Evaluating the user performance of a particular building design is obviously a good way for clients and architects to gauge whether their design was successful—or could have been better.
There’s even an entire academic discipline called post-occupancy evaluation (POE) devoted to this concept, and Arup is tapping into it with a network of 22 industry partners using the Building Use Studies (BUS) methodology. Too few designers tap into POE, but with gamified simulations done before projects are built, that could change.
“Basically, you design the thing, you use the thing, and then you evaluate the thing,” says Alvise Simondetti, global leader of Digital Environments NeXt_work at Arup. “That process generates concrete ideas for improvement. Everyone in architecture and design acknowledges that post-occupancy evaluation is important so that we don’t keep making the same mistakes. But in practice, it’s not done as often as we would like.”
Two reasons why POE isn’t a regular practice in architecture is because fees are often not built into projects for Post Occupancy work, and there is some reluctance from the industry to engage. POE has to take place when a building is, well, occupied. And studying the effectiveness of intensively used buildings like stations, airports, or hospitals can be difficult in terms of engaging numerous users who are going about their daily business. “It’s sometimes a challenge,” Simondetti says.
And there’s at least one more factor—a psychological one that tends to suppress wider use of POE: The process can be perceived as being about detecting design mistakes when its intention is really to evaluate the positive attributes of a facility and optimize operations for a better building.
Simondetti is leading a movement that directly confronts these frustrating challenges by pioneering an evaluation discipline he cheerfully (and somewhat oxymoronically) calls post-occupancy evaluation preconstruction (POEPC).
One POEPC project he led was the expansion of Hong Kong’s Admiralty railroad station, the city’s busiest stop. Arup was hired to design two more train lines in Admiralty, which doubled the number of train platforms and increased the number of possible journeys to more than 50.
Simondetti used 3D-design models of the station and an architectural video-game engine to create a realistic station environment complete with contextual sounds, accurate signage and visual cues, and hordes of avatars milling about to simulate crowded conditions. He then installed a system that allowed users to “joystick” an avatar through the station. The experience simulates walking, with head-height visual feedback projected on three monitors that fill the user’s peripheral vision.
In this case, Arup was evaluating proposed signage and wayfinding schemes—an important thing to test in a station already serving one million passengers daily. By asking users to navigate from point to point through the modeled station and measuring their speed as they passed various digital checkpoints, Simondetti was able to gather crucial information on how well proposed wayfinding structure worked in actual conditions. Thus, he was doing post-occupancy evaluation in an accurately modeled environment in the preconstruction phase, before any signage was physically installed.
This way, Arup was able to crowdsource the wayfinding-design process, and the virtual testing and analysis returned extremely practical results. For example, testing by hundreds of users revealed a persistent bottleneck at the bottom of one four-story escalator.
“Looking at the signage in this area in 2D, everything was fine,” Simondetti explains. “But when our virtual users joysticked through this area and down the escalator, it turned out that important signage was obscured during part of the escalator ride, and users tended to stop in confusion at the bottom. Without the virtual analysis, we wouldn’t have discovered the problem until after real users had created an actual bottleneck.”
Ultimately, Simondetti’s use of this real-time synthetic environment identified 235 potential problems with the 970 proposed new signs. The projected efficiency gains are hard to quantify, but the POEPC process certainly saved Hong Kong commuters hundreds of thousands of hours of confusion.
But Admiralty is not the only POEPC project to create a better experience for users. POEPC is something Simondetti and his team has been experimenting with for years—and in different contexts. “Hospitals are similar to train stations, in that they are used by large amounts of people that make many daily trips from point to point, so they are suitable for this kind of analysis,” he says. “Arup applied an earlier qualitative version of POEPC for VINCI Construction UK Ltd and the St Helens and Knowsley NHS Trust during design more than 10 years ago. The hospitals were some of the first to be built new in the UK using the POEPC process, are operational now, and are widely considered to be a great success.”
Here, design models and the gaming engine were again used to create a highly realistic hospital environment. But instead of random users, the joystick was turned over to the experts who would be actually working in the new hospital. One notable breakthrough came when nurses were asked to “use” a proposed surgical theater.
“The nurses seemed to be the most interested of all the stakeholders we asked to review our designs, and watching them joystick around the theater really raised their confidence, and ours, in our design,” Simondetti says. “One of the first things they asked was, ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ It turns out that, since operations can last for hours, surgical teams need bathrooms that are near, but not actually in, the theater. Making that change in the design phase saved a lot of trouble for everyone.”
POEPC continues to evolve as a discipline. Simondetti has already tested variations to the process: networking multiple users, equipment-interface design (for things like elevator panels), A/B testing (performance evaluation of multiple designs), and introducing sounds and other feedback triggered by specific user actions. Currently, Simondetti’s team is working on new wayfinding projects that are going through RFP.
But even with initial versions of the technology, results are literally game-changing—no more bottlenecks of people at the end of escalators or nurses running down the hall at breakneck speed to the bathroom.