Mammoth efforts are being put into tools and materials to optimise the design and development of high-performance buildings, but new research out of the CRC for Low Carbon Living has revealed these resources are underutilised or even unknown to key decision-makers.

The report, Building better decisions: Why good evidence is used (and ignored) in the built environment sector, which is based on a four-year research program, found opportunities to create better buildings were being lost through a lack of evidence-based decision making (EBDM).

The EBDM framework – which involves systematically employing multiple sources of evidence, including practical experience and the best available scientific evidence – has provided enormous benefits to a range of fields such as medicine, education and social policy, but in the built environment isn’t as widely utilised as many may think.

“While the concept is becoming popular in the built environment sector and terms such as ‘evidence-based design’ are now widely used, our research has shown that EBDM is not in fact widely practised, and certainly not to its full potential,” the report said.

In fact, there’s lots of cases of “decision-based evidence-making” in the industry, where evidence is cherry-picked to justify already made decisions.

“Valuable opportunities are being lost as a consequence, including opportunities to create better buildings and increase the expertise of the professionals who make pivotal decisions about how buildings are designed and completed.”

The research analysed anonymous online surveys completed by more than 200 senior built environment professionals, including developers, managers, architects and engineers, and also included in-depth interviews with 18 leaders.

The results showed that feedback from previous projects was the most commonly used source of evidence for decision-makers, ahead of things like consultant insight, knowledge acquired by formal education and up-to-date research findings.

The researchers said preferencing this information was potentially risky.

“In practice, feedback from clients is often difficult to collect and when it is collected, it is rarely undertaken systematically. As such, decision-makers are relying heavily on feedback that is far from ideal.

“Perceptions of the people who actually use the completed buildings and spaces often remain unexplored and there is an over-reliance on anecdotal feedback. This is a critical issue. The lack of feedback increases the risk of misguided or ill-informed decisions.”

The findings showed there was a “resistance to research”, with decision-makers citing a lack of time and difficulty understanding and applying findings to their projects. Many did not see searching for relevant scientific information as part of their role.

“We would argue that to be effective, decision-makers need to be critical of the evidence they use and able to question assumptions,” the report authors said. “As such, searching for relevant research is an essential part of their role.”

Many decision-makers also defined “scientific research” as data collected by their organisations or bodies like the Green Building Council of Australia and Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.

“This represents another important opportunity. As with consultants, industry bodies may be well placed to connect decision-makers with a broader range of evidence. These organisations, however, will need to ensure that the guidelines and other information they promote are in turn based on the best available evidence.”

Academics were rarely seen as a helpful source of evidence, with the work perceived as “disconnected from the realities of industry and lagging behind a fast-moving sector”. Though the report noted that many decision-makers had little actual exposure to academic research to form such opinions.

“If the built environment sector is to benefit from the valuable resources being developed by universities, then academia and industry will need to find ways to collaborate more effectively and influence each other’s practices for mutual benefit.”

The report said if used to its full potential, EBDM could bring with it significant benefits to the Australian economy.

“EBDM leads to high-quality decisions and the ongoing development of up-to-date expertise among managers, architects and other built environment professionals. Ultimately, it leads to better buildings.”

The report provides fives recommendations for organisations to improve decision-making:

  • collect and analyse feedback systematically
  • don’t disregard academic research, be part of it
  • demonstrate that your organisation embraces EBDM
  • promote use of internal information-sharing systems
  • balance standardised procedures with exploration of novel evidence

The research authors include UNSW’s Christian Criado-Perez, who spoke at our recent Bring Your Office to Life event, along with colleagues Philip Oldfield, Catherine Collins, Christopher Jackson, Karin Sanders and Hassell’s Brett Pollard.

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