A Bottom-up Approach to Better Buildings


A Bottom-up Approach to Better Buildings

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.” – Mies van der Rohe

I’m going to take a wild guess that you’re inside right now. It’s where we, as Americans, spend 90% of our day.1 But take a moment to consider what that means. You are in an artificial environment; someone specified the ceiling height above you, the flooring material beneath you, the lighting levels, even the thermal and acoustic characteristics. By extension, they’ve contributed to the experience you are having at this very moment. But can we say the same thing in reverse? Are our collective experiences in these artificial environments shaping the design process?

As we continue to urbanize (covering an area the size of Great Britain with concrete every 10 years), our relationship with and reliance on the built environment will invariably change.2 Concurrent with a renewed emphasis on human health and wellbeing, and supported by a growing body of scientific investigations into our connection with the built environment, occupants have become vital allies to architects seeking to realigning their design thinking with the psychological and physiological characteristics that make us human.

Human-centered design, a framework for involving human perspective into the design process, emerged in reaction to a design methodology based solely on the architect’s aesthetic inclinations, the building owner’s bottom line, and the basic programmatic functions of a space.3 Though it may sound a bit oxymoronic to consider architecture anything but human-centered, practitioners cite a rethought process of building-user engagement as the differentiating factor.3 Human-centered design uses tools ranging from basic surveys to biometrics to explore both the conscious, surface metrics of occupant comfort as well as the underlying subconscious effects found only through our actions and uses of a building.

Qualitative Building Evaluation

Some design outcomes are hard to predict: A recent Bloomberg article reported frequent 911 calls from employees running into the floor to ceiling glass at the company’s new headquarters. Image: Apple Store, Manhattan/Wikimedia Commons

The backbone of any human-centered design process is occupant engagement because it grants architects a first-hand view into the experience they create. Traditionally, architects have used occupant comfort or wellbeing surveys as part of Post Occupancy Evaluations (POE), but that’s not to say the practice is particularly traditional. Though its formal establishment has roots in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) introspective studies in the mid 1960s, the POE is not always standard practice even today*.4 Still, findings from these evaluations have been instrumental in the research and improvement in numerous fields, ranging from recovery rates in hospitals to productivity in commercial workspace.5

Theoretically, the value of expanding the design toolkit to include occupant feedback is obvious. The large-scale databasing of operational metrics most notably the historically elusive occupancy comfort metricswould likely alter the perception of “success” in architecture, allowing dedicated architects to claim authority, not from a panel of judges or their photographs in a glossy magazine, but from a holistic building performance evaluation. Such a process could be a powerful agent in the large-scale democratization of design, providing occupants a forum to share their experience of design in the hopes that future occupants may benefit from a more transparent design process. But the issue lies in creating a process intuitive enough to become standard practice.

From Research to Insight: “This artifact is a design object, the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs”… “Small benches are socially awkward. If there’s a crowd, people will sit, but they’re not very relaxed about it.” -William Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Image courtesy of Pixabay

Without a centralized system of conducting studies and organizing results, architects face significant obstacles to gathering occupant evaluation data, let alone logging and comparing results across buildings and between firms. While many toolkits offer standardized POE surveys and process guidelines (e.g., Center for Health Design, Arup’s BUS methodology, Gensler WPI, UC Berkeley Occupant IEQ Survey, and many more) they have yet to address the underlying challenges facing architects attempting to integrate this process into their busy workload.

“Standard practice in the facility delivery process does not recognise the concept of continual improvement or, indeed, any ongoing involvement on the part of the designers” 

– Alex Zimmerman and Mark Martin, Post-occupancy Evaluation: Benefits and Barriers

Architecture firm Kieran Timberlake has developed a smartphone app, Roastthat periodically surveys occupants of a particular building and organizes those responses around the specific location of the occupant. Billie Faircloth, Partner, emphasizes the importance of focusing data collection around how people are responding to perceived temperature and humidity rather than measured temperature or humidity.6 The significance of this approach is twofold: (1) occupants are much more likely to respond because of the convenience of a smartphone app; (2) architects are able to receive and organize results quickly and easily, helping them arrive at meaningful conclusions from an otherwise chaotic data set. The significance of these outcomes cannot be overstated. Getting a large number of occupants to take time to fill out surveys can be a tricky hurdle to receiving assessable data a point we at Terrapin can personally attest to. Streamlining  this process could increase response rate and help ensure that data is collected more equitably throughout the entire building.

