Nick Grant of Elemental Solutions explains what is meant by value engineering and how it can be used in the house building process.
Interview with Nick Grant
Nick was a Trustee of the AECB and is Technical Director of the Passivhaus Trust. He is a sustainable building consultant with a background in engineering and, stemming from a childhood ‘make do and mend' mentality, a lifelong passion for doing more with less.
Giving maximum value through engineering
As an engineer, one of the modules that most inspired Nick was one about value engineering.
Value is defined by Nick as being performance divided by cost. If you maximise performance, or reduce cost, it increases value.
Nick cites as an example the trend of smartphones having fewer buttons than ever before. An iPhone has been very value engineered in that “it manages to deliver a lot by doing very little and it takes a lot of effort to get to that”.
In engineering it's an incredibly positive thing and what is strived for, however when Nick started working in the construction industry he discovered that people were using the term to mean cost-cutting in a negative sense:
“So I went from this thing being something I thought was inherently a great thing and a real challenge and exciting, and for me defined really good design, to this thing that people say “it's been value engineered, they've ruined my project, they value engineered it.”
Value engineering has to happen at the beginning of a project
It needs to happen right at the start when the design is being developed. Decisions about the size, shape, orientation, etc all have an impact on the final value, cost and challenges that are going to arise. If the correct steps haven't been taken at the beginning then it is likely that contracts in the tender will come back over budget, resulting in a cost-cutting exercise which will inevitably see the removal of features that you liked about the design.
It should be integrated in the house building process
Nick feels that everything he does is value engineering, but that people can be reluctant to pay for something which leaves them feeling like they're actually getting less. It may be that they've been told about something which they didn't need to do, thus saving money, but they haven't actually got anything tangible for it.
Typically in architecture it tends to be cost cutting and might be carried out by a Quantity Surveyor. Nick feels however that it should be completely integrated, with everyone on board and led by the lead designer. There should be encouragement, whether for the structural engineer, landscape architect, energy consultant etc, to find better, cheaper and easier ways of doing things.
Having constraints on a project can be a positive
Nick says that rather than having to make compromises if they've run out of time or budget, it should be the case that if the correct work has been put in during the process they should be able to come to something “where it kind of all works.”
Having constraints can in some ways make the job easier. There can be fewer choices needing to be made and subsequently less things that they can get wrong. It can free the designer to focus on other things as well.
“So the more constraints we have, I think as a designer I take that as, I like that. So if we've got a very small budget, limited palate of materials, I quite like the challenge of that.”
By establishing a budget early on you can immediately realise that there are things that might not need to be considered, such as the indoor swimming pool and fancy finishes!
“So you've got to do the value engineering, you've got to find a better way of doing things, find more clever materials, but you've got to also set a budget and then work to that budget. Otherwise everything will just expand to meet it.”
You can do things cheaply, quickly or well: you can't do all three!
Nick and his partner designed and built their own home, blowing their original £30,000 budget and spending £40,000! While they like to think they did it well and cheaply, it did take them a long time to complete. They took inspiration from Christopher Alexander's book A Pattern Language, but by doing that they did end up with a house that has a very complex form (a form factor of around 5) and which was a lot more time consuming to build.
It's not easy to do simple!
By working on repeat projects Nick has been able to invest the time into working out details that appear to be simple, but if they were that easy everyone would be doing them! The process can evolve very slowly but benefits are reaped by the experience gained, thus making things easier on the next projects.
Give a great deal of thought about the number and function of windows being used
Nick is currently doing some work on overheating for the Passivhaus Trust. He explains that in our climate we tend to want to let the sunlight in and aren't used to going out and putting the shutters down, whereas in warmer climes this is something people do automatically. It therefore shouldn't be a surprise when we return home and find them overheating!
So firstly it's important to have enough glass for views and letting daylight in, but without having too much.
Glazing is expensive so, coming back to value engineering, make the window do as much work for you as possible. Thinking of function, if there are windows that can't easily be accessed and opened, then consider a fixed rather than openable one, which typically you could pay 30% less for.
Nick gives this example of his own window behind the kitchen sink which they can't easily reach to open, and suggests that actually a fixed, single frame view would probably have been better.
Ensure also that if your windows are to open, that they open enough to get the airflows. Often they open in a restricted reveal which doesn't allow enough air in. Evolving over many buildings, Nick has learned to step the reveals in a way that when the window is tilted it still allows good airflow. It's this repetition, and going back to review previous jobs, that is critical to learning and making improvements next time.
Decide what matters and work to your budget
Deciding what matters and working to your budget is Nick's key piece of advice.
“Everything isn't possible. But again that shouldn't mean there's a compromise necessarily. What you end up with you shouldn't be thinking oh I really miss the little Victorian fake windows, you should think oh thank God I didn't do that!”
Find out more
Inquiry into the Quality of New Build Housing in England
Towards the end of last year, Ben was part of a panel at the Inquiry into the Quality of New Build Housing in England, at the Houses of Parliament. Presenting to a handful of politicians and construction professionals, those contributing included:
- Phil Waller, who has previously worked for a major house builder. His opinion was that they could be doing much better, and he has set up a website to try and advise potential purchasers what they should be looking for if they're intending to buy from a developer.
- Geoff Peter from Wingrove Law is a solicitor who represents owners of new builds who have ongoing issues with their homes.
We know what a lot of the issues are and a lot of good questions were being asked, but it just comes down to whether anything will actually get done.