Going Beyond the Punchlist: Why Architects Should Embrace Post-Occupancy Evaluations

Payette’s Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The building, which is 161,000 square feet and LEED Platinum, uses 64% less energy than the norm. 87% of survey respondents say the building reinforces a healthy lifestyle.   Courtesy Payette

Payette’s Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The building, which is 161,000 square feet and LEED Platinum, uses 64% less energy than the norm. 87% of survey respondents say the building reinforces a healthy lifestyle.
Courtesy Payette

On the eve of a massive building campaign for which universities planned to invest billions in new student housing, two architects undertook an unprecedented study of what students needed and wanted. Talking to residents and observing their habits in detail, they found that the typical new dormitory design was woefully inadequate. Public space was underutilized, personal space was inflexible, and housing was isolated from other functions on campus. Dorms were cold and impersonal—“as homey as a Greyhound bus depot,” according to one student—and surveys revealed that many inhabitants felt “stifled” and even “enraged.” Proposing an alternative, mixed-use approach that offered greater variety and more flexibility, the architects found that universities could significantly improve the student experience at two-thirds the cost.

That was 50 years ago. Sim Van der Ryn and Murray Silverstein’s groundbreaking research, published in 1967 as Dorms at Berkeley: An Environmental Analysis, was possibly the first formal example of what came to be called post-occupancy evaluation (POE), the process of assessing buildings after the fact. “There is no feedback channel between planning assumptions and building use,” they declared. “Our focus is on the silent partner in the design process—the user affected by design decisions.”

Today, POEs vary widely in scope, but generally they focus on two basic questions: Is the building behaving as intended? And are occupants happy with the results? Studies consistently show correlations between the two; a report last year indicated that 88 percent of building-performance attributes directly affect user satisfaction.

The benefits of these studies could not be clearer. Research by the U.S. Army’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory estimates a nearly 80-fold return on investment: Every dollar spent can save as much as $77 in operating, maintenance, and renovation costs. This summer, the federal General Services Administration (GSA) released a three-year study of 200 buildings confirming that high-performance facilities have higher tenant satisfaction and significantly lower energy, water, and operating costs.

Yet, despite the proven results, POEs remain rare. “I’d be surprised if it’s more than 1 percent of projects nationally,” says Andrea Love, a principal and director of building science at Payette. What’s the holdup?

“One challenge is a lack of knowledge in the design industry about what this is and how it’s helpful,” explains Janice Barnes, director of resilience for Waggonner & Ball Architects. “There isn’t a widely held understanding about how to do them properly”—if POEs are done at all. Z Smith, director of sustainability and building performance at the firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, blames the “shocking innumeracy” of architects: “Illiteracy is about language, innumeracy is about numbers. We don’t like numbers. It’s not what people thought they were getting into when they went into architecture. But you have to do it if you want to make a good building.” Yet architects’ scope of work rarely extends much beyond the punch list. “By the time you get to occupancy, the team has moved on,” notes Love.

This is not a new problem. A quarter century ago, in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (1994), his classic study of the life cycle of buildings, Stewart Brand complained about the tendency of architects to conceive of buildings as fixed in time: “The inane but now standard term ‘post-occupancy evaluation’ (POE) shows what a divisive watershed the moment of occupancy is. One of architecture’s most adaptive devices is misnamed by the traumatic instant of letting users into a building.” By contrast, he remarked, space planners and interior designers often think in terms of “churn” and therefore must consider the cyclical nature of the built environment. To avoid the finality implied by the common language, some prefer the term “performance evaluation.”

Among those who are aware of the benefits of POEs, the most frequently mentioned barrier to conducting such evaluations is cost, since basic architectural service fees do not cover them. Yet a simple survey of building occupants can take only a few hours to prepare, distribute, and review once the results come in. With support from the GSA, UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment (CBE) developed a template to gauge user satisfaction with indoor environmental quality, including daylight, temperature, air quality, and acoustics. “Believe it or not, in 2000 an online survey was considered revolutionary,” recalls David Lehrer, CBE’s communications director. The center now has a database of more than 1,200 projects with over 100,000 individual responses.

Nevertheless, for smaller firms and sole practitioners, the time and cost for even a simple survey can be challenging, and many experts insist that surveys alone are insufficient anyway. “If you just use a survey, you’re only capturing a person’s point of view at a single point in time,” Barnes explains. “You have to corroborate it with other data.” A more in-depth study, including detailed observation by teams on-site, thorough occupant interviews, and direct measurements, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, which few clients are willing to cover. “Clients ask, ‘Why would I pay you to verify that you’re doing what I’ve already paid you to do?’” notes Barnes. “The real question is how much it costs not to do this. If an organization isn’t maintaining an environment conducive to doing the work, what are the costs?”