The “P” in POE: pre, post or permanent occupancy evaluation?

POE is a form of building evaluation that assesses the performance of a building in use, or ‘post’ occupancy, that means whenever planning, design and construction phases are completed and users have begun occupying the building. The recent publication of a new POE guide (by Interface, Oliver Heath and BRE) prompted me to reflect on the state of the art of POE and what I consider is needed to shake up the industry and revive a concept that has been around for decades, but has never gained much traction.

New POE guide published in 2020 by Interface, Oliver Heath and BRE

POE first became popular in academic circles in the 1960s, mainly in the US, following the increasing focus on social and behavioural approaches in architecture, planning, and (environmental) design. For instance, POE is mentioned in a 1967 paper by architecture professor Roger Ulrich on the effects of gardens on health outcomes. Ulrich calls POE a ‘semiscientific method’. This resonates with a paper published in 1980, in which the authors, Craig Zimring and Janet Reizenstein provide an overview of POE approaches and explain POE as ‘descriptive’, ‘aimed at application’ and variable in depth and breadth. Further academic papers as well as books on post-occupancy and building performance evaluation followed in the 1980s and 1990s. With a few notable exceptions, such as a fascinating paper on POE 2.0 using social media posts about a building to gather performance data, the topic is no longer that prevalent in the academic discourse.

“POE has expanded from the academic to the professional world (…) [and] is now becoming an established discipline”.

This was asserted by Prof Wolfgang Preiser in his 1988 book “Post Occupancy Evaluation”, which was re-published by Routledge in 2015. Indeed, practitioners and consultants have taken notice of POE. The British Council for Offices published a guide to POE in 2007 (authored by Nigel Oseland); the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) dedicated a special issue of its journal to POE in 2012; the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) included a stage 7 ‘In use’ in its plan of work in 2013 (now in its 2020 edition), which listed POE as one method of analysing building performance; and the British government adopted the ‘Soft Landings‘ approach in 2016 for all government procured buildings, designed to smooth the transition between construction and operation of a building.

All of this seems to confirm Preiser’s assessment of POE becoming an established discipline. However this is not borne out by the evidence in practice. In 2014, the Evidence-Based Design Journal EBD published a research article painting a more gloomy picture of POE. In a survey of 420 practitioners in architecture, planning and design-related disciplines, 80% reported a desire to use evidence in the design process, yet only 5% conducted a formal POE, and 0% of respondents actually conducted a pre and post occupancy before and after a design project. Conducting a POE not just once, after a design project to understand a building in use, but also beforehand to collect baseline data against which outcomes can be compared has been considered the ‘gold standard’ of POE, and is indeed recommended in the above mentioned new 2020 POE guide ‘Creating positive spaces by measuring the impact of your design’ by Oliver Heath, BRE and Interface. POE in this case is interpreted as a pre- and post-occupancy evaluation – something I wrote about as early as 2010 in an academic paper, co-written with practitioners.

Therefore it seems that many players in the industry have understood the relevance of POE – better designed buildings, learning from mistakes, creating feedback loops, turning design into a more evidence-based profession – and therefore try very hard to make it happen, yet I would suggest that POE in its current form is doomed to fail. Here’s why:

  • Costs: Conducting a POE is costly and often clients are not willing to pay for it. Why not? Do we just need to explain it better? Highlight the benefits? In the five decades since its inception, I’m sure lots of clever people have worked hard at explaining the benefits. In my view it’s related to the next point.
  • Timing: At the point in time when a POE would be appropriate, clients are no longer interested. If a pre-study has been conducted, there is reluctance to re-engage staff once a new design has been delivered because of real or perceived survey-fatigue. More than that, thousands or millions of pounds for a new building or workplace design will have just been spent and management do not want to hear how and why it might not be working as promised. In addition, project teams are often disbanded once delivery is complete and are likely to be moved on to other things before the the time for a realistic evaluation arrives. There are just not the resources on the ground to make it happen.
  • Liability and reputation: Hand on their hearts, many designers and architects would rather not find out how their design is faring either. Results of a POE might present difficult lessons for designers. Negative outcomes are hard to stomach. What if you have painted a picture for the client of increased collaboration and a buzzing culture, but the new space does not work as anticipated (for whatever reason)? Would architects suddenly be liable for not delivering? Also their reputation would be at risk. Have you ever read about a POE with negative results? Exactly. No one wants to talk about it (though we all know they exist).
  • Case-specific insights: Tons of research on workplace design highlights how difficult it is to find generic answers. What works well in one case might not be the right solution for another client. Therefore, even if architects and designers embraced POE more fully, there would be limits to what they could learn and apply to their next project.
  • Skills gap: Architects and designers have been trained to imagine new worlds. They have learnt about materials and their properties, about construction methods, about proportion, aesthetics and colour. They have normally not been trained in social science methods or in data analytics. And it is not always straight forward to know what is meaningful to be measured on a case by case basis.

None of these issues are openly discussed in the industry. Instead everyone is asked to try harder. To upskill. To be more convincing. And then we look at the few exemplars where POE has worked (against most vested interests). With an approach like this, the industry will never change and adopt POE en masse. It is a classic example of a ‘wicked problem’, which is a term used by Horst Rittel in the 1960s to describe highly complex and ambiguous problems with many unknowns often occurring in societal contexts, which are unsolvable by rationalist planning and engineering paradigms. So how do we proceed from there?

In my view, the only solution to the ‘wicked problem’ of POE is to rethink how building design is delivered in the construction industry. Buildings are large one-off projects, once in a lifetime opportunities. Even at the scale of interiors, e.g. in workplace refurbishments or fitouts, we think in 10-20 year horizons. This means we cannot allow ourselves the liberty to make mistakes. Everything has to be perfect. And that invariably means that the messy social aspects of building design are ignored, because occupancy, space usage, human behaviours and organisational culture are so hard to control and manage.

Understanding human behaviours in the workplace

If we are seriously interested in the human side of buildings, in how people use space, we need to plan differently. We need to understand design as an ongoing process, one that is never finished, just like management is never ‘done’ or ‘completed’ or ready to handover. That means one-off projects to construct new buildings or to undertake major refurbishments will still happen, but equally or maybe more important is how we can live with a building or a space once the last nail has been hammered in; how we can tweak it and change it; and ultimately how we can learn from interventions to make sure the next project is as good as it is going to get in the first place, so that tweaking and changing is easily done. From the point of view of workplace science, that means to see each project as an untested hypothesis. Architects and designers imagine that a design solution will result in a certain set of desired outcomes and behaviours to answer the client brief. Through understanding occupancy and space usage, we verify or falsify these hypotheses, which gives us clues both for the next project, but also to help a client make better use of their investment. That evaluation process can happen continuously. As organisations change and adapt, new technologies are invented, markets change, companies grow and shrink, their buildings and workspaces can be tweaked to support them in their journey. So this is my pledge to reinterpret the “P’ in POE as “permanent”.

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