Friday, 26 February 2016

Accepting the challenge

A week after being cited three times in the House of Lords Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment in their report 'Building Better Places', CIBSE's Head of Sustainable Development Sara Kassam examines what this report means for the wider industry.

As one of the leading professional organisations for building performance in the UK, CIBSE is often invited to submit evidence to Parliament as it considers new laws to pass, scrub and amend. This is one of the most important functions that the Institution carries out, both because it makes Parliament more informed in its decisions, and because it gives building services engineers a voice at the highest level.

It can be a lengthy process, as reports and recommendations can take months or even years to produce, but last week produced a significant moment when CIBSE was cited multiple times in the long-anticipated ‘Building Better Places’ report by the House of Lords Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment.

So it’s a significant step to have your industry’s potential formally recognised, but is it one we’re ready for? While exciting, the implication of this report is also very challenging, engineering in the built environment is important to the health of the planet and society, so engineers have to demonstrate that they’re willing and able to make a difference. Not just to their buildings, but to society as a whole.

Westminster has embraced the built environment to tackle climate change
Building performance is almost a no-brainer – any client with a social conscience or even just an eye on their bottom line wants their building to be more efficient and cheaper to run, and there is growing recognition that better buildings make for happier and more productive users. And before, this might have been enough. The client is happy with their product, the engineer is satisfied with a job well done. But now, the challenge is to think ‘beyond buildings’ to the wider community.

So what does that mean? Well it might be more helpful to take a systems thinking approach. Good performance doesn't stop at a specific component, a specific system or even a specific building, it extends out of the door and into all the other buildings in the community, and into the facilities that serve them. That sounds like a big job, and it is, but luckily the built environment sector is a diverse one, full of every kind of skill necessary to succeed – they just need to work together.

Realising that everything is connected in the face of climate change is a good start, and it all flows from there. It means seeing the bigger picture in every decision you make; your building might not get much benefit out of a heat network, but what if you had a word with the designers of the new housing estate next door to see if you could share one? Is there a material you could you that would enhance the outside of your building that would benefit the community too, like a living wall for example? How does your building fit in with the people around it, are there public spaces or are you just a high-performing island, disconnected from the local environment?

2016 BPA winner Arboreal Architecture's Clapham Retrofit used reclaimed and period
materials to fit in with the local community, with advice from English Heritage
The degree to which we can spread total building performance into local communities is limited only by our imaginations and our willingness to collaborate. Back at the level we started at, helping strategically to shape the future of the built environment is just as important as what you do in your own back yard. This very report is evidence of that fact: the recommendation to create  a new Chief Advisor for the Built Environment may not have gone anywhere had it not been supported by a number of institutions, including CIBSE, presenting a united front.

The ‘Building Better Places’ report is a major opportunity. It places building services engineering on a pedestal front-and-centre, a place we've always known it deserves. The key now is to grasp the opportunity, start to live out the role in every area of your professional life, and encourage others to do the same. That way, engineers can truly become leaders in creating  sustainable built environment 

Friday, 19 February 2016

Dissertations for Good

Dissertations are often the nightmare that keeps students up at night in the final year of their degree, requiring countless hours of careful study in the library, as well as a heap of creativity and gallons of coffee. 

But what if the engineering industry could make use of them as more than just an academic headache? Dr Anastasia Mylona, Research Manager for the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers, wrote about her experience with a pioneering scheme to do just that.

Every year in the UK and around the world students are putting thousands and thousands of man hours into high-level research at some of the world’s top institutions. While some of them will go on to further study, publish their work or even become famous academics in their fields, most of these works will be handed in at the end of the year and forgotten about. It seems like a waste, but how can this work be turned to the public good?

These students also face a quandary themselves: The famous Catch-22 situation that faces all University leavers looking for their first job is that so many employers also want real-world experience, not just academic qualifications. So what is to be done? Achieving the top grades requires many hours of work and study, yet employers also expect experience of what is a full-time job.

