Sustainable design and building performance

It is time to put people and sustainable design higher up the commercial agenda when it comes to building performance


  • Austen Bates

11 June 2020

The efficient, effective and sustainable operation and maintenance of building engineering systems ranks among the biggest costs in real-estate management. Getting these right is critical to improving building performance, reducing costs, and providing a safe and comfortable environment for building occupants.

" An holistic view of building performance puts people-centred and sustainable design higher up the commercial agenda"

But the development of the occupier market – with social technological and economic shifts – demands a reappraisal of what performance means. There is an increasing expectation that modern buildings, whether new-build or existing, should maximise long-term social value and customer experience while minimising environmental impact. This is a challenge for investors, owners, occupiers and the communities around them.

Consultancy services for operational buildings historically focus on technical advice about the performance of building materials and services. This advice was previously limited to building managers, but those who are involved in the acquisition, management, occupation and disposal of assets need to also consider performance in the terms of their markets, encompassing occupant well-being, sustainability and user experience. The market is driving this, and the advice and discipline of specialists needs to evolve accordingly.

To form an holistic view, building owners must begin by considering broader objectives for buildings than simple compliance and certification

Whatever their specialism, surveyors understand the complexity of buildings and the array of technological, environmental and social systems that interact with them across their life cycles. But a new model of building performance must more explicitly consider user experience and workplace well-being alongside established sustainability metrics and technical due diligence (TDD). The result should be that buildings become more people-focused, predictable and effective in operation, making them fit for the future.

Much has been written about the behaviour of building users and what it means to design places for people. We also know more than ever about the urgency of addressing climate change, and the role of buildings in mitigating and preparing for its impact. So a better approach to appraising buildings would need to consider a broader set of outcomes than technical outputs alone, to make these into fundamental performance indicators.

Building design and performance is historically rated by outputs more than outcomes with success judged by, for instance, the right energy performance certification or BREEAM rating. Judging outcomes, by contrast, means asking whether a building will be more resilient to future climate change impacts, whether an office will help improve local air quality or create more local job opportunities, or whether occupants will be happier at leisure in one location and more productive at work in another. These may not be quantified by a straightforward certification, but they do have a direct impact on the future success of a building.

Such questions inform a growing proportion of TFT's work with investors and developers, because of a commercial agenda linked to market expectations. But a skills gap across real-estate management could prevent it answering those questions.

Consultants, engineers, surveyors and other professions understand the building fabric and systems, as well as the physical infrastructure it contains. But they may lack the soft skills needed to engage with the people using the building, who rely on and interact with the physical structure to make the whole building system work as it should. Demand is there but the skill set needs to change.

Holistic performance

Part of our response should be to formalise these expectations by augmenting a traditional model of building performance with new components. An holistic view of building performance, for example, puts people-centred and sustainable design higher up the commercial agenda. It will also provide engineers with a better basis for shaping different commercial outcomes for owners and investors across the life cycle of a building.

Surveyors and engineers are well aware of the need for TDD as part of the acquisition, occupation and disposal of commercial property. The process provides a means of informing transactional decisions and safeguarding investments by focusing on the building structure, fabric and services. From a building services perspective, this will often include a mechanical and electical engineer assessing the mechanical, electical and vertical transportation installations and providing a professional opinion. These surveys are fundamental piece of the building puzzle, but can no longer be separated from the following:

  • Environmental sustainability

    The aim should be to ensure that buildings consume less in the way of non-renewable resources during operation, and not simply be deemed to do so by compliance or desing alone, as is typical in building certificaion today.

  • Workplace and well-being

    the occupier market, and therefore the real-estate sector, is increasingly aware of the relationship between buildings designed for well-being and the enhanced performance of the people and organisations who use them. In addition, an increase in policy that promotes well-being, the adoption of relevant certification by some owners, and ongoing market trends will move the issue from growing trend to fundamental building criterion.

  • User experience

    this and the level of service in a building are critical to support its function as well. Sectors are blurring, and many kinds of business occupier are being influenced by business areas such as hospitality, which lives or dies according to the level of experience it provides. This approach appears intuitive but is newly important in a commercial climate of short leases and fierce competition based on experience offering. Elevating customer experience to become part of a building's wider performance rather than window dressing alone can offer a sustainable commercial advantage.

These three elements are interconnected; together they drive a realistic, commercially effective picture of building performance oriented to long-term occupant and social benefit. To form an holistic view, building owners must begin by considering broader objectives for buildings than simple compliance and certification. Without this ground on which to base a strategy, asset owners and managers will find it impossible to assess the true and relevant performance of the building.

Engagement with the building owner, operator and users will help to shape this. From there, a more holistic approach can help carry out the studies to understand and implement the strategy.

As transactional value is increasingly driven by market preference for buildings that offer economic, social and environmental value, so building performance value becomes more diverse than design certification or services operation. In addition, social media encourages users to share their experiences widely and to influence decisions based on actual experience against a perceived quality of design.

This will not affect just one transaction, but represents a sustained trajectory in rental income, occupancy and yield, building a picture of properties' value when they go to market. Falling short of these expectations, especially in a maturing market with competition to provide what customers want, will mean underperforming assets face obsolescence.

We need to stop doing what we have always done or we run the risk that our existing or new-build assets will not be fit for purpose in future. With a rapidly evolving market and occupier base, that future is getting nearer all the time.

Austen Bates is an associate at TFT  abates@tftconsultants.com

Related competencies include: Sustainability

Related Articles


go to article UK research hub supports net-zero land use


go to article BRE revises guidance on access to daylight and sunlight


go to article Opinion: Lough Neagh ecocide indicts misgovernance