When Value Engineering costs the Earth

In the run up to World Green Building Week, we’ve teamed up with TFT, a company of project managers and quantity surveyors, to discuss an often missed out climate conversation: value engineering. Carbon reduction in buildings has come a long way but we are still behind the curve. Possibly because there are several key disciplines whose collective power is often underestimated.

This week, we are releasing an article written by Eva MacNamara, Associate at Expedition Engineering and Natalia Ford, Senior Sustainability Consultant at TFT and  to highlight how a project team can do better for our future.

When Value Engineering costs the Earth.

“Value engineering is used to solve problems and identify and eliminate unwanted costs, whilst improving function and quality.”[i]

As part of multidisciplinary project teams, members collaborate to achieve a balance of several drivers whilst meeting the client’s brief.

Over the last year, over 1500 organisations comprising architects, engineers, contractors, consultants, and project managers have signed up to the ‘Declare’ movement[ii], committing to undertake design and construction with significantly less carbon. This is a leap forward in terms of sustainable development intentions by a large portion of the built environment sector.

However, moving away from bolt on sustainability services towards integrated, holistic and sustainable system design requires a fundamental rethink of the design process. And yet, arguably, one of the fundamental steps that the sector needs to take is to integrate three key gatekeepers of our build processes: project managers, quantity surveyors and the procurement chain.

Value engineering for good

In its best possible incarnation, value engineering can get the best out of a design. However, at its worst, value engineering could literally cost us the earth. The decisions designers and contractors make now must move us towards Net Zero and it is fundamentally important that those in control of budgets understand the impact of changes to an optimised low carbon design. A tight specification that integrates carbon, becomes essential for good intentions not to be undermined by contractual ‘opportunities’.

Never has a good brief been more important.

Clients need to lead in their requirements for moving towards Net Zero. Our respective Declare movements demand that we design and build in the right way. However, if the same goal isn’t shared by our clients, it is quite possible that whilst the value engineering process may satisfy increases in value for cost, programme and quality, the effect on climate and carbon isn’t quantified in the same way.

So, how do we change our processes to achieve a sustainable built environment?

Baking and knitting skills – a PM’s discipline

Firstly, project managers are responsible for a setting the tone and the ambition of the project, not to mention the considerable amount of “knitting” that has to happen between the different disciplines. Knowing that sustainability should be baked in from RIBA Stage 1, and not the last thing on the DTM agenda, or bringing in sustainability consultants purely for a planning submission, changes how sustainability is managed and considered throughout the design phase. Advocating to clients at RIBA Stage 0[iii] for a sustainability process to be included can drastically change the project outcomes and value.

Carbon – a QS’s dream

The best QS understand the balance of drivers that a design team works with and how best value is attained. Many of these drivers are qualitive and subjective. Carbon, on the other hand, is pretty much[iv] quantitative, and is highly suited to being part of the QS domain.  They measure what they can measure very well, and not what they can’t. Carbon needs to be another column on the QS cost plan.

Procurement – a direct cost link we can’t ignore

Procurement is where the rubber meets the road in terms of carbon. Whether the years of low carbon design work and planning is seen through to the end of construction will be determined by how closely the procurement chain, which can be highly fragmented, follows the product and performance specification.

Designers and contractors need to bring the PM and QS community and the procurement chain with us on the multiple sustainability narratives we are working through as a sector including low carbon, whole life carbon and cost, and circular economy. Sustainability professionals understand how a value engineering tweak can significantly impact on these sustainability outcomes. QS professionals are well placed to understand how the desirable sustainability outcomes can impact on the other traditional client drivers. Striking that balance and finding our new normal is difficult but currently, the balance is still weighted towards cost and business directives.

Including these disciplines to achieve the sustainability objectives of a project will contribute to making sustainability a front runner in the value engineering balancing act.

Let’s value engineer the Earth in.   

[i] The definition of “Value Engineering” according to Designing Buildings Wiki. Accessed 17/09/20  https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/Value_engineering_in_building_design_and_construction

[ii] Construction Declares https://www.constructiondeclares.com/ covering Architects, Building Services, Civil Engineers, Contractors, Landscape Architects, Project Manager, and Structural Engineers Declare pages.

[iii] Yes, even at RIBA Stage 0 there are issues that sustainability professionals can shed light on such as future proofing and circular economy.

[iv] as much as it can be using PAS 2080, EN 15978, the RICS Methodology and some LCA software.