Do the building lighting levels affect your ability to get your job done? (Yes = -3, No = +3)

That question represents a huge leap for designers to consider the ability of a space (and its connection with natural systems) to support or hinder employee outcomes. But the limitations to subjective responses —misunderstanding, bias, or skew— are quite apparent. Unfortunately, many of these problems with occupant response evaluations are unavoidable. We humans are relatively blind to the effect of an external stimuli on our psychological or physiological well-beingespecially when it’s as subtle (but no less persistent) as that of the built environment.  As Colin Ellard, an experimental psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Canada said, “When we ask people about their stress they say it’s no big deal, yet when we measure their physiology we discover that their responses are off the charts.” Limited by people’s  inability to recognize and communicate nuanced responses to the built environment, a human-centered design process will inevitably seek out more varied indicators of an occupant’s subconscious psychological or physiological response to the built environment —henceforth referred to as “objective human response.”

Objective Human Response

Increasingly, researchers are recognizing the potential for objective human response indicators to support subjective responses with a more robust, data driven interpretation. Biometric technology including heart rate monitors, EEG headsets, fMRI machines, facial coding software, galvanic skin response (GSR), and eye-tracking technology grant us a closer view of the often imperceivable effects of an external stimuli on our bodies and minds. Combined with quantitative measures of organizational dynamics and occupant productivity, objective response indicators have tremendous potential to facilitate a deeper exploration into our response to the spaces we occupy.

US General Services Administration’s (GSA)  WorkPlace 20 20 initiative is doing just that: utilizing tools and insights from pre and post occupancy evaluations to design the workplace of the future. Unique to their process is an emphasis on the meta-characteristics of office social dynamics. For instance, Social Network Analysis (SNA) tracks informal patterns of communication and interaction within an office.8 This new metric for assessing the social life of buildings has already illuminated emerging workplace trends that buildings can support. In GSA’s own research they found that “Cross-unit organizational groupings with fewer layers and more decentralized decision making are replacing more hierarchical structures.”9 In essence, our workplace social boundaries are breaking down information that became central to the innovative co-working platforms that have been so successful in recent years. This methodology is a replicable example of using initial monitoring and databasing of results to create actionable design recommendations that advance and improve the spaces we occupy. 

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

Peter Drucker

Sidebar: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent Company Alphabet, is developing a 12 acre parcel of Toronto waterfront with technology and on-going evaluation at the forefront of their urban plan. Millions of data points create an incredibly vivid digital visualization of every sector of city life ranging from energy distribution to noise pollution. This information is then fed into a centralized management platform to help identify issues or trends and eventually employ insights to inform new urban developments.

As building design is increasingly treated with scientific rigor, significant opportunities emerge to align the field with the innovation-driving principles of big data; that is, leverage the billions of building users who generate building response data every day. More than just a larger survey population, the fundamentals benefits of big data (provided it’s accompanied by open source databases) come from detaching the process from any one study or finding, in effect, granting access to the millions of researchers unable to develop their own data sets. In a field where progression from evidence to practice takes an average of 17 years, the significance of unfocused, open-source data that is capable of transforming the evidence to practice timeline cannot be overstated.10, 11

Looking Forward

Of course, with greater technological integration comes a relinquishment of more personal privacy and human agency. While it may be science fiction today, shows like Black Mirror shed light on the dark side of an increased integration and reliance of technology to control decision-making. One can imagine such information being highly valuable to advertising agencies for targeting, or even malevolent governments seeking to gain insight into effective techniques to elicit control or inflict fear. The double-edged sword of technological innovation is something we’ve had to reconcile with for decades, and the urgency on both sides surely increases with each new dispute.

Despite this, the benefits of post occupancy analysis data are hard to ignore. Consider the possibilities of being able to rate or qualify a space around myriad psychological and physiological responses. Imagine an office space with spatial configuration proven to increase rates of focus and productivity, or a health care facility that helps reduce stress when benchmarked against similar buildings using EEG data. Holistic building evaluation, integrated into standard architectural services, is imminent, but what remains unseen is how such evaluations will be organized around the responses of occupants. While biometric technologies have inherent benefits as objective tools, comprehensive evaluation involves qualitative and quantitative inputs. We need a combination of engaged occupants who can shed light on design through their complex, creative minds, and an intelligent monitoring system to identify patterns only found through big data computation. At the core of any human-centered process no matter how steeped in technology its methodologies areis a genuine concern for our connection to the built environment. As subjects of this artificial environment, it is our job to continually channel this concern into meaningful discussion and greater expectations on designers to encapsulate our cultural values into design.


* In 2015, only 3% of British architecture firms reported regularly conducting POEs for their housing projects.12


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  12. Klark, T. (2015). AJ housing survey: Post occupancy not on architects’ radar. Architects Journal. Retrieved from https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/home/aj-housing-survey-post-occupancy-not-on-architects-radar/8678486.article
*Feature and Header Image courtesy of Pixabay

Dakota Walker is an Associate Project Manager & Research Analyst at Terrapin Bright Green. He recently graduated summa cum laude from the University of North Carolina Asheville with a degree in Environmental Management and Policy. Dakota believes the genius of nature has yet to be matched by human innovation. He’s interested in finding new approaches to solving contemporary policy and design challenges that reflect the resilience and resourcefulness of natural systems.