AJ Post Occupancy Evaluation piece by Philip Watson from HLM Architects

“Sadly, our profession is woeful at understanding the impact that design has on people and local communities.”

The 2020 AJ100 survey found that post-occupancy evaluation is ‘always’ done by just 4 per cent of AJ100 practices and ‘frequently’ done by 22 per cent, while a quarter of firms never do so and around half (48 per cent) only seek to evaluate the performance of their projects ‘occasionally’.

This reveals a shocking truth about our profession. A large proportion of architects don’t seem to care what people think or feel about their buildings. This issue goes beyond subjective views about aesthetics and taste. This is about the experience of a place, whether it’s welcoming and conjures a sense of belonging; whether it supports people’s activities and nurtures their wellbeing; and whether it enables or inspires them to live better. To use the current parlance: we need to understand the social impact of architecture.

Too often it seems, architects want to design a building, take pictures prior to its occupation – without the messy inconvenience of having people and their clutter in them – and move on to the next project. There’s little ambition to learn and improve, and this is reflected in the AJ survey results.

Sadly, our profession is woeful at understanding the impact that design has on people and local communities. You’d think that designers would want to be able to demonstrate their value in this way. By ignoring an evidence-based approach to design using post-occupancy evaluation, we undermine our work and diminish the importance of design on people’s lives, exposing ourselves to accusations of superficiality. We appear to be a profession that just wants to sell design rather than understand its value.

We must address this issue head-on, and it was great to see the launch of the Social Value Toolkit for Architecture by the RIBA and the University of Reading recently. This is an attempt to improve the profession’s attitude to understanding the value of design through social impact.

At HLM Architects, we have invested in our own Thoughtful Design Toolkit, a suite of digital tools that enables designers and commissioning clients to define, develop and assess their building projects in an evidence-based way. We’ve created it to address the universal challenge that clients and designers face: ensuring that the vision and ambition of a project is defined, developed and delivered.

Part of the toolkit – HLM_Impact – is a post-occupancy evaluation tool that tests whether the brief and design ambitions have been realised in the finished building, assessing quantifiable and qualitative aspects of people’s experience. A web-based application, it gathers building users’ responses in an inclusive way. These results then inform the briefing process for the next project, creating a circle of knowledge that can be passed between design teams.

A key innovation of this tool is that it enables a Social Return on Investment calculation to be undertaken based on the data output. This estimates the social value generated by the investment in a monetarised way, which may be the metric our profession will have to adopt to prove design’s worth. In the meantime, we will redouble our efforts to gather data and views on all our projects so that we can make better places for people.

To read the article as it appeared in AJ, please click here.