Post-Occupancy Evaluation and Schools – an interview with Adrian Leaman

Image of Adrian Leaman

Adrian Leaman runs Building Use Studies and leads the educational and dissemination activities of the Usable Buildings Trust, a UK educational charity with the aim of promoting information about buildings in use from technical and human perspectives. He has had a long interest in built space and its organisation and is keen that future design can benefit from lessons learned in existing buildings. Hence our discussion here focuses on post-occupancy evaluation (PoE) and the feedback loops that can lead to better school buildings.

With this site, Emma and I are trying to understand how school architecture and space are lived. With your experience of Post-Occupancy Evaluation (PoE), what would you say make schools special, space-wise?

My first thought is that it’s about space, time and education. The physicality of space tends to dominate thinking. Schools are a building type which is very time-dominated: things like the timetable itself, daily routines, congestion, the end of term, demands for out-of-hours use for the community or sports, and so on. Time bears on all of these but is easily forgotten.

The most basic question is rarely asked: ‘Can the children hear the teacher?’ When you deconstruct that, it throws up so much in terms of, for instance, acoustics, relationships of group size, and one-to-many relationships between teacher and pupils within the classroom. Start that way and you will never get classrooms without doors or completely open plan schools or schools that are triangular or circular in shape or some other architectural affectation.

I was looking at some city council documents, the strategy for a wave of new schools they were about to build. The first bullet point in the design strategy presentation is: To deliver education transformation, the designs of our schools will be different’ – as if being different in itself is a selling point, its new, its wacky, its a way of branding. Perhaps a bit to do with the need for the city council to show investment in education too. Is this a general problem?

There are two things here. One is the obsession with innovation. The second is managerial narcissism. Both of these are miles away from what an educational building is for and how it should work. There are four distinct perspectives: 1) the corporate view of the building (the local authority, governors and heads); 2) the designer’s view; 3) the view from the facilities staff who run the building and 4) the teachers and pupils, plus the administrative support staff who look after them.

The lethal combination is the one you have just described – a corporate view reflected by designers but leaving out the needs of the people who maintain the building over time and its everyday use by teachers, pupils and support staff.

In post-occupancy evaluations, we often find that the results for the “Image” variable are much better than almost all the others. The occupants will tell you “It looks good, but it does not work well”. Lipstick on the gorilla was the way one designer described it! A pretty building but thermally it’s horrible, the ventilation’s terrible, the lighting is so-so, it’s very noisy, people want to escape from it and so on. The discourse about architecture and schools is very superficial. There is a reluctance for designers to re-visit buildings to see how they really work, and what people really think about them.

Is it possible this is getting worse? You talk a lot in your work about feedback loops – experts in the profession learning from information that’s coming in from existing buildings and can then inform the design of new buildings those loops seem to be fewer than they were.

Yes, it is getting worse. Partly because of the assault on professions and professionalism by marketeers, but also because of the outsourcing of technical and operational skills, mediated by contracts. Virtualisation also plays its part, with professionals less likely to be in touch with the consequences of their actions.

Has that always been the case? Where are the bodies of experience that can feed and help to transfer this knowledge around?

They used to exist. When the Building Research Establishment was a public corporation it was the go-to organisation for technical knowledge. No longer. The Department of Education as was actually had Design Units that produced Building Bulletins. No more. All are sold off or shut down, with no single focus for feedback in architectural studies.

At a recent CPD session we led at RIBA we asked our architectural audience: ‘How many of you go back into the buildings that you design?’ We knew in advance the answer wouldn’t be high but when we found out how few, we were flabbergasted, it was less than 5%. They simply don’t go back.

Designers tend to know quite a lot about buildings from a design point of view, as we might hope. But they know much less from the point of view of an 8-year-old, or a special needs user or a harassed teacher. Designers have a different sphere of knowledge to the building user. Users want things to be apt, close to the point of need, with as little interference as possible with what they’re trying to do. With classrooms temperature, ventilation, unwanted noise, movement inside and out, all need to be controlled. Security is more vital than ever. Most importantly the children need to be able to see the whiteboard or the computer screen and not be easily distracted. All of these conflict to some extent, and the conflicts need to be resolved either through the physical building or by management and everyday habits.

Yes and the more bits you add to the system, the more complex it is, the more you’re reliant on every part of the system working perfectly and that increases exponentially as you go along

Schools are one of the most complex building types around: more so when they required to offer after-hours community functions as well. If you keep adding new requirements, the complexity quickly becomes unmanageable. This triggers cycles of decline, which can set in quickly and be hard to reverse.

Ok, I want to change tack and ask you about how PoE happens. It seems to me that the market isnt interested in PoE because the kind of knowledge it produces is a public good.

That’s right. The lament you often hear is “Who pays?”

And public goods tend to be under-produced or not produced at all without some kind of central supply or stimulusand applying this to the building sector, we don’t have any mechanisms to promote the supply of knowledge about good school buildings.

The Usable Buildings Trust developed the Soft Landings protocols to try and reverse this. You might look at Soft Landings for Schools

Why would anyone pay privately in a pure market system for design and construction knowledge that would be freely and publicly available? So we need something there centrally to produce or at least encourage that information to be circulated

This is why, we set up the Usable Buildings Trust to put this knowledge into the public domain to make it publicly available so that architects and engineers and educationalists and others could see what was a good building and what wasn’t. Now that has a whole series of unknowable consequences, some of which are environmental and some which are educational and some of which are personal. All of which are to do with the public good and, as you rightly say, there’s no market for it.

Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that is specific to schools, the school construction industry or the planning that goes with it?

A school should be a life-forming experience, a utopia for young people to go to, an island of sanity. And if it’s not that, and somehow it’s creating unhappiness as a result of it then they’re failing. And that’s the aspect of it that you’re always looking for – happy people in happy circumstances, doing things that they like doing and bringing out the best in each other. That’s what we’re after, it may be preposterously utopian but that’s what we’re aiming for.




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