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Costing for life

Sustainability; Like the three little pigs in the nursery tale, the construction industry is learning to evaluate building components by their whole-life performance: if you cut costs now, you could pay later. Adrian Greeman reports

SUDDENLY it seems as though everyone in construction is collecting numbers - wear rates for carpets compared with terrazzo; replacement times for window frames; minimum maintenance intervals for heating ducts and heat losses of different wall types.

Anglian Water has launched a monitoring system on downtime and maintenance of pumps and pipes. Balfour Beatty is gathering data on offices, via facilities management arm Haden Building Management. Multidisciplinary consultant W S Atkins is collating figures for local authority operations contracts.

And why? Because profitability is increasingly being seen to come from paying as much attention to maintenance, wear, energy use and operational needs of buildings, as to initial construction costs.

'In the public sector, there has traditionally been a gulf separating capital budgets from revenue, with no incentive for procurers to build well, if less cheaply, just to save someone else's budget,' says Ed Bartlett, a project manager at the Building Research Establishment's Centre for Whole Life Performance. 'Now the public sector is helping drive whole- life costing forwards. Local authorities mustselect 'best value' rather then 'cheapest' for schools and other facilities.

'At national level, the Ministry of Defence has grown tired of high running costs at military establishments. Its new Building Down Barriers partnering initiative has two projects under way which are trialling whole-life costing. Ideas are being borrowed from the aerospace, petrochemicals and weapons fields.'

But there is a problem, and that is a general lack of information about durability and long-term costs.

'Reliable data is rare and assumptions are subject to the use and quality of maintenance,' says one contractor, quoted in a BRE report.

But that is changing. Multidisciplinary consultancy the Building Performance Group (BPG), which offers consultancy on whole-life design, has compiled figures on behalf of insurance 'club', Housing Association Property Mutual, on component durability andpublished them

as the HAPM Component Life Manual.

Originating from a Housing Association defects insurance scheme in the early '90s, thislists most of the major domestic building components - roofs, windows, floors, walls and so forth. It has some 150 major component categories subdivided into more than 500 types: for example, windows with frames made of softwood, hardwood, PVCu, aluminium or steel.

'Methods for assessing costs have previously used a very broad brush,' says BPGassociate director Gary Moss. 'The average cost of running buildings classified by type, say, hospital or school, is often used.'

That might do for strategic plans, he says, but for design detail the whole-life cost needs to be built up more accurately. That means working component by component and paying attention to location, design detail, and maintenance regimes.

'Even there you have to consider specifics,' says Mr Moss. 'A window may be in hardwood or metal, but quality varies. Softwood treated with preservative may last longer than some hardwoods, for example.'

BPG's pull-out binder sheets and CD Roms, give data on typical lifespans and replacement regimes for product types, as well as maintenance needs. The manual is updated twice a year to take into account current research, latest insurance claim information and new products. Updates go twice- yearly to subscribers.

Two new volumes are being added to the Component Life Manual, which is specific to housing. The BPG Building Fabric Component Life Manual, which comes out in late November, gives data for industrial and commercial buildings. A third volume focusing on mechanical and electrical plant is also due.

BPG has also published data sheets showing how durability information combines with cost to calculate whole life assessments. But normally this can only be done as one-off consultancy.

'We gather the cost data ourselves by phoning the suppliers' says Mr Moss. 'But it goes out of date quickly and, anyway, it would not be in our interest to publish it.'

That is a big problem, says BRE's Ed Bartlett. While he sees the BPG data as very useful, it does not include costs and therefore can be only a part of the story.

BRE's Centre for Whole Life Performance, created 12 months ago with a staff drawn from insurance, defects analysis, surveying, architecture and economics, aims to pull together many other existing sources to produce a major cost database.

'There is a lot of data about,' says Ed Bartlett, 'especially here at BRE, where it emerges from different research programmes.'

BRE is launching the Whole Life Cost Forum this month as a kind of data club for major clients, contractors and consultants. Figures for historic and contemporary trial project component costs, durability, maintenance needs, cleaning costs and so on will be shared among members.

Participation costs £3,000 a year and has already drawn some big players such as BAA, which will pool data from seven Britishairports. Mr Bartlett is hoping that other firms, including BPG, will participate. He is also keen to attract the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors' Building Maintenance Information service, which he describes as a key source for historic cost data of different building types, locations, environments and maintenance regimes.

The Whole Life Cost Forum is built on the premise that its members will cast aside old prejudices and pull together for the common good. If it works, then the benefits could include lower overall costs, better environmental performance and better quality buildings.

If only the three little pigs had done the same.

What is whole-life costing?

WHOLE-life costing means 'the systematic consideration of all relevant costs and revenues associated with the acquisition and ownership of an asset', according to one definition cited by the BRE.

In construction this includes consideration of capital costs, (such as initial construction or refurbishment costs; purchase or leasing; interest on loans; and fees).

But it also involves scrutiny of occupancy revenue and costs (including: rent; rates; cleaning; maintenance, repair and renewal; energy and utilities; dismantling or disposal; and security and management).

These latter whole-life costs can be as much as 10 times the initial capital cost.

Appropriate decisions made early in the design and strategic stages of the construction process can save considerably on the whole-life cost, even though they may involve more expense initially.