I’ve been on North American soil for exactly a month today. After leaving my home of one year in Madrid, I haven’t stopped traveling for more than a few days, bouncing between Connecticut, Washington DC, New York City, Ithaca, Philadelphia, Ottawa, and finally Montreal. This last stop has really charmed me and now that I’ve been out of the woods for a few days (we’ve been camping) and have an internet connection for the moment, I’ve got a reflection for you all. This is an introduction to a project I’d like to do about why Montreal is such a great city. The idea is to analyze how healthy it is on social, economic, and infrastructural levels in order to influence the design of now-developing cities. Anyone have an idea where I can get a grant to do something like that? Here’s the reasoning why. But first, some photos of the music, people, and places that make this city great.
Over the last fifty years, designers of the built environment have come to recognize the need for post-occupancy analysis and the benefits of post-construction reflection. The most thorough architects put their work to the test, revisiting the site in its intended state, not the austere people-less building in the architecture magazines but rather its most alive state.
The post-occupancy analysis questions the efficiency of the building that once seemed perfect on blueprints and computer screens. The experts analyze the functionality of the spaces, materials, and infrastructure in a way that can only be achieved with real world variables. They verify the assumptions and hypotheses made during design of the building and calculate the results of risks taken like the use of new products or compromising on materials for the sake of a tight budget. The goal is to understand the outcome of such risk taking and to arrive at an educated conclusion for the benefit of future designs. Architects engaged in the act of designing and not merely building, are constantly looking for feedback in order to inspire their creations to the next level of perfection.
However logical and reasonable this practice seems on paper, it is the most obvious place to cut corners in a capitalistic society that pushes architects and artists into the “star or starving” extremes. The clients who finance the architecture are often unconcerned with the qualitative facts and figures relating to the performance of their building. Once all is said and done, they are eager to fill it with tenants and customers, forgetting the annoying design meetings and expense reports.
So what is to become of this often-forgotten most important step of design? Does one sigh, “Oh well, maybe in a perfect world,” and carry on with the profiteering? Is there a way to make this feedback looping profitable and therefore important to those who see through the filter of their bank statements? The answer should be yes, resoundingly. Here’s why:
1. Heating and cooling costs are the architects’ legacy to their clients. Whatever orientation and glass the building uses are likely to have as much impact on the cost of climatization as the thermal insulation and ventilation, either intended or accidental. A client who is proceeding with a new design would be wise to consider the post-occupancy utilities costs related to scorching-hot atriums and thermally leaky wall systems which can be huge liabilities over time. Architects have the ability to predict some climatic phenomenon but not all.
2. Technology is the greatest legacy of the 20th Century. Every day new ways of doing old things are being designed and manufactured exchanging quality and reliability for testing and assurance. Architects, like any designers, are always eager to employ the newest materials and fittings for their clients but to the end that often they must call upon unreliable sources. New windows, for example, can be specified for their higher insulation values and recycled materials but upon final installation and a few rainstorms might be revealed to be leaky and inferior products costing twice as much to remove and replace. Equally, the cheaper floor system installed might transmit intolerable quantities of noise while a space just might not be bright enough.
3. Socioeconomic functionality is something that architects parallel sociologists in their eagerness to study. Few other professionals spend equal time observing both the flow of pedestrian traffic and electrical current. The architect is more than happy to speculate on the attractive nature of their public gathering spaces and appealing finishes but until their construction goes up, there is little to be done besides predict. New York City is filled with plazas designed to provide man access to his greatest luxury – space, with the unfortunate reality that they are more dead than alive. The wise office building manager knows that a productive staff needs a healthy environment, something that architects attempt to achieve by a multiplicity of different means. Light, sound, views, fresh air, human circulation, adjacency; all of these impact the socioeconomic functionality of a commercial or office space.
It is clear now that post-occupancy analysis should be a fundamental part of a growing and prosperous American architectural tradition. So why isn’t it? When it comes to business, the only tradition in America is competition. New networks of businesses and intellectuals centered around sharing and collaboration are popping up called “innovation districts,” revolutionary in a country that has been based for so long on isolated camps of secretive development. The age of the feedback loop is coming and a period of childish “me first” and “that’s mine” capitalism appears to be coming to a close.
It has been said that the 20th Century was the age of technology and that the 21st Century will be the age of biology. The most fantastic development included in this change will be the shift from linear, hierarchical systems to collaborative communities more closely resemble ecosystems where each member has its own niche, eliminating much need for competition. The agency of post-occupancy analysis facilitates this shift with its emphasis on iterative design, a learning through experience akin to the process of evolution which Mother Nature is so famous for perfecting. Build humans with appendixes and over time follow the feedback loop to modify the design and make them more efficient; build cities one way and over time follow the feedback loop to modify the design and make them more efficient.
Our bodies are our homes in this life and our buildings will still be homes when we’re gone. It’s time to put some thought into the legacy we’re leaving behind.