It’s fine to predict building performance, but you’d be surprised what long-term, quality monitoring reveals

Devices on nurses and babies showed what changed at Dyson Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Devices on nurses and babies showed what changed at Dyson Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. · Credit: Fotohaus

When we talk about building performance measurement we often assume it is related solely to energy and carbon: that because we can measure it, we do. We are beginning to learn from that process that there is a huge disparity between theoretical and operational performance.

Recurring themes often emerge from monitoring processes. Design ideas get lost in translation/construction. Energy control systems are too complex.

Insulation and airtightness can lead to overheating. Carbon emissions are dominated by unregulated electrical loads. People use energy, not buildings. But the most valuable lesson is that careful monitoring can reduce energy bills. If there is benefit for the client, for society and for architecture, why don’t we look at other aspects of building performance?

For most developers performance is measured simply by profitability, which needs to be put in the context of a profession that ostensibly has more interest in the long-term users of its buildings than the short-term profits that can accrue. Our Stirling prize-winning Accordia housing scheme in Cambridge, for instance, was widely regarded as a success. The developer did very well out of it, as did the initial user investors.

What none of us anticipated was its dramatic success in generating a sense of real community. We began to observe this anecdotally, but it was also useful to have research by Cambridge University, which focused on  the incidence of wellbeing as defined by the New Economics Foundation. The study looked at the attitude to neighbourhood life and the use of the community outdoor space provision in Accordia, compared with a similar but more traditional neighbourhood. Mapping revealed a proliferation of activity in Accordia’s shared outdoor spaces that more than compensated for the reduction in the area of private gardens. The study added statistical credibility to anecdotal feedback.


When we talk about building performance measurement we often assume it is related solely to energy and carbon: that because we can measure it, we do

We have also been working with UCL   looking at the performance of new schools. From a database of 126 new schools we looked at the variation in attainment against the norm (as measured by performance at GCSE grades A to C) from five years before the decision to replace buildings to five years after completion. Results began to improve dramatically as soon as the new buildings were promised. When they were complete, generally about three years later, the improvement in performance reduced, and sadly, after a further three years average performance returned to its starting point. In other words it was the ‘hope and aspiration’ value of a new building that provided more of a boost to student performance than the building itself. The fact that the seven schools Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios produced within this group did not experience the same decline was a small comfort to us, but we know enough about all these schools to recognise that changes in senior management, as well variations in intake, meant the data related to the buildings was probably statistically insignificant.

A completely different set of criteria apply to heathcare buildings. When we designed the new Dyson Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Bath, the hospital gathered data on key performance indicators in the tired, worn out and noisy existing premises so they could assess the impact of the new building on how well their delicate clients were able to thrive. Being specialists at monitoring they fitted devices to both nurses and babies. They noted that the babies spent 20% more time asleep, the nurses nearly twice as much time looking after them, and they also observed that breastfeeding increased from 64 to 90%. A thorough quantitative and qualitative analysis of the new building noted the comments of clinical psychologist Mike Osborn that, ‘essentially we want the building to be a great big nurse’.

As a society we are preoccupied with measuring performance, and have developed huge industries devoted quite often to measuring only what is quantifiable. In architecture we have struggled with the data of energy performance, but rarely look at anything else further down the line. The RIBA awards system is a rigorous analysis, both qualitative and quantitative where it can be. But the awards are stuck in the honeymoon period of any building: we need to look in greater depth and in the longer term at the fitness for purpose of our architecture. We need a more rigorous qualitative as well as quantitative methodology so we can assess our work.

Jamie Anderson (2015): 'Living in a communal garden' associated with well-being while reducing urban sprawl by 40%: a mixed-methods cross-sectional study, Frontier in Public Health, July 2015, Volume 3, Article 173

Joe Jack Williams, Sung Min Hong, Dejan Mumovic & Ian Taylor (2014): Using a unified school database to understand the effect of new school buildings on school performance in England, Intelligent Buildings International

Mark Tooley & Bernie Marden (2013): New Neonatal care unit is a shining light, Health Service Journal, 1 November 2013

Peter Clegg is a co-founder of FCB Studios and convenor of the RIBA research symposium 2015 ‘The Design Quality Proposition: Ensuring and Communicating Design Quality in Architectural Practice’. The symposium, on 17 November, brings together practice and academia