Post occupancy research is helping Architype improve its buildings’ sustainability

When Architype set up its first Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Oxford Brookes University eight years ago, the practice already had an established research focus investigating low impact environmental technologies, contemporary application of traditional local materials and timber use. But the firm wanted more hard data.

Working with Lisa Pasquale, then at Oxford Brookes and now at Six Cylinder, the team received a grant to fund eight connected projects, including one it used for a study into post occupancy evaluation (POE). Although this revealed that school buildings in the study worked well, improvements were needed. Associate director Mark Lumley says: ‘Things weren’t perfect. It was an eye opener. We started to learn things about our buildings.’ 

The long term ambition of Architype’s POE research was ensuring that established standards were not just met but exceeded, and that has helped the practice win awards from UK Passivhaus Trust, CIBSE, the RIBA and The Guardian, while being AJ100 Sustainability Practice of the Year twice.

Research, of which POE forms part of the practice’s agenda, is embedded within the design process. This is enabled by Architype’s diverse workforce drawn from different sectors across the built environment, with some holding graduate degrees in environmental courses from the AA and Bartlett. The broad range of skills this brings, including the research rigour of academic collaborations, translates well to assessing the practice’s range of building types. 

  • Wilkinson Primary School: The central hub works for many things including a breakout space. The space was gained by eliminating the need for enclosed corridors.
    Wilkinson Primary School: The central hub works for many things including a breakout space. The space was gained by eliminating the need for enclosed corridors. · Credit: Dennis Gilbert/ VIEW

Cross over between research and design, Lumley believes, should be part of a fundamental role of architects. This collaborative thinking led to the launch of RAPIERe at Battersea Power Station a little over a year ago. Architype developed the web-based building simulation platform to ‘optimise the sustainability of design’, with GreenspaceLive, ChapmanBDSP and the Sweett Group. 

Another knowledge transfer partnership completed a year ago, partnering with Coventry University, was an 18 month comparative study of four eras of school design. Case studies included a 1970s school, two pre-Passivhaus schools The Willows and St Lukes (first BREEAM Excellent School), Oak Meadow and Bushburry, both Passivhaus, and its second generation Passivhaus design Wilkinson, all in Wolverhampton. Besides measuring the environmental aspects of the building, the team interviewed teachers and pupils. 

Although carbon dioxide levels were within accepted standards, the team at Archi­type thought they should be lower. Besides drowsiness, carbon dioxide levels have been linked to academic achievement and so provide a good indicator of the success of building design. Teaching staff revealed that they weren’t always clear how to use the building and didn’t want to open windows, demonstrating that it is as important to assess occupants’ behaviour as to measure the building.

  • The South elevation roof projections and canopy for covered play provide solar gain protection in the summer to prevent overheating.
    The South elevation roof projections and canopy for covered play provide solar gain protection in the summer to prevent overheating. · Credit: Dennis Gilbert/ VIEW

The research concluded that the environmental measures provided clear benefits to children’s learning and a reduction of around 80-90% in energy bills. That would save £30,000-£40,000, the equivalent of a teacher’s salary. Lumley noted that ‘it was a very gratifying study. It confirmed the investment in Passivhaus was worth it.’

Architype would like to run POE studies on more of its buildings, particularly residential, but Lumley admits it needs more clients need to be tuned in to the benefits. ‘The work costs time and money and if clients won’t pay for POE its viability is challenged.’ Where clients have been more engaged, frankness about problems has been a strength.

‘We want to learn and improve and are prepared to point out problems. Trust fosters a “no blame” culture.’ This candour has not only led the practice to address design issues for the finished building, but its clients have expressed greater confidence in it and its work.

  • Architype's associate director Mark Lumley found lessons from POE eye opening.
    Architype's associate director Mark Lumley found lessons from POE eye opening.

Next is a collaboration with UCL’s Energy Institute, with a UCL grant, that will see Architype part-fund a PhD student. With concern about the performance of school buildings, their air quality and effect on students increasing, this project will consider an even broader range of schools than the project with Coventry. More sophisticated equipment will address more complex issues, such as the impact of external air pollution, and a wider age range of buildings. The hope is that this data will help to future-proof schools, particularly those in heritage buildings, by addressing retrofitting and adaptation. This developing research agenda has made research funding obtainable, strengthened the firm’s work and attracted clients. 


Key benefits to the practice 

1. University collaborations have increased the rigour with which we approach our research and thinking about design projects

2. POE helped to develop a soft landings program that part funds post completion rectifications and improvements

3. The POE process is a learning process that has helped to resolve problems helped move future design forward

4. POE has led to a clearer understanding of how to instigate good operations processes for the building and communication of these?

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 Dr Kat Martindale is head of research and innovation at RIBA and founder of Cities Research