What can elite sport teach us about building performance?

I was recently invited to speak at the Association of University Engineers Conference on how you improve the performance of buildings. I started to think about the way many universities and other organisations approach improving the performance of their buildings, and what performance means in the building context.

In a previous career, I worked with athletes as an exercise physiologist and my focus was on how to get the best out of people. I asked myself, are there lessons we can take from the world of elite sport and apply to improve our buildings?

In short the answer is yes, I believe there are real parallels. For an athlete to perform at their best we have to focus on the individual and understand their strengths and weaknesses. We also need to continually review performance and work on improvements. Without this approach success will be short lived.

People, people, people…

It goes without saying that improving sports performance requires a focus on people. And yet there are many examples of sports people focussing far too much on equipment at the expense of their own fitness. I used to work a lot with cyclists, and it is amazing how much money people were willing to spend on the latest bikes, equipment and clothing. The sports science support our labs provided was offered at a fraction of the cost, but it was much harder to get people to part with their money without something new and shiny to take away.

My observation over the last 3 years working with LCMB is that shiny new buildings get much more investment than improving performance of existing estates. Many buildings are only looked at when equipment breaks or users complain.

By shifting the performance focus to our building users we invest in optimising the environment for all facilities, old and new based on where the biggest gains can be made. It’s important to remember the primary purpose of our buildings is to facilitate the activity of staff and other building users such as customers or students. We need to engage staff and managers who use our spaces on a day-to-day basis, in a conversation to understand what the space is required to do, to make them more productive and target our efforts on meeting these needs.

In sport it’s essential to understand the needs of the individual. In the same sport every athlete will have different strengths and weaknesses and by understanding these, training can focus on the elements that have the biggest impact and can be the difference between winning and losing.

Too often we think of our buildings as just four walls, and as an object whose performance is pre-determined and doesn’t change year-on-year. The truth is buildings change. Staff are moved around, occupant densities change, as do the tasks being performed. Plant performance deteriorates, maintenance and upgrades affect operational performance, and building users have increasingly higher expectations.

A continuous process…

The lack of performance review inevitable leaves many buildings failing their occupants. New builds will typically undergo a commissioning process and post occupancy evaluation. But too often this is scaled back, and little is invested once the building has been in operation for two, three or four years. With 1% of our buildings replaced on an annual basis 90% of our existing buildings have been in use for 10-years or more, and offer an enormous opportunity for performance improvement.

Technology has come on dramatically over recent years, and it’s easier and cheaper than ever to collect good quality data. We can use this data to continually monitor performance and prioritise efforts on buildings where there is the biggest potential for cost savings, energy reduction or improved productivity through better indoor environmental quality, depending on the elements you wish to prioritise.

We recently worked in a range of buildings that showed users working within environments with very high CO2 concentrations. Research consistently shows that peoples cognitive capability and performance is dramatically reduced in high CO2 environments. These buildings are failing their occupants, providing sub-optimal working conditions and demonstrating poor performance. However, without a process of monitoring and reviews of performance these cases go undetected. This experience is far from unique. Even in new builds Innovate UK’s Building Performance Evaluation research demonstrated a significant performance gap from design specification to operating conditions. If this is what we see in new builds it’s not surprising existing buildings that receive little or no continuous performance reviews suffer from sub-standard performance across a range of measures.

Sport teaches us that to reach peak performance we need to work with people and understand what they are trying to achieve, evaluate current performance, and then prepare training programmes and provide coaching to turn the knowledge into performance improvements. But more importantly, it also teaches us performance isn’t a one-off transactional arrangement where improvements are long-standing. To reach world class performance and remain at the top requires a continued process of reviewing performance, understanding weaknesses and taking action to address them.

We must get a better understanding of our building needs, evaluate the current performance and then develop strategic plans that can be used to deliver improvements based on quantified needs. This approach will lead to a bigger return on our investment in buildings and improve the productivity of people and their organisations.

It might not be possible to turn donkeys into race horses, but most of our buildings have huge potential for performance improvement. So, let’s raise our game and go for gold!


Contact Tom Cudmore, Senior Consultant at LCMB to discuss how we can analyse the performance of your building, identifying and prioritising the areas that will improve your productivity and return on investment. Tom can be contacted at t: 01295 722823 e: [email protected]

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