Considerations for Post-Occupancy Evaluations

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Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s new Pittsburgh studio, designed to WELL Building criteria. Image courtesy of BCJ.

In the early stages of a project’s development, criteria are established for the space’s programming and environmental characteristics, generating a basis-of-design from which the building elements and systems are developed. Once a project is completed, however, the larger question of how the design team and building owners evaluate the project’s success begs consideration. The answer may lie in the increasingly popular post-occupancy evaluation.

A post-occupancy evaluation (POE) analyzes how a building operates relative to its design intent and can be used to enhance the well-being and productivity of its occupants. What are the benefits of a POE? From a design team perspective, a POE provides valuable feedback to improve the quality of designs as the project continues to take shape. In fact, a POE can also provide insight into the design process itself, leading to more informed decision-making. From a client perspective, a POE can justify major expenditures and help enhance building standard specifications, saving money on future projects. It can also generate practice-based research for the entire industry, moving the field forward toward healthier and more sustainable design.

POEs can compare occupant perceptions to real-world metrics on indoor environmental quality, including daylighting, views, thermal and acoustic controls, the content of volatile organic compounds, water quality, and air velocity.

According to Emily Chmielewski, senior researcher at the architecture firm Perkins Eastman, POEs should also consider users’ qualitative experiences, such as a sense of community (or isolation), quality of life, whole-person wellness, and privacy. From her background in architecture and environmental design research, and insights on balancing both people and performance, she states, “Certain practice areas respond well to the evaluation of both quantitative and qualitative metrics, including higher education, K-12, healthcare, senior living, and corporate interiors. Within these sectors, design expectations are high and design teams are often required to be knowledgeable about how the built environment impacts building occupants.”

Since occupants are often greatly impacted by their surrounding environment, architecture firms that regularly conduct POEs gain considerable experience, putting them at an advantage over other firms when pursuing future projects. It requires a discerning eye to determine how to manipulate the built environment so that it positively impacts the behaviors and experiences of vulnerable users such as the young, elderly, and ailing.

Four steps to creating a POE:

  1. Observe users as they are. POEs are best conducted at least nine to 12 months after users move in, as it takes them time to settle into a new space, determine nuances, and implement their own changes (referred to as “traces”). As Chmielewski describes, traces are a workaround that occupants create, providing cues to how planned systems and program elements are functioning.
  2. Collect data about the space under investigation. A POE can be administered in various ways, such as online or hard copy surveys, interviews, site observations, or a combination thereof, although occupants are most likely to provide comprehensive feedback when engaged in a personal interview. It is critical to communicate the intent of the evaluation to the stakeholders, especially if the results are to become publicly accessible. From a practical standpoint, negative results could require owners to make changes to the built environment or, if published publicly, may even involve public scrutiny. Participant anonymity is a means to alleviate this possibility. The survey form can be created by the design team or purchased from institutions such as Center for the Built Environment that have editable POE forms available to suit the specific needs of different projects.
  3. Evaluate the results of the assessment. There are several challenges and limitations to a POE that could impact its effectiveness, including the quantity of stakeholders, and the duration and circumstances of engagement. How questions are phrased can have a significant impact on the responses. It is at times difficult to isolate variables that determine whether feedback was indeed related to the building design and operations as opposed to another influencer, such as a policy change or other outside event. If a design team is not experienced in evaluating POE data, a third party could be hired.
  4. Report on the findings. For the reports to be most effective, they should highlight primary findings in an executive summary and include in-depth analysis as a backup. Chmielewski suggests the writing be in a journalistic style, instead of reading like an academic paper. Including a combination of metrics-based and visual data interpretations allows the evaluation results to convey complex ideas to a broad audience. Reports should specifically identify limitations of the research or data analysis, and provide actionable items to enhance the project’s effectiveness and performance.

A POE’s greatest value to the building industry is its public accessibility. Chmielewski’s work on the qualitative aspects of POEs is predominantly externally-focused, publishing research for free to promote best practice sharing across sectors. The “feedback-feedforward loop” is essential within the design and construction industry, and Chmielewski is leading that charge in Pittsburgh.

If you’re interested in learning more about Emily Chmielewski’s work, explore her co-authored white papers online.





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