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The importance of an interdisciplinary approach to improve the performance of buildings

Posted on 08/11/2016

Buildings are complex systems, made of many parts and components, all delivering various services and functions, and there are many different aspects and scales of performance to consider.

Buildings performance concerns more than just environmental factors it's about treating buildings as complex systems.

During my first year at the KTN I have been working on many different activities all having a common focus and goal: the performance of buildings.

Usually when we think about this topic we think about performance in terms of energy – the savings we can obtain on our energy bills, the initiatives we can introduce to encourage retrofit programmes, the adoption of more energy efficient technologies etc.

But performance is much more than that. It is indeed related to the level of task or function delivered. And since buildings are complex systems, made of many parts and components, all delivering various services and functions, there are many different aspects and scales of performance to consider. If you also take into account that they are used, modified and perceived by one of the most complex and unpredictable systems on Earth – human beings – you will appreciate why achieving the final result can present a number of challenges along the way.

 

Architecture at King’s Cross Station, London

The creation of high quality spaces by trimming operational costs at the same time as reducing environmental impact, is not an impossible goal to achieve. However it requires commitment from the very beginning by all the actors who will play a role in that: that’s the key challenge.

The metaphors and the links between architecture and music have been used for centuries and I will borrow one myself that, in my opinion, conveys the most important ingredient required to get things right. It is one that emphasises integration at all levels: integration with and respect of the local environment; integration of workforce skills to obtain a better result; integration of systems and building fabric; integration of people needs and activities in a welcoming, beautiful and functional space. Basically a good building is more or less like an orchestra: you need an inviting arrangement, a skilled performance by the individuals involved and a continuous coordination of all the constituent parts in order to enjoy a great symphony.

And you cannot execute this alone; you need request inputs from a diverse range of expertise in order to successfully address all the associated deliverables/ technical issues etc. Why is that? For those of you not working within this field you might not be aware that architecture is arguably the most interdisciplinary of all sectors.

At first glance, the name of my KTN community – Built Environment – might also not communicate to professionals working outside our sector much of what we are actually about…construction, cities, infrastructure and more. Also the name doesn’t initially suggest just how many connections this sector has with other disciplines and fields represented across the KTN. Successfully collaborating with experts in other sectors is of paramount importance – for example chemistry, in order to create construction materials with specific mechanical or thermal features; or physics, to understand some of the phenomena happening in the internal environment, such as lighting, acoustics and thermal flows; or engineering to factor in emerging energy generation technologies and innovative building services; delivering architecture attuned to specific climatic conditions as well as being able to exploit the local potential for renewable energy sources.

 

Intelligent buildings incorporate electronics, sensors and are interconnected allowing them to respond and adapt to user needs

Plus we need to incorporate new ICT/ electronics, sensors and photonics technologies, more and more deployed for home automation and energy monitoring systems. If we are also to create places that are appropriate to people’s needs at different ages and levels of ability, we need to draw on medical, health and human science expertise, and more recently sociology and psychology too – to understand how people behave, if they use buildings differently from how we expected them to do and, if so, to provide appropriate devices and conditions for this interaction.

These are just a few examples of how many contributions are needed to produce quality spaces. This is teamwork, no doubts!

Furthermore there is, of course, always room for improvement and there are increasing opportunities for contractors, manufacturers, researchers, professionals, and final users to work together and to produce some significant changes in a sector that has – by tradition – a pace slower than others.

If you are interested in being updated about some innovative proposals in this space, keep an eye on the Building Whole-Life Performance (BWLP) competition (promoted by Innovate UK and the EPSRC) which has just closed for applications. My Built Environment colleagues and I are looking forward to seeing which innovative products, services, processes, new business models and management tools have been proposed by the UK organisations, working together in productive partnerships.

During the last few months there has much interest and engagement from within our community about this competition, concluding with 3 days of enthusiastic visits and meetings at the KTN stand in Resource/Ecobuild 2015. Given the many people who have worked very hard to deliver this funding programme we anticipate some great proposals addressing different key issues which ultimately will progress to deliver tangible benefits to the UK building stock, the environment and the wider economy.

We also expect innovative solutions for the benefit of the construction supply chain to emerge from another Innovate UK funding competition which has also just closed. The Supply Chain Integration in Construction call is an investment of up to £2 million in feasibility studies to explore innovative tools and solutions that can improve the flow of information and the collaboration along the supply chain.

These initiatives are not isolated. They reflect a national and international growing interest about whole-life approaches and long-term view strategies, as is demonstrated by the huge response to the RIBA call for evidence – ‘Design Quality and Performance’.

Our Built Environment team have also produced a brief reference document about building whole-life performance, what it is and why is it important. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, this document provides an informative overview of BWLP, how it can be evaluated, why it is not always
 easy to evaluate and which indirect or proxy measurements are sometimes used to quantify some of its functions and benefits. We have also included some examples of innovative products and initiatives that are either already in the marketplace, or whose research findings are available in the public domain. Finally the document contains some outcomes of a KTN workshop held in August 2014 with some representatives of the construction and building sector. It is available for download below.

 

 

Dr Valeria Branciforti – Knowledge Transfer Manager, Asset Performance