POE: Ways Forward
In their now classic 1988 book, Post-occupancy Evaluation, Preiser, Rabinowitz and White wrote:
“While POE is still a maturing field, there appears to be a growing commitment toward the inclusion of POE in the building process…..” (p. 15).
Unfortunately, nearly 30 years later, the struggle to implement POEs widely across the industry continues. So, what gets in the way and what is the path forward?
Barriers to Conducting POEs
An often cited problem with POEs is the name itself and its original definition. Some have argued that the term POE does not accurately reflect actual purpose and process, by implying that evaluation occurs at only one point in time — after a new building is occupied — when in fact, the process can, and does, occur at other stages of the facility lifecycle. Building assessments, environmental audits, pre- and post-occupancy evaluations, facility evaluation and facility performance evaluation are all terms that have been suggested to replace the traditional, well-ingrained POE label.
The challenge of limited resources and expertise to conduct research on the impacts of facility designs, for both clients and firms, are barriers to progress. There are often too few researchers within firms to collect and analyze data, and it is time-consuming and expensive to train other staff without research backgrounds to administer questionnaires, conduct focus groups, or collect building performance data. Who pays for the POE (client or design firm), and how much should be spent, are recurring questions without consistent answers.
Reluctance among design firms to make public what may be seen as shortcomings of a design can also prevent facility evaluations from being implemented. Becoming more transparent about elements of a design that could be strengthened can actually help the industry move away from a culture of blame, toward one that encourages everyone to identify problems and potential solutions that ultimately improve user outcomes.
Since firms who do POEs generally keep results proprietary, it is hard to know the extent to which formal evaluations are actually conducted across the industry. This is a lost opportunity for learning. In addition, as a research endeavor, there are a number of limitations inherent in current POEs. They include:
- A lack of standardized methods and measures across the industry
- Limited potential to generalize results beyond individual sites
- Little establishment of causation between design interventions and outcomes
- High potential for bias in collecting data and interpreting results, at least partly due to firms frequently evaluating their own projects
The Way Forward
Recently, the Research team at HDR has developed a number of strategies that begin to remove the barriers to broader implementation of facility performance evaluations. Improvements to the traditional facility evaluation process include a combination of existing facility and post-occupancy evaluation, standardized evaluation tools and scale measures, integration of facility evaluation with hypothesis-driven research aims when possible, connecting facility performance with occupant wellness outcomes and multi-firm POE collaborations to reduce potential for bias.
Existing Facility and Post-Occupancy Evaluation: To overcome common problems that arise from using POE alone, HDR uses a combination of existing facility and post-occupancy evaluations. Our facility performance evaluations establish baseline measures in existing facilities and include the same measures in a new, expanded or renovated facilities. When possible, existing facility evaluation results are used to inform visioning sessions for architectural projects. The overall evaluation approach provides input on the effects of design decisions and resulting building performance. In addition, for master planning engagements, we use the facility evaluation process to capture the perceptions of facility and site users to inform planning. A facility evaluation conducted at the beginning phases of a master plan or project engagement allows large samples of users to feel that they have a voice in the process.
Standardized Scale Measures: The facility performance evaluation process employs standardized, validated tools to capture the opinions of facility and site users in their environment. The use of standardized tools and measures is important to facilitate consistent capture of data across projects of like typology for valid comparisons across projects, eventually creating larger samples of data to analyze facility design and outcome associations. Such analysis capability can move the industry toward increased accuracy in predicting outcomes based on facility design decisions.
Hypothesis-driven Research: Many HDR projects present opportunities to conduct valuable research, in conjunction with more standard facility evaluation, to test the impacts of particular design strategies on a range of outcomes. Thoughtful research design and planning is critical to such hypothesis-driven efforts. As one example, in two recently completed community hospital projects, we are integrating our standard facility evaluation process with a hypothesis-driven comparative study of the patient and staff in relation to the inpatient unit designs.
Facility Evaluation and Designing for Wellness: HDR is developing an interactive wellness dashboard tool that will provide research metrics-based feedback to design teams and clients to address questions about how wellness strategies affect occupants, building systems and costs. The first iteration of the wellness dashboard focuses on the impacts of occupant access to daylight, with other design strategies being incorporated as well. The final result will be an interactive online tool that designers can use to ensure that strategies tied to promoting building occupant wellness and health are being implemented. Facility evaluations will be used to measure whether wellness design goals are being achieved.
Multi-firm Collaborative Facility Evaluations: HDR has been an industry leader in breaking down traditional competitive boundaries to collaborate with other firms in evaluating clients’ facilities, and we are currently engaged in both client-funded and firm-funded facility research in cooperation with other firms. For example, several firms, including Blue Cottage Consulting, Corgan, Herman Miller Healthcare, Mitchell/focusEGD, along with Parkland Hospital, have formed a research coalition to evaluate the use and effectiveness of the new Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas. The Research Coalition brings research and practice entities together as an integrated and collaborative (as opposed to independent and competitive) team. Within this model, Coalition participants engage as research partners, each bringing a unique range of knowledge and skills to the effort. The Coalition includes individuals with deep research training and expertise in both quantitative and qualitative methods, as well as practitioners who engage with researchers to formulate research questions in such a way that results are more likely to be interpretable and applicable in practice. This integrated team has worked together to identify common goals, to clarify research intent and resource commitments, and to coordinate a uniform structure and process for the post-occupancy evaluation research.
Benefits of collaborative facility evaluation include the following:
- Streamline and consolidate research efforts to minimize burden on and support research value for client organizations
- Leverage multi-firm and client expertise to vet, refine, and integrate research plans and implementation, in order to minimize the potential for bias and maximize the potential for learning that can be applied by the organization and in the industry
- Contribute substantively to the body of empirical work informing evidence-based healthcare design
- Innovate a model for collaborative facility evaluation research that, if adopted on a wider scale, may lead to improved validity of facility evaluation efforts in our industry
By implementing new approaches to facility performance evaluation, it is our goal to help bring to fruition Prieser, Rabinowitz and White’s (1988) optimistic observation regarding the industry’s commitment to include POE in the building process. While there is still much work left to do, we have come a long way. We believe our efforts — combined with those of other firms and owners — can help illuminate the way forward.