As human health and wellness has become more mainstream within the real estate industry, tenants, developers, and property managers have grown more sophisticated and comprehensive in their approach for addressing it. Results from the 2018 GRESB Real Estate Assessment demonstrate how participation in the 2018 Health & Well-being module has grown significantly since its initial release in 2016. Over 75% of GRESB participants now have health and well-being policies that address both employee and tenant/customer health.
Like ESG sustainability in real estate, which has evolved and matured to the point where greater importance is now being placed on actual performance rather than just predicted performance, health and wellness outcomes are moving from the merely aspirational to the more tangible. But how best do you evaluate the ongoing health and wellness performance of a building or space?
One option is with environmental sensors that can directly measure quantitative information of relevant indicators, such as air quality, noise, thermal comfort and lighting levels. What this overlooks, however, is how this data translates to human experience: Do people find certain environmental conditions comfortable, healthy and productive? When? And to what extent? To obtain such insight, one could make use of another type of low-tech environmental sensor: people. This is where a “post-occupancy evaluation” (POE) becomes particularly valuable.
Ask the people
POE is the process of systematically evaluating the perceptions and level of satisfaction of the people who occupy a building or space. They are used to gather feedback from a representative sample of occupants to better understand how well the spaces meet their requirements. Findings provide actionable insight into whether the building and policies are successful for the people who inhabit them.
Surveys are the obvious choice for measuring how well a space meets its users’ requirements. For one, they can help correlate subjective experience (e.g. thermal discomfort) with objective data collection (e.g. temperature and humidity readings). They can also capture productivity insights from employee feedback. Furthermore, when combined with an action plan that addresses dissatisfaction, they can improve employee engagement.
POEs are best implemented by trained practitioners using third-party tools and benchmarking standards. Several established approaches are available, including the Building Use Studies (BUS) Methodology, the Leesman Index, and the Occupant Indoor Environmental Quality Survey™ developed by the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California Berkeley.
While POEs can be used during normal building operations, they are perhaps most beneficial before and after an intervention such as a refurbishment or retrofit. Administering POEs is not a one-time event, however. Indoor environments change over time as external factors fluctuate (e.g. throughout the day, between seasons, or as a building changes uses). As such, the quality of the indoor environment also fluctuates and over time. POEs conducted on a regular basis allows for continuous improvement over time.
They also play a central role in helping to address the gap between designed intentions and actual outcomes, particularly because they explore subjective data from actual occupants, offering insights that are unobtainable through other techniques. They can also be used to support certain health and wellness building certifications, for example the Enhanced Occupant Survey feature in WELLv2.
In addition, research has found that purely quantitative forms of post-occupancy evaluation often do not reveal the full picture of why certain design strategies are successful or not. A mixed-methods approach, one that combines building measurements and surveys with in-person interviews and open-ended questionnaires, provide additional insights that are not always captured with surveys alone.
POE at WSP
As part of WSP’s real estate programme in the UK, we are in the process of consolidating six offices – three in Manchester and three in Birmingham – into two new state-of-the-art facilities that prioritize the health and wellness of employees.
In addition to pursuing Fitwel certification, we are also using the BUS Methodology to administer a pre-occupancy survey of all staff in their existing offices prior to moving. Another survey will be administered once staff have moved into their new offices. Feedback from this post-occupancy survey will be used to further improve the design and operations of the space.
In total we have received over 550 responses (a response rate of over 57 per cent) providing us with a wealth of data to analyse and explore. For example, it was found that people want more individual control over environmental factors like light, air flow and temperature. People also found that there is too much variance in temperature between locations on the floorplate and seasons. The lack of active workstations was also cited. As a result, we are actively designing the new space to take these insights into account.
We also learned valuable lessons about the survey process itself. Since it’s best to administer it once before the refurbishment, it’s important to spend time ensuring that the strategy is well communicated and prepared. Also, once data has been gathered, it’s important to communicate to employees how it will be used to improve the space. Communicated lessons learned to the public, for example using case studies, can also be beneficial and will be explored.
There is a growing market for POEs for those who are keen to understand how their assets are performing and can be improved over time. POEs are also valuable beyond the individual building from which they were collected because they produce higher-level lessons about building designs, plans, and policies that benefit the wider real estate industry. When subjective feedback from the very people who inhabit the assets we care most about is gathered and acted on in a systematic way, it can play an important role in helping to create a virtuous cycle of improvement, leading to buildings and spaces that are both higher-performing and heathier.