Lack of vision

Blane Judd discusses why we need to plan for the future when constructing buildings, and then schedule the proper maintenance them to keep them fit for purpose

We are stuck on a trajectory that will increasingly see buildings that could have been made to be continually fit for purpose being disposed of or worst still demolished. The reason is we are not looking at the assets we have and continuality improving them, but rather taking an out-dated approach of living with them until the services within them become obsolete and then facing a bill so high that make do and mend becomes the O and M mantra.

I recently received a letter saying that the cost of upgrade for the Care home my mother has finally settled into (at the age of 87), can no longer afford to function. There are a number or reasons cited, but the key one that stands out is the lack of continual investment in the building during its life. Of course, there isn’t the budget today to undertake the major refit required to bring the building up to required standards for the elderly. But this has not just become apparent recently, it could be seen to be happening long before the closure announcement was issued.

This is not a one-off case either, the lack of a vison for buildings and occupancy of them, is blighting so many of our heritage sites too. Constructions that have been around for hundreds of years are failing internally due to a lack of continuous investment. It is also the case that many of our older sites are facing high cost investment to make them functional for a 21st century occupancy. Too few projects are looking at a 50 year plus utilisation and considering how solutions selected today can be designed to allow for the impacts of tomorrow. We know more now about the future of the environment in which our buildings will be required to operate. Climate change, air pollution, water scarcity and carbon reduction are less of a concern to the current occupants. We can more accurately predict 20 years hence, what the impacts on the occupants will be. Here, then, is our chance to work with clients to help them extend their ambition for their buildings. In refurbishment projects so often, plant and equipment is selected because it is a direct replacement for the existing. This approach, however, can lead to a principle that can block the introduction of newer and more efficient solutions further down the line.

Sustained functionality
In many cases the approach is to make the building fit for current purpose. If we are truly to practice sustainable development isn’t it incumbent on us as professional engineers to adopt the principle of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations? Of course, I can hear the objections on the grounds of capital cost, but if the financial crash only taught us one thing, it is that someone has to pay at some time. The youth of Greece are bitter for having to pay for the excesses of their forefathers, is that a legacy the construction sector wants to leave for the future?

Will it be the engineers or accountants that will force the issue of life cycle costing? As we move further into the digital age of construction, where modelling and prototyping can be done long before the first sod is turned, we have the opportunity of bring a concurrent engineering approach. The design, build, maintain, repurpose principles of construction need to be considered as one. The emergence of multidisciplinary teams and collaborative working are helping in this regard, but we need to do more. Latham’s accusation of an adversarial sector is still evident in the way many work today. We have been somewhat behind the curve compared to our manufacturing colleagues, but we have shown that we have the ability to adapt and adopt with approaches such as Lean.

We live in a society that is disposing of so much technology long before it ceases to function. This is not because we over engineer, but because it is possible to make technology that 19is far more reliable than it was 50 years ago and at a fraction of the price. We have become better at what we do and it is now time for the construction sector to show that we are as good at thinking long-term about the buildings we construct and the purposes for which they are used.

For this to be effective we need to learn from the past, not live in it. Instead of planning for a building that is fit for purpose at the point of occupancy we need to think more about how that building will be used during its life. Working backwards from that point we can start to determine what needs to happened now and into the future to achieve sustained functionality.

But we must not stop there. Once we understand the journey the building is on, we need to make sure we continue to invest to attain those goals. That requires a different mindset for all stakeholders including those in procurement who have to think longer-term, thereby stopping the cheapest price best value thinking, which prevents building life cycle best value. It’s time we created a legacy to be proud of, where future generations celebrate the contribution we made to their built environment.

Blane Judd is Chair of the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s Built Environment Policy Panel. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is one of the world’s largest engineering institutions with over 169,000 members in 150 countries. It is also the most multidisciplinary to reflect the increasingly diverse nature of modern engineering. Its mission is to inspire the next generation of engineers; inform members and the wider engineering community; and influence Government, media and other stakeholders to support its message of the vital role engineering plays in today’s world.
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