Soft landings for higher education

Eve Mallon
Implemented properly, soft landings should close the performance gap between design intentions and operational outcomes. Does your team know where to start?

Today’s buildings are usually judged on how they perform, as well as whether they were delivered on time and within budget. Soft landings is a BSRIA-led process designed to help the construction industry deliver better buildings. The process has been developed to address the established performance gap between design intentions and operational outcomes.

Since April 2016, similar to the introduction of BIM Level 2 mandatory for all publicly funded buildings, the requirement to carry out government soft landings, was also mandated.

Three years on, and at Faithful+Gould, we still find that many of our clients struggle to get the tangible results from this soft landings process. They may succeed in meeting the requirement but are often left wondering if the effort involved to support the process, yielded all the anticipated benefits.  

Our client recently appointed us to review and develop its current soft landings approach, for which we produced an updated strategy that can now be applied across their estate. We began by initially focusing on an ongoing programme of capital works, then supplementing with additional requirements for refurbishment and historic aspects.

Our two-month study encompassed seven separate capital projects, each with its own design team. The aim was to review the soft landings procedures in use, and explore ways of improving the approach.

Like many clients with multiple projects, the university’s soft landings process was complex, led by 12 soft landings champions, all with varying levels of understanding, project experience and knowledge. This initial stage review identified areas of inconsistencies, overlaps and helped to identify any gaps in procedures.

Our exploratory interviews with champions and project managers demonstrated motivation to improve this, alongside uncertainty about roles and responsibilities, and some scepticism that the results would justify the effort. The first step was to address these issues, ensuring that the right people were involved and that they understood what was required: this included the design team and contractors, as well as the university’s champions and other members of its estates team.

The seven projects already had soft landings documentation, as part of their draft design standards, but this comprised high-level guidance, with a lack of detail, and no clarity on ownership/accountability. Working with the BSRIA guidelines, we identified the university’s requirements for each of the six stages of soft landings, aligning these with the relevant RIBA stages of design.

We developed guidance that specified exactly what needed to be done, when, by whom, and which tools to use. Output checklists and standard templates were included, and better record-keeping was incorporated, with sign-off at each RIBA stage.

We found that the team became more involved and more interested as the study progressed. A good soft landings process harnesses the expertise and insider knowledge of university estates teams, allowing them to be more involved in developing, influencing and critiquing the design of their buildings. 

The result is a practical document - a blueprint for their soft landings process which can now be rolled out across the estate. Early feedback is very positive.

In general, our team finds that top-down leadership is very important if soft landings is to have credibility and momentum in the organisation. As demonstrated at the University, detailed and practical processes are vital—there should be no doubt as to what needs to be done and by whom.

Ideally soft landings will be specified and procured at project outset/ RIBA stage 1. It needs to be included in the contractual approach to aftercare/defects services (possibly up to three years post-occupancy), and should be part of the comprehensive preparation for handover and the facility’s operational life.

This is an approach that would benefit any higher education institution, and indeed any large project in any sector. If you need an asset that supports your desired business outcomes, and connects your end users’ needs back to the project origins, then a professional soft landings review will be important to you.

Faithful+Gould is currently Education Buildings Scotland Consultant of the Year. We are delivering major programmes for Scotland’s two Russell Group Universities – University of Glasgow and University and Edinburgh. Throughout Scotland we are delivering higher education projects with a construction cost of over £800m.


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