Focus topics

  • post-occupancy evaluation and engagement
  • relationships/graphic signage/training
  • knowledge sharing and lessons learned
  • discovery that influences behavior

Every project presents a unique opportunity to apply lessons learned from previous projects and gather information to refine the design process.

  • How can the design process foster a long-term relationship between designers, users, and operators to ensure design intentions are realized and the building project performance can improve over time?
  • How are performance data and experiential stories shared, even if the findings fall short of the vision?
  • What strategies promote a sense of discovery and delight?

After nine measures of strategies to improve a project’s performance, Design for Discovery is all about what the designer can learn from the finished product. Every completed building contains a textbook’s worth of lessons, mistakes, strokes of genius, and strategies for improvement, but this wealth of information won’t come knocking on the office door. Designers need to stay engaged with each building over the long term to extract its secrets and share them with rest of the profession.

Step one is to call the owner/operator to ask how the building is performing, or just show up and look around. Any opportunity to re-engage with your client is good for business. Demonstrating to the facility manager or building engineer that you really care and want to help puts another ally on your side!  These conversations will help the design team understand building performance beyond resource consumption, including how the building is being used, the satisfaction of the occupants, and the durability of the materials and details.

One of the simplest and most impactful ways to stay engaged with a completed project is to ask for utility bills, which most owners and operators are happy to provide. After calibrating for a specific year of actual weather data, 12 months of energy and water use will allow project teams to compare a building’s resource consumption against both benchmarks and predicted values, providing clues about how the project is actually performing. Inconsistencies can then be explored more deeply and strategies for improvement can be developed.

Nearly all buildings that architects touch are custom-designed for a specific purpose, on a unique site for a unique local community. It is not common in our industry to have opportunities for research, development, and prototyping that is typical of a standardized product like a car. We test, explore, and innovate by trial and error, incrementally raising the bar one project at a time, within each schedule and budget. The best way design teams can improve outcomes is to learn from previous project discoveries: Identify mistakes, look for solutions to correct them, and document the strategies for avoiding them in the future. The last piece of the equation is sharing the knowledge acquired through post-occupancy engagement so that our profession can adapt to current market challenges and collectively increase the value that architects bring to the process.

Post-occupancy engagement

  1. Check in with the building owner frequently during the first year of occupancy.
  2. After one year, compile utility bills to calculate an actual EUI and water usage per occupant. Study other ongoing costs, such as data/communications, security, cleaning, maintenance, and retrofit work.
  3. Survey, interview, and/or observe occupants to assess their satisfaction with the building. Ask about thermal comfort, lighting, air quality, acoustics, daylight, glare, programming, spatial design, maintenance, general satisfaction, and satisfaction with project-specific design goals.
  4. Visit the building to see how its operations align with the design intent. Are people using the building as intended? What “fixes” has the owner implemented on their own that you didn’t know about?
  5. Pay special attention to the durability and usability of the building. Ask about building elements that needed to be replaced, and record any frustrations that the building occupants might have about using the building.
  6. Based on the collected data, develop strategies for improving the performance of the building and user satisfaction. Share these with the building owner.
  7. Buildings often do not perform at their full potential after several years of occupancy. Stay engaged to guide new building occupants and operators through the learning curve.
  8. Be the first line of defense when things go wrong. They will. Nothing and no one is perfect. If you have an open, collaborative relationship, it is less likely that finger-pointing will result. Keep adding value instead of being paralyzed by fear and avoidance. The architect is often in the best position to address challenges before they become problems. Ensure that the building owners/operators know to keep you in the loop during troubleshooting.

Relationships/graphic signage/training

  1. Give maintenance personnel and building operators opportunities for input throughout the design process.
  2. Consider a preoccupancy evaluation. Gathering metrics about existing facilities from occupants and operators can help inform project goals, shed light on what design strategies may and may not work, and identify some of the biggest challenges the new facility will have to overcome. Lessons learned and frustrations shared from previous facilities can help prevent duplication of challenges.
  3. Keep building operations simple. Design systems to align with the expertise and resources of likely building operators.
  4. Produce a building user’s manual for the operator. This manual should include: building information, design intent for building operations, Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR) and how each item is addressed, and maintenance information for each system.
  5. Develop a building orientation for all occupants that covers: occupant rights and responsibilities, operational expectations, and appropriate feedback mechanisms. Develop signage for both regular occupants and visitors that reinforces these ideas.
  6. Record operation and maintenance training videos for future facilities managers to learn about the original design intent and lessons from initial commissioning efforts.
  7. Form and maintain personal/professional relationships with the owners or operators of completed projects. This could improve everything from streamlining building performance to winning more work to not being sued when things go wrong.
  8. Calibrate expectations and help users understand their role in building performance. Talk about the limits of predicted energy use (pEUI) as a range within standard deviation of possible outcomes based on energy model assumptions. Behavior is a big driver of actual performance: Did they raise the blinds and turn off the lights when there is plenty of daylight? Form a more nuanced understanding of predicted performance—rather than expecting just a single EUI number—to avoid having to troubleshoot when “actual results may vary.”

Knowledge sharing and lessons learned

  1. Share the outcomes of your design decisions with the world. It's especially important for the industry to learn from undesirable outcomes, rather than to quietly ignore them.
  2. Use platforms such as conference presentations, white papers, and journal articles to document and share design decisions and their outcomes.
  3. Use the lessons of one project to improve subsequent projects by developing an in-house platform for documenting and sharing lessons.
  4. Document each post-occupancy exercise as a story; from the initial Design Decision > Outcome > Solution > to New Thoughts moving forward. The process is not always a linear straight line. Including some trials and tribulations, double-backs, and alternative approaches make for a richer story.

Discovery that influences behavior

  1. Design building features that empower and encourage the building occupants to engage with building systems.
  2. Design building elements and signage that teach occupants about building systems and sustainability—create agency.
  3. Provide occupants with feedback about building performance that can offer friendly motivation to engage with the building operations.
  4. Design systems that keep occupants stimulated over time, adapt to seasonal changes, engage multiple senses (fresh breezes, outdoor sounds, etc.), or include materials that age gracefully over the life of the building.

Image credits

COTE 2017_17

Alan Karchmer & VMDO Architects


Prakash Patel

Kieran Timberlake - Ortliebs_02

Michael Moran/OTTO


Robert Benson