by Jess Wendover, Architecture
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003
The main group project for Architecture 110 (Social and Cultural Factors in Design) is a post-occupancy evaluation of a building or space. In this kind of research, students form teams and conduct social research that elicits people’s attitudes on space and determines how successfully the space meets the goals of its original design, and then suggest design improvements to the space. The most important lesson that students take from the project is the need, especially in quick pre-design research projects, to use more than one method of social inquiry to eliminate research problems from reliance on any single method. The week before the start of the project, the students had an essay question on their midterm exam that asked them to design a research proposal for a post-occupancy evaluation of a hypothetical bookstore. Through grading their answers, I realized that, although they understood the individual methods, they had not made the connection between the drawbacks to each method and the need to triangulate multiple methods of inquiry to achieve less biased results.
So, the following week in section discussion, I assigned each team one method to study (interviews, questionnaires, direct observation, behavior trace observation, and archival/historical methods). Five students volunteered as actors to play representative users of a hypothetical theater space: one each as the janitor, president of the actors’ guild, theater subscriber intern, set designer’s apprentice, and volunteer historian. The five actors hypothesized about the information they would normally gather about the theater space through the course of their daily work. Then, through talking with the actors, the teams gleaned information as if they had used the five assigned research methods. Since the five actors played different roles at the theater, they each had access to information that usually could have been gathered from the research methods that the course taught. (That is, the team that interviewed the janitor would learn about observations he had made by cleaning the traces of human behavior in the theater.) The teams then suggested design changes to the theater based on their spatial analysis of the information from the actors. Due to the quick nature of the exercise, the proposed design changes were diagrammatic: one team who interviewed the set design apprentice proposed moving the prop shop closer to the stage, while the design of the actors’ guild president’s team claimed that same space as a new dressing room.
The exercise, while sometimes comically oversimplified, demonstrated the importance of not relying on a single method of gathering data in designing a space. The students really enjoyed the activity; everyone laughed at the conflicting demands for spaces within the theater: the intern reported that season ticket holders demanded a glitzier lobby, while the historian advocated for exposing the industrial history of the lobby space. More importantly, they began to see the biases and drawbacks of each of the methods of inquiry. (Subscribers who completed the questionnaire had no knowledge of the possibility of an exposed industrial aesthetic for the lobby, and they might not have selected a fancier lobby design if the questionnaire had not so limited their response.)
When the students went on to complete their semester project, a post-occupancy evaluation of a campus library, they were well equipped to triangulate between multiple research methods and seek multiple points of view. Students were appropriately skeptical of their initial results from interviewing librarians: would their observation of students or faculty members using the library yield the same issues or complaints that the librarians had been so vocal about?
Socially responsible architectural design requires input from a wide variety of potential user groups, but obtaining all these user inputs can seem overwhelming if the research is undertaken without an organized system for checking the data. The post-occupancy evaluation project provides such a framework, and after this simple exercise, the students in my sections were able to make better use of the project as a learning experience for their continued research on how people use buildings.