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Getting familiar with what users really want

What post-occupancy evaluations can teach us about our buildings

By Shivani Langer, Architect (Austin, TX)

Someone once said, “Substantial completion of a building is like delivering a baby. You can’t deliver and walk away leaving the baby unattended. You have to ensure that it survives and thrives well and happily.” Unfortunately, it seems that architects typically don’t check back in to see how our designs function and evolve.

For architects, it can be easy to fall into the trap of designing the same typology of building over and over again, thinking we’ve  learned the best practices as we go through the process. Our clients tell us they’re happy and satisfied—but do these clients share the same thoughts as the users? How do we know that the decisions we make towards sustainable building design are indeed leading to more efficient and healthy buildings? Are the buildings using fewer resources as we had predicted, or has nothing much changed?

These are the types of questions we ask ourselves in Stantec’s Research and Benchmarking Group. This group researches best practices and benchmarks our designs against others so we can apply this knowledge in our future design processes. A few years ago, this group conducted post occupancy studies on six elementary schools in Texas. The evaluation involved a third-party user indoor environmental quality (IEQ) survey; collection of utilities and absenteeism data; and interviews of users, design teams, and facilities managers for each project. What we learned was at times surprising, and always eye-opening. The feedback we received gave us direction to implement alternative strategies in our subsequent designs. A few examples of the feedback we heard included:

  1. More control of anything leads to higher user satisfaction. Our research revealed that users showed a decrease in satisfaction in thermal comfort if they couldn’t control temperature themselves. Also, the ability to control daylighting was another key aspect in determining user satisfaction. Something as simple as specifying retractable blinds in a classroom can make a teacher or student feel more in control of their space, and thus, happier.  
  2. Value engineering can be a game changer. Many projects, especially projects with limited budgets, go through value engineering (VE) after bidding. Problems arise when the outcomes of the VE decisions aren’t considered holistically. In one of the schools we studied, daylight harvesting was done in all the classrooms, but projection technology that works with bright light was VE’ed from the project scope. The owner didn’t provide blinds because they didn’t want users to keep them closed too often. These decisions had a major impact on user satisfaction ratings because they ended up having trouble seeing projections.
  3. User training is critical in ensuring that the building’s various systems are used efficiently. Rather than removing control mechanisms from scope (like in the case of the blinds in classrooms), if the control is provided with proper training, users will be more satisfied and the building will be used in the way it was intended.
  4. Commissioning, constant verification and measurement of systems, and timely checks of overall building performance can ensure buildings work efficiently.  Better scheduling of HVAC/lighting systems, in accordance to how the spaces are actually used, can lead to substantial energy savings and therefore happier owners.
  5. Easily fixable issues can lead to user dissatisfaction if not communicated. Our research showed that something as simple as having a dirty facility, or lack of proper maintenance (a category not directly related to building design), can negatively affect user perception of a facility.
  6. Small design decisions can cause problems that may not be discovered until a post-occupancy survey. For example, our survey responses indicated that a paper towel dispenser in one of the schools, located on a wall dividing two quiet classrooms, was highly disruptive. An easy fix, but only if you know the problem exists.
  7. Acoustics in open libraries and vast interior open spaces is a challenge. Designers need to pay special attention to acoustics around unenclosed, common interior spaces to ensure they aren’t disruptive to the quieter spaces adjacent to them. Noise greatly increases user dissatisfaction.
  8. A truly successful building is one that takes more than just a “lower energy performance” approach to building design. We saw higher user satisfaction and lower absenteeism in buildings designed to be LEED certified, designed with LEED principles, or in designs that considered more aspects of sustainability than just energy efficiency.

We gained many great insights from this post-occupancy study. If we take the extra time to evaluate a building’s performance, clients, facilities managers, and the overall design community can truly pave the way for better, healthier, and more efficient buildings. Taking cues from occupied buildings and their users can help us ensure that our future designs are better and their occupants are happier. After all, shouldn’t this be every architect’s end goal?

Shivani Langer is a project architect who specializes in education facility design. She also leads Stantec’s Sustainability Research and Benchmarking program. She’s based in Austin, Texas. 

Shivani Langer

If we take the extra time to provide sound post-occupancy evaluations, we can pave the way for better, healthier, and more efficient buildings.

Gloria Marshall Elementary in Spring, Texas was one of the schools to provide feedback to our design team

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