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Realising the full potential of post-occupancy evaluations with smart building technology

Post-occupancy evaluation (POE) is an increasingly important part of the construction process – indeed the president of RIBA recently called for POEs to be mandatory on all publicly funded buildings. At the heart of what makes POE so valuable is the simple question of how do we know that a building has met the original brief?

POEs go a long way to answering these questions – providing detailed analysis of a building’s performance ‘in use’ that can be compared with the original spec. This can provide vital insights on where poor building performance impact on running costs, environmental conditions or meeting energy efficiency targets.

But as RIBA’s president highlights, it also has value for the original design teams and the project managers. In calling for POEs to be mandatory he commented that “we would all benefit from an approach that made it easier to learn from both successful and more troubled projects via post-occupancy evaluation”.

However, for all the value that the POE process has, there are still opportunities to achieve so much more with these evaluations.

Of course, ironing out teething problems with buildings, providing feedback for the design and procurement process and assessing the environmental aspects of a building are all hugely important. But as more buildings become increasingly tech-enabled, we should be raising our ambitions of what the POE process means and how it is used.

Evaluating what’s important

Essentially there are two sides to the POE coin. On one side there are relatively straightforward factual assessments that need to be made: did the building meet the original design goals? Is there sufficient light and air quality for occupants? Are running costs what was expected? Answering these questions requires a straightforward process. The construction process either delivered on them or it didn’t.

On the other side are a trickier set of metrics to analyse: assessing the building’s impact on productivity and performance; measuring ‘customer experience’; or even looking at issues like staff retention. These require more in-depth study – perhaps even a longitudinal approach to assessment rather than a one-off check.

And in between both ends of the spectrum is the technology infrastructure. Whether the infrastructure has delivered is both a straightforward assessment – has the right kit been installed to the right standard? – and a more long-term question – how is the technology shaping the user experience in buildings?

There is no doubt we need to bring more rigour to the POE process, but it also requires creative thinking. The dual nature of technology infrastructure in buildings presents such an opportunity to rethink how we conduct POEs.

Self-diagnostics for buildings

The fact is that the infrastructure required to deliver the intelligence of smart buildings can also be thought of permanent method for monitoring the building itself – built directly into the fabric of the building. In other words, what if the technology infrastructure of the building was designed from the outset to not only deliver services to occupants, but also to be a key part of the POE itself?

The data provided by the building’s technology infrastructure can not only be used to measure if certain key objectives for the building have been met, but it could also be used to make the ‘post occupancy evaluation’ an ongoing process – not something that is done once to tick a box.

This is a crucial step to providing a new level of rigour to those longer-term challenges of monitoring the user experience and productivity in the building over a period of time.

Indeed, used in this way a building’s tech infrastructure can be providing a permanent feedback loop on the performance of the building – perhaps think of it as a ‘self diagnostic’ – ensuring that the original designers vision is delivered throughout the building’s lifecycle, or analysing the success of upgrades and updates to the building.

In fact, we can go further with this idea by using the technology infrastructure to provide both better quantitative and qualitative data on the actual usage and user experience of a building.

For example, hard occupancy data can be used to assess changes in user/occupant demand for certain services and spaces over time. These insights would enable building owners and managers to constantly realign the building’s design with the shifting demands of its users – making more of the types of space that are in demand (as indicated by space booking systems) and repurposing spaces and services that are proving unpopular.

Providing a source of qualitative data to the POE mix is equally important and this is where apps developed to support the occupant experience can be incredibly valuable. We saw this first hand through our work on Societe Generale’s new London HQ.

Every building user has access to a ‘Connected Employee’ app. For the user this app provides access to various services – room booking, hot desk and colleague finder and so on – but for the building managers it also enables occupants to give direct feedback on their experience of various building services. These real-time satisfaction ratings can be analysed and assessed so that building managers can continue to shape the building experience and introduce new initiatives to continue to improve the satisfaction and well-being of all occupants (and of course the success of each new initiative can be measured through the same app).

The right technology for the right insights

Of course, using tech to both deliver services and evaluate the building’s performance is not just going to happen naturally. At the minute much of the data that is required simply cannot be captured – and therefore we have no real way to perform these more sophisticated evaluations of the built environment.

The first step to addressing this is having a clear idea of what needs to be measured to perform meaningful evaluations in the first place. Without knowing that it is not possible to have the right infrastructure in place to extract the right data from the building.

There is no doubt that using the building’s own tech infrastructure to perform a ‘self-diagnostic’ will require changes in approach at the earliest design phase. However, where more money is being invested in the tech infrastructure of buildings it seems foolish to not look at how every drop of value can be wrung out of that investment.

Using tech as a major part of the POE process would deliver huge value to designers, construction firms, buildings owners and occupants alike. It is something that has to be explored in more detail if we are to be able to truly talk about ‘smart buildings’.