Here, the National Union of Students has seen an opening. They have set up a programme called ‘Dissertations for Good’, which seeks to link students and industry, in order to have them collaborate on projects that benefit the world at large. This is a scheme that CIBSE has been active in supporting, and that I have had first-hand experience of through our work with students.

Students at top universities spend thousands of hours on their dissertations
The beauty of such a scheme is that it works both ways – the student’s knowledge of the subject is enhanced, and this is fed into the dissertation, but the industry also gains from their hard work and expertise. Recently I have been working with seven engineering students supervised by Dr Ali Bahadori-Jahromi from the department of Civil Engineering in the University of West London (UWL) to update CIBSE’s resources, including climate change information for building adaptation and testing the new CIBSE weather files in building performance simulation.

One of the best things about working in this partnership wasn’t just the work that was done during the project, but also learning about the work that hadn’t been done. By exploring this area, we opened the door to countless opportunities for further study and collaboration that have evolved into stand-alone projects of their own. Recent extreme weather events in the UK have shown that now is more important than ever to be studying their effects on buildings, which is why we will now be sponsoring a PhD on resilience to extreme weather at UWL.

Storm Desmond bears down on the UK (Image courtesy of  NOAA)
One of the most valuable part of an engineering degree is the potential to work on practical issues that have a direct impact on industry, and it is often the most important part of a young engineer’s development. It’s also work from which wider society can directly benefit – this particular knowledge will be instrumental in further research which will decide how we react to extreme weather in buildings and construction, and could save lives and millions of pounds a year.

The work done by students has the potential to have enormous practical value. It’s up to the industry as a whole to go out there, and discover these opportunities for themselves!

Anastasia Mylona, Research Manager for the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), took part in the Dissertations for Good pilot because she was keen to give students the experience of working on practical issues while also using their new knowledge.

Friday, 12 February 2016

The people puzzle

Occupant behaviour is often treated as the awkward cousin of the building performance family – it has no definitive model, is difficult to predict and tricky to influence. However, for all this, it is one of the most important factors in determining whether or not a building performs in the real world. CIBSE’s Head of Sustainable Development Sara Kassam explains.

The perfect sustainable building has already been designed – it is solar powered, generates more energy than it uses and is extremely well insulated. Unfortunately for any potential occupants, it’s also 270 miles up and the International Space Station. Short of investing in upper-atmosphere real estate, the quest for better building performance needs to be balanced against the comfort of those using the building – that’s who it’s built for, after all.

But, though the human occupants of the building need to be considered as a factor in the building’s design, sustainability isn’t the enemy of its residents, nor are the people a problem that need to be engineered around. The best designs find ways to create an environment that is most comfortable for the occupants, as well as sustainable. However, this is easier said than done.

Not pictured: Comfort 
At November’s CIBSE Building Performance Conference and Exhibition, Mat Colmer of InnovateUK said “You can engineer buildings, but you can’t engineer people”. Another presentation at the Conference included the example of a high-tech security system recently installed, which was found not be working properly because staff insisted on propping a crucial door open with a chair.

While it is annoying for the engineer to have people unconsciously ruining their system, it is important now to ask why staff were doing this. If the door was too difficult or annoying for staff to open regularly, then a new mechanism could be installed to make it more friendly, or an alternative route through the building could be found to make the route to their destination faster. This is just one example of how design and occupant behaviour can be brought together to make a building work, but unfortunately there are a million ways for these situations to play out and no definitive model to predict them.

Luckily, the knowledge is out there for engineers and designers. Every stakeholder in the life of a building, from the architects to the FMs to the owners and occupants, holds part of the key to designing a building that works – it is up to the designer to collaborate with them all to get their feedback, to make positive changes to the design. Human behaviour is a complex socio-technical system, and no design can rely on assumptions made about the occupants at the drawing-board stage.

