker Series at ARBS 2018 under way this week in Sydney.

According to Hennessy, buildings, like many other constructed assets, take a while to bed down even after completion.

All too often the reality doesn’t quite live up to the promise. And a significant amount of work can often be needed to achieve the desired outcome.

“Practical completion is just the end of one stage,” Hennessy says. “It is not the end of the story.” 

If  contractors and subcontractors don’t immediately leave the site and instead stick around to be part of the feedback loop with building operators, owners and occupants they could also learn a great deal about how to improve practices, he says.

“There are important things that don’t stop at practical completion.”

In terms of green buildings, there is considerable evidence to suggest, especially from the UK, that while everyone is “pretty good at talking up green buildings and what they will deliver” there is often a performance shortfall.

One of the reasons is that technical elements designed into the project don’t automatically create operational benefits.

The building may be technically compliant, but may not deliver on the targeted performance.

The bandaid is often to throw more technology at the building to “make it better”, but this doesn’t always work.

Another reason is that some technologies might look good on paper, but they don’t work so well in reality. Blackwater treatment plants, for instance. Ideally these work best in clusters of buildings instead of stand alone structures.

Another facet of making buildings work better is having more respect and understanding between the builder and the client, Hennessy says.

Setting early performance targets helps as does putting more emphasis on “building readiness” as the goal, not just practical completion

Hennessy says in two recent projects he worked on the question was put in reference to previous projects: “What didn’t work?”

It’s not a popular question.

Hennessy says this is because it is almost viewed as a weakness on the part of a contractor if things haven’t gone well.

But, he says, once people feel comfortable and start to speak up, a number of problems can be revealed that have been seen on construction sites “over and over again”.

What extended commitment looks like

According to Phil Cowling, the extended commitment principle embedded in the Qantas framework was used to link the maintenance and aftercare of each portion of works to the date of final completion of the entire project.

“I think this was a significant contribution to the final 5 star NABERS performance as well as the lack of issues that arose after occupation.”

The company’s most recent, and according to Cowling most significant, formal commitment to the Australian Soft Landings Framework was a new 34,000-square-metre office development for a government department in Canberra.

“We introduced formal commitments by the principal contractor as well as designers and key sub trades,” Cowling says.

“Our independent commissioning agents had responsibilities included in their brief and we further extended their scope to oversee the Soft Landings process.”

Implementation of the approach included introducing monthly minuted meetings, and actively engaging the designers and the contractors team to consider how the design and operation of the property could be improved at each stage from early design through to handover.

The tenants and their representative were also included in these meetings.

The meetings were not focused on the project scope and code compliance, but on what solution would achieve the best outcome for the end users and building operators, Cowling says.

The scope was a typical federalgovernment specification, however this made the process difficult as in many instances simple improvements were put forward that the project team felt would add significant value, but because these suggestions did not meet the strict provisions of the agreed government’s scope they were rejected.

“However the process still generated a number of outcomes that were adopted.”

Sceptical subcontractors

The subcontractors were initially very sceptical. However the project’s contractor, FDC, was the same one that worked on Qantas. They were able to draw on their previous experience with the framework and support the sub trades.

“When we first started having meetings that started with questions like, ‘So tell me what is it that you/we do that always causes defects or issues?’ There was a silence and real reluctance to get involved.

“Contractors were thinking this was a way to get out of them issues that the principal contractor could make them responsible for.”

Cowling says that once everyone got over that initial hurdle, there was constructive discussion of the relevant issues such as metering, meter naming and who would be responsible for coordinating common meter matrix.

“It was acknowledged by all involved in setting metering strategies and installing systems that there was always a disconnect in the naming convention and that this led to validation issues, commissioning problems and impacted tuning.

“Soft Landings helps to take design team discussions away from simply reviewing designs and coordination against the performance scope or consultants drawings and encourages a dialogue with installers and sub trades to iron out the issues that always go unresolved, and offers an opportunity to provide their experience to avoid pitfalls.

“It also provides a focus for the team to consider and listen to the operators and building users side and challenge if they are meeting a scope or delivering the best outcome for stakeholders.”

How to measure the benefits

“Soft Landings was initially developed to respond to a problem that buildings were not performing the way they were designed to following final completion,” Cowling says.

Potentially one of the best metrics for Soft Landings was the focus on how occupants would be relocated, what would this mean to operations and how the project team provided acceptable conditions as the building was progressively occupied, managed and confirmed as operating correctly, also the transition from defects to tuning.

The Canberra building, for example, has been open less than six months and from day one had excellent levels of control with very consistent temperatures across 4500 sq m plates and next to no complaints regarding draughts and other matters.

“We moved through defects very quickly and are now well progressed on performance tuning with the NABERS Energy and Water substantially ahead of the design targets,” Cowling says.

“The reasons are not fully concluded but we are very confident that a large part of this success is due to the work that was identified in Soft Landings and the impacts the team had on reducing air leakage.”

Overall, Cowling says one of the biggest challenges for adopting Soft Landings is getting a commitment to follow the framework from inception and then getting consultants and the principal contractor on board.

“Soft Landings is not another star rating system. There is no wrong or right. It’s not about pass or fail. Like many great ideas it’s very simple – it’s placing a focus on the team to recognise constraints but not abrogate responsibility or the opportunity to deliver a better building.

“The potential to capture the entire knowledge of the design and delivery team’s hundreds of years of experience to minimise building in issues, consider and tune the responses to the users and operators and make sure that there is a commitment to support the building for longer than just 12 months has to be worth listening to.”