Does your architecture work?

A Small Introduction on Post Occupancy Evaluation

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Wouter Tooren. Learn more about Wouter and his work here.

Every year hundreds of buildings, both small and large, are being built and renovated in The Netherlands. Wouldn’t it be great if we could predict beforehand whether a building will work for its client and its users, or whether it will fail? Well we can up to a certain degree, and post occupancy evaluation (POE) is a valuable asset to achieve this goal.

This paper does not intend to present a full scope on the subject. Rather its intention is to present a comprehensible picture for the uninitiated what POE is and how POE in general is done. It tries to give an introduction to the subject and displays how clients can use post occupancy evaluation, especially within the field of environmental psychology, to create a better place to live and work, and with a higher turnover and profit for their organisation or company. The paper starts with the question: what is post occupancy evaluation?

What is post occupancy evaluation?
POE has grown over the years to become a popular tool to for a wide variety of organisations and businesses. As such it has become an umbrella term for investigating buildings for its value and quality. In the last few years, POE has become increasingly active in understanding design criteria, predicting the effectiveness of emerging designs, reviewing completed designs, and supporting building activation and facilitation management (Preiser & Scgramm, 1997, Zimring, 2002). A number of authors have tried to give a definition on the subject, and we will discuss two of them here.

Theo van der Voordt and Herman van Wegen (2002) call POE ‘the process of systematically collecting data on occupied built environments, analysing this these data, and comparing them to performance criteria’. In this sense, POE focuses particularly on user’s needs, preferences and experiences, and results are used to create guidelines for future projects. Technical aspects play a role to the extent that they influence users, i.e. through climate or lighting.

Wiess (1997) proposed for POE the more general definition of: ‘the systematic assessment of the process of delivering buildings or other designed settings or of the performance of those settings as they are actually used, or both, as compared to a set of implicit or explicit standards, with the intention of improving the process or setting’.

Notice that in both definitions usage plays a big role. Most POEs try to explore how well a building functions in comparison to what the building tried to accomplish from the start.
However, by focusing on usage, a split is being formed between functional quality and aesthetic quality. For this reason, total building performance evaluation (BPO) emerged in an attempt to find integration between usage, technique, aesthetics and technology.

For most POEs, the degree of focus on usage, technique, aesthetics or technology depends for a large part on the question that has to be answered. For example, a consultancy firm that tries to optimise their work environment will probably look more into usage than an architecture faculty that tries to define beauty in aesthetics.

Post occupancy evaluation methods
In general, most POE research uses methods like surveys, observations and interviews to assess user satisfaction and functionality. A more recent trend is to include technical performance, cost and other factors that relate to cost/benefit and organisational effectiveness (Cohen, Standeven, Bordass and Leaman, 2001a, 2001b). Heerwagen (2001) proposes to use a ‘balanced scoreboard’ approach that includes elements such as financial performance, impact of building on the business process, growth and satisfaction of employees, and impact on other stakeholders. This lifts POE out of the academic domain and more into the domain of value for society and business. I think this is a good development as it might create more awareness on quality design and underlines the importance of developing researched strategies for your buildings, rather than just ideas or concepts that may or may not work at all.

Another trend is the growing use of standardised methods for specific building use such as schools, hospitals and other function specific environments. Also for the assessment of technical specifications like air quality, tools have been developed (Zimring, 2002, Van der Voordt and van Wegen, 2002). The good news about these tools is the greater possibility for clients to have their visions and strategies worked out into goals and targets for building design, based on a growing volume of comparable knowledge about what worked in the past and what did not.

Care must be taken however for the inherent danger that standardisation contains. Some authors argue that each decision-making process must be socially constructed by the participants (Zimring, 2002). In other words; the specific context of a building must never be left out of our sight. Schneekloth and Shibley (1995) place this nicely into words by arguing that programming, design and evaluation are great ways for organisations to develop and change, but only if care is being given to existing values and perspectives of stakeholders. If we always use pre-existing models for correct solutions or approaches, we will neglect the uniqueness inherent in every group of individuals.

What is the value of post occupancy evaluation for your organization?
Why should an organisation decide to invest in POE? There are a number of reasons why investing in POE can have large returns on the long and short-term. First of all, when companies relocate, it tends to create a lot of disturbance along the personnel. Some workers might be happy, others might be discontent with the new building. POE can help investigate how the relocation influences personnel and which matters are urgent enough that they need direct attention. When a problem on the work floor arises, POE can be used to investigate physical causes for the problem.

