IKEA style building

Design for operability is the new mantra. The concept of buildability – the impact of design on construction – has long been recognised in design circles. Operability has yet to achieve the same level of consciousness among designers. The arguments in favour of design briefing taking proper account of the requirements for safe and correct operation and use of a facility are overwhelming.

Briefing as the first step in design

Ensuring that design takes account of operational requirements is a critical factor in the successful delivery of a new or refurbished facility. Design decisions have to be based on the correct information and data, and their impact on operation and use has to be understood before they are committed to construction work and/or installation. Once the facility is operational, it is too late to comment on the fitness of the design.

Design briefing is the process of establishing the purpose and required performance of a facility and is a defined stage in the design process. Despite its status, published guidance on briefing tends to make light of operational requirements. Facility management is duly noted in design briefs, but tends to be more of a reminder of service provision during occupation – for example, maintenance, cleaning, waste disposal and security – than conveying hard information about operation and use. Where building services installations are significant the treatment will be more developed, because it has to be.

Environmental assessment, including the measurement of energy performance (actual as well as planned), is now the norm and has begun to expose shortcomings in the way facilities are planned and designed for operation and use. Even minor changes to an existing building will trigger tougher measures for owners in complying with regulations aimed at, amongst other matters, conserving fuel and power. No longer can problems be pushed aside to be solved once the facility is operational. With so much emphasis in design and construction on rapid completion and early handover, owners and operators can find that their facilities do not measure up to expectations or requirements.

Criticising others’ earlier actions is easy and designers will inevitably bear the brunt of discontent when a facility is found to be lacking in some way. But is such criticism entirely fair? Design is not a linear process where decisions are neatly ordered one after the other, applying a tick-box approach to arrive at the solution. The design process is iterative, with multiple ideas being put forward, evaluated and refined simultaneously. Design management has become recognised as a discipline in its own right for this reason and clearly amounts to more than ensuring information is issued on time. For design to progress, it needs answers to many questions, but it also has to ask more of others. Operability seems to be one area where too few questions are asked.

Delivering the project

One of the basic weaknesses in the universal, project-based approach to work is that the various participants – designers, constructors, specialists and so on – can be so focused on delivering their own part of the overall effort that they lose sight of what the project is all about. Shared goals are talked about, but do not translate into a common purpose. Most attention is on how to complete the project in the shortest time. Project managers can therefore be rightly proud of delivering their project on time and within budget. But what if it is the wrong project? The objective should be to ‘find the right project and then to deliver the project right’; however, that may not be enough. The project exists because a facility has to be delivered for a specified purpose – a need has been established or so it has to be assumed – and once the facility is operational it is expected to fulfil requirements. For the project team it is the end, whilst for the operator it is only the beginning.

Finding the right project relies on a rigorous process of briefing. The trouble is that the process can be far from rigorous, let down by incomplete and immature information on what the owner and/or operator requires. In procurement arrangements that overlap design and construction, it is self-evident that there has to be a close interaction between designer and constructor to forge a better understanding of the common purpose. Traditional arrangements that separate design and construction might still manage to bring the designers and constructors together. The gap that exists between design and operation and use is arguably greater and can be made worse by insufficient attention to testing, commissioning and start-up of operations – remember what happened at London Heathrow Terminal 5.

For operators and facility managers, the gap in understanding can be huge unless there is real expertise on hand during early design when needs are being articulated and requirements are about to be specified. Put simply, we have to get operational expertise into early design in the same way that the quantity surveyor (or cost manager) would be required to evaluate the cost of the initial concept, emerging design options and then the preferred scheme. Such action is also necessary to ensure that the owner and/or operator are aware of anything that could materially affect operation and use, not least energy and space efficiency. Now that whole life cost has a companion in whole life carbon, we need to adopt a more comprehensive view of design evaluation covering options and solutions that minimise operational costs.

Key documentation

Briefing is also a process of communication. It allows the business (and other) objectives of the owner, or prospective owner, of a facility to be communicated with a designer. This process includes clarification and confirmation of the owner’s intentions and documenting the provisions for the facility in order to inform decision-making in design, but also in construction work and/or installation, testing and commissioning, handover and start-up of operation and use. A plan has to be prepared: it is too important to be allowed to become an ad hoc affair.

A key document is that of the statement of needs, embodying the owner’s objectives and the extent to which they are likely to be satisfied by the facility. It should provide details of how the facility is expected to contribute to the owner’s primary activities and describe operations and workflows. In addition, it should contain a statement of sustainable space provision – the space needed and affordable over the lifetime of the facility – the business case and a prioritisation of needs. From these and other considerations, another key document, the functional brief, can be prepared to provide information and data on the expected operation and use of the facility, including technical solutions. The functional brief translates needs into requirements for the facility. Details of operational demands – notably safe and correct operation and use – and support processes for occupants and other users should be thoroughly investigated. Answers to the questions raised by these requirements and actions will collectively form the basis of the design of the facility.

Whilst not a part of design briefing, the provision of as-built information is vital for the safe and correct operation and use of the facility. Ideally, the information should be in digital format as, indeed, is increasingly the case. In common with most endeavours, ensuring that everything goes according to plan calls for decisions to be made early. In the case of as-built information, the requirements have to be specified during the earliest stages of the project and embodied in the duties of the appointed designer. Furthermore, knowing what information is needed for operation and use is not something that can be left to the designer to decide. There has to be a clear expression of the informational requirements alongside those of the physical requirements. When a facility is delivered, so too is a considerable amount of information. If there is such a thing as a typical project, the percentage of total cost attributable to the provision of this information can easily reach double digits. Making sure that operation and use informs design and that, likewise, design informs operation and use necessitates a plan, a process and control. Without them, feedback and feed forward are bound to fail.

Reforming design briefing

The true test of a good design is not when the facility is new, but years later when its promises can be properly evaluated. Since no one can afford to wait years, we have to have a way of ensuring that the impact of design on operations is fully understood now. Design briefing has to become more developed and more attuned to a broader range of implications than simply the cost and time of construction. Those narrow measures of the project required to deliver the facility belong firmly in the past. Facility management briefing has to become an integral part of design briefing to ensure that we are moving in the right direction towards the goal of sustainable facilities.

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