The importance of post-occupancy evaluation for our future built environment

“As architects, we should care as much about our buildings after delivery as we do before.”
By Hannelore Christiaens

Many architects see the handover of a building as the final stage of their involvement in a project. At Make however, we believe that architects should not stop caring about their building at the point of delivery. Ironically, it is precisely after this point that some of the most valuable lessons about architecture and design can be learnt. An honest reflection is therefore a must: Are the users satisfied with the building? Is the building performing as well as intended? The collection of qualitative and quantitative research methods employed to answer these questions is called post-occupancy evaluation or POE, and Make has been doing this for their built projects wherever possible.

Why?

Why would an architect start from tabula rasa for each design? Verifying if a building is, indeed, working as intended would be a major contribution to an enhanced design process. The result of doing a POE can only be positive: true successes can be recognised and repeated in the future, and if certain aspects of a building do not meet expectations or if innovations are missing their targets, these will be revealed. Collecting knowledge from several projects can lead to a better understanding of comfort in general, and a better thesis to begin with once a new design project has to be initiated. Every POE will produce a particular fragment of information and by carrying out these evaluations repeatedly, this fragmented knowledge will become more and more coherent.

Lessons learnt

Project cycle

Therefore, it is not only important to have a client or user heavily involved in the design process before construction, but also for the designer to be involved with the user experience after construction, which is a phase where architects are usually left out.

Relationship between client and design team

User and design process

Practically, the lessons learnt from post-occupancy evaluations on a project can then be utilised to bring about change for that particular project and to inform future design in the following ways:

  • Intervention design: altering aspects of the building that can be changed relatively easily to increase user satisfaction (short term)
  • Renovation design: using more appropriate space divisions, materials, systems and building skins when renovating the building (medium term)
  • Future building design: problems that can’t be resolved in the current building should be avoided in future projects (long term)

POE and sustainability

POE is especially important in sustainable architecture, where it serves as a hypothesis testing for innovative projects by testing and monitoring them after completion.

Innovation and new techniques can bring unintended consequences, so it is important to see which projects are moving in the right direction.

Sustainable buildings are not just about one way of construction or combining a few techniques, we have to understand the effectiveness of sustainable design strategies in relation to context, climate, scale, type of use, user, client and city. POE can reveal why a certain technique works well on one project but fails on another by surveying actual performance, any improper usage which can cancel out environmental goals and the social and psychological effects of a building on its users. This will lead to even more successful designs with a high level of comfort. Newly built environment will therefore progressively perform better than those preceding them.

Existing standards and methods

Many kinds of POEs already exist, although they are not often used. There is not a single method which is the absolute standard, and making one ideal POE is not possible due to the unique nature of every individual project.

This adds to the complexity of implementing POEs. Quantitative and qualitative POEs, or hybrids, have been developed, covering different lifespans, techniques and processes (e.g. the Portfolio Technique incl. Probe, Soft Landings) and there are several ways of sharing knowledge (e.g. CarbonBuzz). For the projects here at Make that have been evaluated, the techniques were assessed and the appropriate method used for each case.

Cost

One of the main reasons why POE is not yet widely implemented is due to the cost. Over the long term, however, and when POE is well implemented, the benefits can be huge and definitely larger than the initial costs. A study has found the following: ‘The Construction Engineering Research Laboratory did a cost-benefit study: they found that for every dollar spent on POEs, they saved ten dollars on operating and redesign costs.’ Research Design Connections (2003)

Summary

The knowledge of how users experience a building after its delivery is an important yet often neglected source of information for architects, which stands in stark contrast to the level of interest and hard work that the architect puts into understanding the needs of the future users in the design process. POE provides this feedback and, no matter which stage of its lifecycle a building is in, the results will always be useful.

Figuratively, POE replaces the ‘blank sheet’ of the architect with transparent paper which is placed over experience, knowledge and previous successes, from which the appropriate lines can be copied. New insights are used for fine tuning new buildings, improving design for future buildings, and renovating existing buildings, leading to cost savings and a better user experience in healthy and comfortable environments.

Therefore, the sooner implementation becomes universal, the sooner the benefits will be reaped as POE takes on an increasing and, ultimately, indispensable role in the building process in the future.

Notes
Blog post based on: CHRISTIAENS, H., “Implementing post occupancy evaluation into common sustainable design practice – a reflection”, The University of Edinburgh, 2012; and sources referenced to in this paper.
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