In a broader sense, POE can also be used to monitor how the building influences the employees. In this way, POE acts as a kind of quality control, looking for ways to enhance the environment and diagnose problems should they occur. If done on a regular basis, POE can also be used as a base for strategic decisions by adding a statistical argument. All in all, POE can be used both at the higher management level for guarding and creating housing strategies, and at midlevel management to evaluate and steer performance.

The unique benefit of environmental psychology
Environmental psychologists form a unique benefit for POE because they are well equipped to represent the non paying client, e.g. the users of the building, by acting as a liaison on their behalf. Environmental psychologists are specialists in the relationship between buildings and behaviour. They have knowledge about both behaviour and about the physical environment. This makes them ideal to apply social and organisational research knowledge in a physical context.

Environmental psychologists can raise arguments about user behaviour from the naïve theory level to the scientific level, making it possible to create environments that support strategic goals. For example, say a company has intense collaboration as one of its chief long-term goals. An environmental psychologist is then the preferred choice to investigate whether the environment that the company uses facilitates what we know about what promotes collaboration. The fact that environmental psychologists are behavioural researchers pur sang makes them ideal for this kind of research.

An example of how post occupancy research can help organisations function better
An example from my own research might shed more light on the strategic use of POE. In the hypothetical situation underneath, a design firm uses a building with a rectangular floor plan shaped in the figure 8. One of the main goals of the firm is to maximise collaboration, in order to fully make use of the potential intellectual capacity that the organisation has to reach its targets. This can be achieved by promoting face to face contact along workers.

Through analysing the floor plan on integration of walking paths, and by doing observational research, we can find out if the floor plan supports the goal to create more face to face contact. As it turns out, workers on one side of the figure 8 barely, if any at all, communicate with workers on the other side of the building, thereby leaving out valuable information that might help workers to enhance or speed up their work (see figure A).

Figure A: floor plan analysis on the left reveals little interaction between employees on either side of the figure 8, resulting in fragmented social networks. The new situation on the right creates more interaction, resulting in a better social integration of employees.

By spreading service places like copiers, kitchen corners and meeting rooms on both sides of the building, workers are forced to travel from their own region to the other side of the building, thus enhancing the possibility for spontaneous face to face contact with workers on the other side of the building. This results in a better integrated social network, with a better overall organisational performance in terms of actual achievement versus potential achievement within the available resources of the organisation.

The example above wouldn’t be possible without the help of post occupancy evaluation. I hope this small introduction has shed some light on the subject and has inspired potential clients to use POE as a strategic tool to fulfil their own organisational goals. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask them.

Who is Wouter Tooren?
Wouter Tooren is currently in his final semester of his master applied cognitive psychology at the University of Amsterdam. He is currently performing his final research project in collaboration with the Center for People and Buildings (CfPB) in Delft on how office lay-outs can be used as a strategic tool to raise group performance on knowledge work. He maintains a blog about environmental psychology (in dutch) on http://www.buildingsenses.nl.


References

  1. Cohen, R., Standeven, M., Bordass, B., & Leaman, A. (2001a). Assessing building performance in use 1: The Probe process. Building Research and Information, 29(2), 85-102.
  2. Cohen, R., Standeven, M., Bordass, B., & Leaman, A. (2001b). Assessing building performance in use 2: Technical performance of the Probe buildings. Building Research and Information. 29(2), 103-114.
  3. Heerwagen, J.H. (2001, March 13). A balanced scorecard approach to post-occpancy evalutation: Using the tools of business to evaluate facilities. Paper presented at the Federal Facililties Council Synposium on Building Performance Assessments: Current and Evolving Practices for Post Occupancy Evaluation Programs, Washington, DC.
  4. Preiser, W.F.E., & Scgramm, U. (1997). Building performance evaluation. In J. DeChiara, J. Panero, & M. Zelnik (Eds.), Time-saver standards (7 ed., pp. 233-238). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  5. Schneekloth, L.H., & Shibley, R.G. (1995). Placemaking: The art and practice of building communities. New York: Wiley.
  6. Van der Voordt, T. & van Wegen, H. (2002). Ex post evaluation of buildings. In: ways to study and research urban architectural and technical design, pp. 151-158. Delft: DUP Science.
  7. Zimring, C. (2002). Post occupancy evaluation: Issues and Implementation. In: Handbook of environmental psychology, pag. 306-319. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Inc.
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