There is also an element of stewardship necessary to create a highly performing building. A closed system will tend towards chaos, and occupants left to their own devices won’t necessarily understand or appreciate the systems that are in place within the building. Firstly, a comprehensive handover can be essential in making those maintaining the building aware of how best to make it work, and the occupants how they can help.

Secondly, post-handover, it helps to put in place a system of interaction between the building and its occupants that makes them responsive to each other’s needs. Make it clear, easy and engaging to encourage good habits in users, as well as for them to make changes themselves or to provide feedback on what could be done better.

Ultimately, people cannot be treated as components with predictable properties that can be engineered into a system because people often don’t behave in the ways designers expect. Instead, by increasing their focus on users’ behaviour building services engineers have an excellent opportunity to both improve the performance of buildings and the people in them.

Health and wellbeing is an integral part of building performance and will be considered across different themes at the 2016 CIBSE Conference in November. To receive information about the Building Performance Conference & Exhibition, including the programme, speakers and early bird offers please register your interest.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Can't get the staff

With a severe skills shortage that shows no signs of slowing and an aging workforce, much time and column inches have been devoted to finding a solution. According to some engineers, part of the solution lies not at university or even at A-Level, but at GCSE with the nation’s Design Technology students. Angela Ringguth, Professional Development Consultant to CIBSE, writes on the need for good quality design teachers.

The fear that there is a skills crisis in the Engineering sector is nothing new; newspapers and magazines of all stripes, from trade papers to the nationals, regularly feature articles bemoaning the lack of qualified graduates. And they’re right to be concerned, because we are entering what promises to be a golden age of Engineering as budgets increase, construction booms and ever more stringent climate change targets require inventive solutions to meet.

UK engineers are in demand around the world for their abilities across all sectors, but we risk missing out on this renaissance if there is no talent pipeline in place to keep up with demand.

New multi-billion pound developments include the revamped Battersea Power Station
There is obviously no easy solution to such a long-running problem, and most of the efforts seem to be aimed at capturing school-leavers choosing their University courses, or skilled graduates with one eye on a lucrative City pay packet. Solutions proposed include free tuition for in-demand STEM courses, double pay for new engineers and a raft of new alternative qualifications and apprenticeships to entice the less academic.

However, a growing movement believes that part of the solution lies much earlier in a young person’s education. Currently, the shortage of 2,000 Design and Technology (D&T) teachers means that two out of three schools will not have adequate provision by next year. This is a serious problem for the engineering sector, because D&T lessons provide the necessary focus on practical, hands-on skills that set children out on an engineering path.

The bread and butter of an engineer’s education remains the hard sciences and maths, continued from primary all the way through to A-level, and D&T has been seen as the poor relation to these by parents and teachers advising pupils on their options. However, this attitude is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the ability that design teachers have to instil a spark in a child’s mind that can be carried forward into a fully-fledged career.

Children try out the friction plate at an Imagineering event
Like most jobs that require professional qualifications, actual hands-on work experience could be several years away for a young secondary school child. During this time they might acquire unfortunate ideas of engineering as a boring, stuffy, dirty job that doesn’t factor highly in their ambitions. What D&T allows kids to do is discover the wonder behind engineering that involves problem solving, creativity and technical skill using advanced tools, computers and materials.

Putting complex ideas to practical use is a rare opportunity for young pupils, and D&T allows them to discover the huge number of practical connections to allied professions that engineers must also consider; from design, to business, to the arts – there are engineering puzzles to be solved in every field. D&T marries the technical with the practical, a skillset often lacking in newly minted graduates, and provides a pathway to an apprenticeship for those seeking an alternative route.

In order to ensure that D&T doesn’t fall by the wayside, and close an invaluable gateway to engineering, it is important that the subject is taken more seriously in schools. Recognising the training and hiring of new D&T teachers as an important priority is a place to start, that is why CIBSE supports the Designed and Made in Britain…?  Campaign at

This won’t solve the recruitment crisis in a stroke, but it will help instil a respect and appreciation for engineering throughout the education system, and allow kids to experience its joys.