Spotting white whales and post occupancy evaluations

July is peak whale watching season on the east coast of Australia. Up to 40,000 humpback whales are on the move to warmer breeding grounds after a summer of feeding on krill in Antarctic waters. This year there’s already been a reported sighting of the all-white humpback whale named Migaloo – “white fella” in the language of the First Nations people of Byron Bay where he was first seen in 1991.

One white whale among tens of thousands – it’s no wonder that he makes the news.

Winter in Sydney also means that the 3,700 Architects registered to practice in New South Wales have just signed off on their annual quota of continuing professional development. This year the Board of Architects set out three mandatory areas of knowledge to reflect the evolution of the National Competency Standards for Architects and the National Construction Code. These Architects have just been reminded of the existence – and importance – of post occupancy evaluation as part of the life cycle assessment of a building. (For the unregistered – see PC 60 here)

They need to be nudged. A POE in the public realm is the proverbial white whale.  Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect that a candid performance evaluation be shared in the public realm. But we have no data on how many of these studies are being carried out at all. The RIBA’s 2017 paper Pathways to Post Occupancy Evaluation says they contribute a negligible amount to practice turnover. Good architects would love to have a better understanding of their buildings over time but come up against clients with no budget to fund the work.

Why do it? The building is finished. Isn’t this undeniable “deliverable” enough? When should Architects push for a POE? The clients with the most to gain are the ones with the highest stakeholder risks – a building that is new and different – and portfolio owners with the greatest incentive to capitalise on insights.

When clients have a focus on outcomes over outputs, then it’s not enough to just close out the project – we need to test the building’s performance to assess its impact.  A thorough diagnostic review will look at both the building fabric and the functional program, and both dimensions need time.  The building envelope needs to be tested across the seasons for weather conditions, and organisations have their own internal weather patterns – operating cycles that need to be experienced for users to understand and fully inhabit new settings.

I’ve been involved with extensive POEs that want to fully understand the performance and impact of new workplaces. Research has always pointed to comfort and control as the killer variables of productivity, and with an innovative interior fit out in a high-quality commercial building, we’ve often taken the indoor environment quality for granted and focused on the functional program – new behaviours, practices, and processes.

When an ambitious workplace wants to be new and different, we first build a hypothesis of how we expect people, process, and place to interact. Our change framework flags potential risks and we use both the design process and the built environment as strategies to scaffold new behaviours.

Like any performance review or audit, there are jitters at the outset. There may be embarrassing shortcomings or worse costly consequences that stem from either aspects of the built environment, or the misunderstandings of the users, or a combination of both. A building is a full-scale prototype. There will always be ways to do better. The hallmark of a good POE is learning that’s owned by the designer and the client – and everyone’s mileage will differ when the project is closed out.

My first POE was the detailed testing of Lend Lease Interiors’ ground-breaking rethink of the commercial workplace in Australia Square Tower building back in 1995. The DEGW strategic brief gave us a full dashboard of metrics – quantitative measures to track and qualitative threads to follow.  And the commercial workplace business driver gave us the incentive to widely share what we had created, and what we learned .

DEGW POEs of workplace innovation  incorporate a wide range of social research methods to engage with users in addition to spatial analysis and utilisation tracking. We draw on ethnographic research methods and shift the timeframe of a site visit into extended user observation and shadowing. The SA Water House POE builds a statistical model for productivity. AECOM’s London workplace POE includes psychometric testing to establish and track the increase in cognitive capacity related to the new environment.

Even when there are no baseline metrics to track, we can always try to understand the difference this new environment makes for its users.  For a recent review of a new integrated learning area at a Sydney school with a range of new furniture options,  students and teachers responded to five key questions:

  1. What works well?
  2. What doesn’t work?
  3. How would you rate this space out of 10?
  4. What would you do to improve that rating now?
  5. What should we do differently in the future?

Source: The Soft Build

With a space that was experienced differently by differently sized cohorts and coteaching models, the answers were teased apart to see how reactions changed across classes.

The process followed the three simple questions in a cycle of reflective practice that’s always at the core of my work: What have we learned? What does it mean? Now what do we do? This practical bias for actionable findings and longer-term improvement is the critical learning outcome for both architects and clients.

We need to see more of this kind of real-world research.

Migaloo Image Credit:

An edited version of this post was published on the blog for the forthcoming book: Integrative Briefing for Better Design in July 2023

The Soft Build is a strategy consultancy that helps people use buildings as a scaffold for organisational change.

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