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Do proven methods build more reliable homes?

John Fahy

New technologies are often seen as key to easing the housing crisis. But research shows tried and tested methods can offer valuable longevity in tall buildings

Building tall to prepare for the future at Salford Media City in Greater Manchester.
Building tall to prepare for the future at Salford Media City in Greater Manchester. Credit: Uponor

Many architects are keen to move away from traditional products in favour of integrated technologies that are considered more eco-friendly, but designing buildings with lifecycles of just 25 years is putting the construction industry’s reputation at major risk. There needs to be more focus on specifying tried and tested solutions to give buildings a much longer life cycle.

A new report, The M&E Role in the Future of High Rise Buildings, commissioned by my company Uponor, focuses on the challenges facing M&E experts in the wake of a surge in demand for high rise buildings. It draws on the findings of a survey of over 250 construction professionals – including architects, specifiers and M&E engineers – and shows that 85% of them believe the country’s housing crisis can only be solved by mass delivery of tall buildings. The survey reveals that 58% of architects break from existing specifications to improve end user experience. This compares to M&E experts challenging 100% of specifications on these grounds. The industry is under pressure to test new ways of working, usually driven by cost savings over cost-benefit which doesn’t necessarily help to create buildings that are fit for long-term purpose.

Architects are obviously integral to the overall structure of buildings, and they specify the materials and products that will be used to bring the building to life. However, there is so much focus on trying something new – such as automation – and on being creative with design, that not enough attention is being paid to ensure it lasts for 100 years or more. This means more consideration to the whole life cycle of the building and the materials for performance, hygiene levels and ongoing maintenance. Rather than specifying materials that are not yet proven to deliver longevity after building completion, architects should be working more closely with manufacturers who have tried and tested solutions that have a reputation for achieving building permanence. Not doing so leaves architects open to blame for failures in buildings way into the future – as this survey also investigated.

Not enough attention is being paid to the whole life cycle of the building and the materials that are needed to ensure it lasts for 100 years or more

Having laid billions of linear metres of pipe across the globe in our 100-year existence, we don’t want to be associated with buildings that aren’t built to last. Those who specify poorly will inevitably create buildings with short life cycles, as they open themselves up to working only with manufacturers that are happy to relinquish responsibility once a building is complete.

Uponor’s report raises questions about the disconnect between upfront planning and the reality on the ground as specifications go through the supply chain of these buildings. It argues that such ways of working delay completion, resulting in a struggle to build enough homes to meet demand. Of the respondents, 75% agreed that the M&E sector will come under significant pressure to deliver the 110,000 homes needed in London alone by 2050.


Optimal or efficient?

The report also covers the debate over who is responsible for achieving optimum performance after a high rise building is completed, revealing that 60 per cent of architects focus on optimum temperature over thermal comfort in the original specification process.

Over engineering to guarantee optimum temperatures for rare extreme weather, for example, is expensive and inefficient. Instead the focus should be on end user comfort, while allowing some adaption on behaviours.

Another finding concerns the skills gap, with the industry predicting major repercussions if action is not taken soon to address the problem. This is a major concern across the board, but significant attention needs to be paid to both architecture and M&E if the industry is to come even close to futureproofing and ensuring enough talent is in the pipeline to deliver the buildings of the future.

More M&E specialists are needed to deliver buildings that meet demand – those with very intricate knowledge of how specialised systems work together within a building to make sure it performs well, but also the thinkers behind the concepts of buildings. We need architects to say: this is what end users need today and tomorrow, let’s work together to achieve it. No matter where automation takes us, construction will never be about machines building buildings; human interaction will always be superior in this sector.

John Fahy is managing director of Uponor


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