The above is an adage that relates to business management. It indicates an awareness of the values we place on anything of consequence in our lives. I could argue that when I don't weigh myself on a scale or count calories on my smartphone after each meal, I 'don't know' how healthy I actually am. I don't know it because I'm not measuring it, and if I'm not measuring it then I must not value it (I might add that in this particular example, that is entirely the case come every Thanksgiving/Christmas, when I really would prefer not to know).
What about architecture? Do we know how well our buildings are perceived by the community? Do we know if they have a positive impact on the people they serve and the people that interact with them on a daily basis? The only way we could even begin to know is if we measured. But how does one measure the impact of a project within a community? And more importantly, how does one value it?
The most basic tool for architects to investigate this issue, and to conduct some form of measurement in the design process, is a post-occupancy evaluation, or POE. It is constructed as a framework for designers to investigate the result of design decisions that were made in order to better understand what was successful and what was not. A POE can be independently called for by the architect for their own benefit, however It's most typically offered as an additional service to a client, which is where the approach tends to breakdown.
Clients, like architects, are adverse to negative opinions of their built projects. POE's explore both the technical and the behavioral response to what was constructed, which can occasionally lead to negative opinions. As a client, why would they want to pay more money for someone to tell them they didn't like some of the features in the building? Unless the client is prepared to pony up even more money to fix the issue, they have no incentive to measure the outcomes of the project.
Is a POE the only tool we as architects have to collect data on the perceived outcome of a building?
The answer is, of course, no. There are a multitude of tools for design teams to utilize in the development of metrics for social sustainability: charrettes, workshops, models, mapping exercises, surveys, storytelling, interviews, and design ethnography, just to name a few of the more common examples. They can make use of different kinds of data (qualitative vs. quantitative), but if conceived carefully and with creativity, they can serve as helpful resources in all stages of design.
What's different about those tools is that they tend to occur at the beginning of the project, when the design is still in schematic design, or even pre-design, whereas the POE occurs after the project is completed. These community engagement techniques can serve as design process measuring tools, which can represent a first step towards a standard framework whereby we, as designers, can arrive at a value for community engagement.
The POE then can evolve from either a simple validation or repudiation of the client's and the architect's efforts, and instead become a culminating celebration of a process of engaging with stakeholders throughout the design and construction of a project. For clients, that social awareness has the potential to become more than just a report that collects dust on a shelf, but instead it has the capacity to become a marketing tool for them to do more business going forward.
If we, as architects, value community engagement, if we value how people interact with our work, and if we appreciate good design that is not only functional and highly aesthetic, but also supports communities, then we owe it to ourselves to be better equipped to measure it as well. In service to our clients, we routinely present our recommendations in terms we were trained on in school; composition, form, space, light, air, sound, order, material, and other facets regarding design quality. In every competition, RFP, or interview we're a part of, it requires that we present who we are, what we do, and how we can add value to our potential client.
Can we approach serving the interest of the community in such a way that good (community) design equates to good business for the client?
If so, we must be able to measure it so that it has real value. Otherwise, architects may continue to be allowed to avoid the issue altogether, either out of a fear of the unknown, an inherent egotism that community input will dilute their 'creative vision', a complete dismissal of the issue as one that is integrated into design already (the social equivalent of green-washing), or a complacency of thought using a 'this is how the real world operates' shield to resist changing the status quo.
Remember, it wasn't so long ago that architects advocated on behalf of the underserved to create policy that required all architects to change their 'business as usual' approach, and it's universally heralded as a positive development within our field. It's also one that clients appreciate, because it has real value in that it mitigates the threat of litigation for buildings deemed non-compliant.
With ADA, however, came an understanding of what qualifies as accessibility in design, with measurement guidelines that established a bare minimum for all practitioners to follow, regardless of the project type or scope of work. We effectively helped to create a system where people less physically disadvantaged could have equal accessibility to meet their needs as a result of our projects, both inside and outside of the building. If you consider the ADA a necessary evil, then I challenge you to navigate buildings in a wheelchair prior to the ADA being implemented, and see if you value its contributions to society then.
Can we, as architects, advocate for a similar form of change on behalf of those who are not only physically disabled, but also socially or economically handicapped as well? The more interesting question for some of us to ask ourselves, perhaps, is should we?
The practice of Architecture, both the ideals it cherishes & the business model it has gradually adopted, is evolving. Globally, more people live in cities than do not. The 'Future Cities', those bucolic heterotopias we were promised, are not here. Instead, we are growing into a world where shelter, environmental justice, clean drinking water, & other basic human rights are negotiated for. How do we, as architects, plan to address those needs? This blog will explore answers to those questions.