Designing out risk

Date & Time:6th December 2017 

Debate and discussion on designing out risk in projects, held at AECOM’s offices

In 27 AD, an amphitheatre in Fidenae collapsed with between 20,000 and 50,000 people killed or injured.  Constructed from wood, it was packed with spectators after the Emperor Tiberius had lifted a ban on gladiatorial sports and is recorded as the earliest and worst stadium disaster in history. History is littered with building failures, including projects which have seriously run over the original budget and programme.

Chaired by Ian Caldwell, Tony Llewellyn, Collaboration Director of  Resolex, Stewart Dabin from the Fire Engineering Team at AECOM and Neil Allfrey, Associate Partner at Penoyre & Prasad explored different aspects of risk and how to design it out, followed by an audience discussion.

Tony Llewellyn explored the issue of people and behaviours, and how professionals need good training in social skills, to match their training in technical and commercial skills, so that they can negotiate and influence, especially when major issues arise and how, despite risk registers and the like, design teams were very often not good at understanding the full complexity of a project and managing the real risks.  Project teams are comprised of people and they have their own characters, often being too optimistic, moving too fast, or not wanting to hear bad news and ignoring early warning signals.  There is also culture and politics, which may drive a project on regardless, a characteristic of some of the projects which have gone disastrously over budget and programme.   Key conclusions are that social intelligence is a key aspect of risk management, project teams should check their assumptions, there should be systems in place to catch early warning signals and important information should not be filtered out, as it often is.

Stewart Dabin provided an update of the current views on good practice in fire engineering, focussed on higher education buildings which are often quite complex, such as with laboratories or scientific facilities, have unique hazards, are multi-user and have occupants of different ages and mobility.   In addition higher education buildings including many historic and listed buildings.

In general, higher education institutions are conscious of risks, require designers to go above and beyond building regulations and have fire officers within the institution to give expert advice. Key to successful fire engineering is the early involvement of fire engineers and the London Plan proposes that a fire engineering plan is included in the technical information in planning submissions.

Stewart then presented successful education examples including the Early Australian Stamford Years (EASY) project in Singapore, with the challenge of being a multi-level building occupied by young children from 18 months to 5 years, the Aga Khan University for the Study of Muslim Civilisations at King’s Cross, London, where the client wanted an open atrium running up through the building, and Sebastian Street for City, University of London, which had the complication of connecting into an existing building.

Neil Affrey then presented the successful re-cladding of Guy’s Tower, at the heart of Guy’s hospital at London Bridge, surrounded by hospital buildings and housing a mixture of uses including a large number of floors occupied by King’s College, London including the Dental Institute and other research departments.

Neil explained the careful process which the project team, including Arup Facades, had gone through to gather information about a building that was several decades old and where, inevitably, drawings and records were out of date, to analyse and investigate the problems with the existing cladding both in terms of deterioration and of heat-loss, the design options developed and appraised, the choice of the procurement route, time given to the contractor to familiarise himself with the building and its constraints and, crucially prototypes of the cladding system and of the construction process to replace the windows from inside on the building itself, one of the main aims being that the building had to remain in use throughout the works with minimum disruption to the occupants.

The discussion explored a number of issues including how project teams can cope with the ever-increasing complexity and regulation involved in modern buildings, the role of the client in not setting unreasonable time constraints, often an issue in higher education with a focus on the start of the academic year, and of the design team to manage client expectations.  Fortunately, the client for Guy’s Tower had taken the view that timetable was of second importance to finding the best solution and to minimise risk, especially in an occupied building.

The good news is that most projects do go well.  The few that go badly are a few too many. The aim should be to ensure that risk is managed so that all projects are successful.

Many thanks to the speakers and to AECOM for sponsoring the event.