IStructE Climate Emergency Conference
Influencing the Brief - insights and thoughts from a Client
Last week I spoke at the Day 1 Opening Session at IStructE’s Climate Emergency Conference 2021. This is a great event spanning two days (a week apart), so if you missed Day 1 and read this quickly, you might still be able to catch Day 2 on 6th October.
Key focus areas of the conference are 1) Influencing the Brief, 2) Carbon, and 3) The next big steps. I spoke about the first.
As well as setting out what my employer, Grosvenor, has committed to in terms of Carbon reduction, I explained four key things I believe development Clients should consider in their battle against Climate Change, plus how Engineers and Consultants might react and push their Clients in respect of these.
1 Set the Brief early
As obvious as this sounds, the point here is to instil into your design or project team the importance of sustainability and carbon in your brief. It is no good just asking for something ‘sustainable’ anymore - if you do this, you’ll just have a team of box tickers.
I’m talking about setting clear and ambitious goals, reiterating this message over and over, during the early stages of the project. And as the Client, you have to remain active and involved, challenging early decisions.
I strongly believe that the best work to shape the ultimate sustainability of a project is done during RIBA stages 0-3. After this, too many fundamental aspects have been ‘locked in’ and present other issues if they are to be changed (design delays, rework etc.).
I’m not saying projects cannot change their sustainability credentials after stage 3, but there is a limit. For me, stage 3 marks the shift where design influence switches to procurement, material selection and construction influence, but most of the time this could be considered fine-tuning, unless a radical change is implemented as you head towards a start on site.
If you are an Engineer or Consultant, you should consider this without being asked, present your Client with ideas, offer them innovation. If they do not give you a sustainability brief, ask them why not and work with them to better understand the value this could bring to the project, let alone the positive impact it might have on Climate Change.
2 Encourage Innovation, provide a Safe Space
Building on point 1, my recent experience has shown me the value of providing a safe space. What is this? Well, in my mind this could be a number of things, but the aim is to reduce pressure on a design team. For example, it could be some additional resource or time, perhaps even time dedicated to not doing working directly on project deliverables.
I find it easier to consider what happens if a safe space isn’t provided...
Design programmes are squeezed, resources are squeezed, ambitious commitments are made. This is all in the name of competition and driving value. However, it could be short sighted. A team under pressure to deliver, under pressure not to fail, under pressure to box-tick will quickly revert to what they know and are comfortable with. This stifles innovation, and essentially means you get a design that is based largely on what was done before - hardly pushing the industry forwards.
I think a Client should try (and I know this is difficult) to find ways to relieve the pressure on their team throughout a project. Can you build in time into the programme to focus on innovation? Can you offer extra fee/resource?
As a Consultant or Engineer, don’t be afraid to highlight this contradiction to your peers and Client. If you had more time, might that translate to better value at the end of the project? If you run a consultancy, look at what the big tech firms do, allowing employees to work on non-project things for a part of each week.
There’s no silver bullet here, I’m just highlighting that if we all work under pressure to deliver, we will inevitably end up doing things the way we have done them before.
3 Understand where the Value is
Macro and Micro.
Macro. Whilst most of us do see the benefit of designing sustainably and reducing carbon, this is still not fully translating into value… yet. I do believe we will get there soon, and it is for this reason that Clients should continue to make positive decisions on sustainable design features knowing that these will pay off in time. I am fortunate to work for a long term holder of assets, and therefore we find it easier than most to make decisions with a long term view.
On the contrary, I think if you fail to design sustainably you run the risk of the asset being associated with a second tier of product in the near future. If you have a Client that is not thinking this way, I encourage you to work with them to improve their understanding and consider value differently.
Micro. It is absolutely crucial that everyday design decisions are now being made with Carbon and other sustainability factors in mind. Gone are the days when a design stage would be completed, and ‘marked’ with a sustainability score at the end. The ability to understand these metrics in near real-time as the design develops is key, just as it is with cost and programme.
So at a micro level, it is so important that you have the right team in place to provide all the information needed to make an informed decision, whether this is about structural design, the type of flooring or mechanical equipment.
4 Challenge Procurement
Shaking up the way we procure projects is needed to create more sustainable solutions. Our current model of ‘design and specify’, with a contractor then going to buy these things and build them is too simple and linear. This approach, and the way we transfer risk, come together to limit how flexible a contractor can be.
Now in some cases, we want to be very prescriptive - for example the fine details of a high quality space, or the control of risk on a project. But in other situations, I believe we could try to relax things, with the aim being to allow a Contractor to have a range of possible materials that could be used, or a period of time in which they can scour the market to establish what is available. This could open up the second hand materials market.
As a Client, I simply suggest you consider this and actively discuss the idea as your procurement strategy develops. Is there anything you and your team could do to build in some flexibility into procurement, without compromising the product or the terms within which you are aiming to procure?
As a Consultant or Engineer, I encourage you to learn about procurement and how sometimes it can lead to design decisions having to be locked in earlier than might be optimal. What if you could specify multiple products, or something more like a performance specification, perhaps even with a second hand option available to the Contractor. If you work on multiple projects, you are in a perfect position to see opportunities to share materials between them.