Intangibles in Buildings: Reality or mystery?

Empire State in water

by Mohammad Mayouf

The majority of modern public or private buildings could be described as set of columns, beams and slabs structurally calculated, architecturally designed and tangibly engineered and systemically (e.g. Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing – MEP – or any other associated systems) integrated. This statement sounds complicated enough, but doesn’t reflect the actual process of constructing buildings, and raises the question of who else other than engineers and designers (including architects) are involved in the construction of buildings. If, for the sake of argument, we claim that people involved in the construction process are doing their job according the standards set, why do we still have problems? One possible answer is stated by the Royal Academy of Engineering which claims that the ratio construction cost : maintenance and building operating costs : business operating costs is about 1:5:200.  This demonstrates that the most significant cost of buildings starts after construction (Evans et al., 1998). The stated ratio is not necessarily wholly accurate, and numbers may have been used for illustrative purposes (Hughes et al., 2004), but it must have resulted from problems faced quotewith buildings during operation which had not been taken in account in their design and construction.  The interesting question here is why such a ratio has been highlighted in the first place?  It suggests that there are some aspects that should be considered by those involved during the design stage which currently are not, or not in the right way.  I would like to know whether these building intangibles (e.g. aspects within the building which result in higher costs, non-satisfaction and poor management) are a reality or mystery, and if they are real, can some of them be revealed during the design stage? The purpose of my blog is to generalise about the importance of early considerations (and the involvement of users in the design stage) which can avoid unpredictable intangibles in all buildings, notwithstanding the function of any specific building (Private houses will be excluded from the blog as their problems are considerably less that general private and public buildings).

However, one could ask, why concern ourselves with intangibles when public or business use buildings are physical objects.  I am not trying to highlight something wholly new but, in fact, trying to reveal some of the truth which many engineers may not see or even consider.  What everyone knows about the nature of such buildings is that they are designed to accommodate people who generate wealth or provide a service (e.g. public buildings, office buildings (Evans et al., 1998). Nevertheless, going back to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ratio, why would such a ratio exist if the designers and engineers integrate all building systems (structural, mechanical, electrical, etc.) within the building?  A simple answer would be that this ratio is unreasonable and does not have any statistical evidence as claimed (Hughes et al., 2004).  Also, advances in technology have helped detect errors at an early design stage (e.g. clash detection between different systems within the building) but, to this day, we still hear the same argument that “Buildings do not work as intended” (Gross, 1996), which means either that engineers are not sufficiently dedicated in their work, or the reality is that there are intangibles which cannot be identified until the building starts operating.

In a general sense, the word ‘intangible’ is defined as “part of the business that has value or worth, but which is difficult to touch, grasp or measure” (ERC, 2002a, p. 1).  Building intangibles are all aspects within the building that are either identified by the occupants or detected through errors.  The significance of these intangibles increases especially in buildings that experience high numbers of occupants such as hospitals where the environment itself has a direct influence on patients and people working within the hospital (ERC, 2002a).  Heywood et al. (2010) claim that facility managers are concerned about the performance of facilities and the way that they should be managed: their concern is not only about users’ needs, but on how these facilities can be managed with the effect of the psychology of building environment where this shows only one side of the problem. These intangibles do not only affect building occupants, but all stakeholders involved as demonstrated in Figure 1.  From another perspective, occupants’ desire to be completely satisfied in terms of the performance expected in the building (e.g. spatial comfort) cannot be achieved, and this will have an influence on their productivity level as well as well-being (e.g. effect of the internal air quality).

Figure 1 captures how building intangibles become reality as the phase of building construction evolves, and once the building starts operating. In addition, any contradictions between designer/architect, client, contractor and end user have a major impact on a building’s long-term value.  In our case, for simplicity, designers, facility managers and users are considered (see Figure 1) where the construction process shows each stage and people involved.  Figure 1 shows that the intangibles become increasingly apparent in later stages of the construction process where end users (facility managers and building occupants) face these intangibles.  Therefore, the serious consequences are also shown (the ones highlighted inside the red square in figure 1), but other consequences may also apply during the building’s life cycle.

My current research investigates how the performance of buildings could be improved to reduce the gap between predicted and actual performance; in other words, detecting the intangibles.  Approaches such as POE (Post-Occupancy Evaluation) and BPE (Building Performance Evaluation) could contribute towards better buildings, but they are time consuming and result in extra cost; and their major disadvantage is that they are implemented after the building is already built and occupied.  It is assumed that involvement of end users at an early design stage can help detecting aspects which cannot be clear for the designer. ERC (2002b) claimed that there are reasons why some considerations during the design stage are not taken since people are in a hurry and do not realise the value which can be added once the building starts operating. However, the contradiction point among different stakeholders within the building is still an obstacle, so the question is, will better designed buildings be a dream, or are we really working towards it? The answer is ‘NO ONE KNOWS’.


Figure 1: Demonstration of how building intangibles appear, and their influences on the ones involved with the building.



Eclipse Research Consult£ants (2002a) Better designed buildings: improving the valuation of intangibles, A Literature review (Accessed on 1st August 2013) available at:

Eclipse Research Consultants (2002b) Better designed buildings: improving the valuation of intangibles, write up of third workshop (Accessed on 2nd August 2013) available at:

Evans, R., Haryott, R., Haste, N. and Jones, A. (1998) The Long Term Costs of Owning and Using Buildings. London: Royal Academy of Engineering.

Gross, J, G. (1996) ‘Developments in the application of performance concept in building’, national institute of standards and technology, Gaithersburg (USA).

Heywood, C., Missingham, G. and Kenley, R. (2010) ‘Modelling and managing affective psychology in Australian local government facilities’, Facilities, 28(3/4): 156-174.

Hughes, W., Ancell, D., Gruneberg, S. and Hirst, L. (2004) Exposing the myth of the 1:5:200 ration relating initial cost, maintenance and staffing costs of office buildings, ARCOM 20th Annual conference. Reading (UK).

About Mark

I am an interdisciplinary environmental researcher specialising in knowledge exchange, stakeholder participation and the value of nature. I do training to help embed impact into research and help people adapt to environmental change in mountains and deserts around the world.

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