Facing Real Estate Reality

It always comes after the fact—buyer’s remorse, “would have, could have, should have,” that old feeling that “it could have been better.” There’s also a reality that says, “This turned out better than we ever thought.” In any case, the information gleaned constitutes lessons learned. In real estate, particularly healthcare, true value can only be known after a new facility is occupied for a while. It takes time, courage, and some effort, but it is worth it to seek the truth.

Planners and designers often attempt to identify a project’s mission and goals before beginning design and manage to them during design and construction to achieve desired positive outcomes after a facility is built. In the age of evidence-based design, it is still important to go get the evidence of real facilities while designing. So even though the research for a specific facility happens after it has been designed and built, it remains one of the most valuable design tools available to owner, user, and architect.

We call it post-occupancy evaluation, a process of activities performed by the project team after the completion and occupation of a project. Post-occupancy evaluation mechanisms should objectively evaluate the performance of a facility in supporting an owner’s mission, and provide lessons learned for application to future projects.

The basic activities will of a post-occupancy evaluation include:

– determination of goals
– conduct research
– perform analysis
– provide systematic feedback

An important element of POE is that both subjective and objective observation can allow for systematic evaluation of both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of building performance. Both the measurable data and the “felt” perceptions are beneficial not only for facility management but users, customers, and visitors, too. Immediate and direct impact can be accommodated by fine-tuning spaces, readapting areas, or operational changes.

The depth of evaluation must be determined based on the desired information. There are commonly recognized levels: indicative, investigative, and diagnostic. An indicative level points out the major successes or failures and points to the need for more in-depth investigation. This is usually considered a short-duration study. The investigative level is more comprehensive and more sophisticated in data collection and analytic methodologies. A diagnostic level is both comprehensive and in-depth, and is commonly applied to larger projects evaluating from the macro to the micro. It may take up to a year to fully complete. All these are performed with the intent of improving both the design process on future projects and the user experience going forward.

To perform a beneficial evaluation, a variety of data collection methodologies should be utilized, including interviewing users, a review of performance data, conducting surveys, shadowing, even photography. The team performing the work should be neutral to the original project and skilled in technical, functional, and behavioral aspects of the areas. An experienced unbiased team will explore the functional/behavioral attributes, looking at facility occupant experiences such as psycho-social, cultural, perceptual, aesthetic, wayfinding, and flow. From a technical/building performance perspective, they will look at the facility performance relative but not limited to the following:

– activities / time utilization
– occupants’ requirements
– health, safety, and security
– functional requirements
– ambient environment
– heating / cooling
– olfactory
– ventilation
– lighting
– acoustics
– location requirements
– equipment requirements
– materials / finishes
– codes and agency requirements

The overarching purpose in such an evaluation is to compare the actual performance to the planned expectations as the project was conceived. The process follows a timeline including preparation, conducting the research, and reporting the findings. In order to gain the most useful feedback from such a study the best time to do one is at least a year after it has been used. By that time, consistent reporting is available on everything from the cycles of use in volumes to seasonal energy usage. The effort is then concluded with review of a set of possible recommendations and planning the follow-through for the implementation of changes.

As stated above, a most critical aspect of a successful evaluation is to understand and review the original project goals and the measurable elements of key functions that would demonstrate successful design and implementation. In other words “what do we wish to accomplish with this project, and how will it feel working here when we’ve been successful.” If that was not established at the beginning of the design phase of a project then it becomes difficult to measure a successful outcome. Again, as mentioned at the top, it takes courage to get at the truth, but it also takes commitment in equal parts from the owner, user, and the unbiased team conducting the research to reach an agreeable conclusion and plan for the future.

Dan Killebrew is a partner at Dallas-based FKP Architects.

Posted in Expert Opinions.