Assessing the performance of outdoor spaces is useful for university campuses, which typically consist of multiple buildings and connective outdoor areas. Image of the University of Melbourne via Twitter @unimelb

How do we know if the thing built meets expectations? There are ways to measure this so you can check out the “performance gaps” – the difference between the way a building, or any kind of space, was expected to operate, and how it operates in reality.

The practice of assessing “post-occupancy performance” is relatively mature in buildings, but not exactly commonplace – typically reserved for newly constructed or renovated green buildings. 

But what about outdoor areas around buildings, such as courtyards and pathways?

This is something that struck architect and University of Sydney lecturer Dr Ozgur Gocer when she was doing a PhD at the Istanbul Technical University in Turkey. Located in the suburbs of Istanbul, she, like other students, researchers and staff, would spend practically the whole day on campus, floating between indoor and outdoor spaces to work, socialise and relax.

“I’m not talking about natural sites and parks but the outdoor space that link buildings with nature and the environment in daily life.”

Dr Gocer wanted to find out why some of the spaces were very crowded and some were virtually ignored. This prompted her to embark on an experiment to conduct a post occupancy evaluation of the university’s outdoor space – likely the first of its kind.

Sheltering from wind tunnels, gathering in entrances

The findings were interesting. When surveyed, respondents were typically happy with the outdoor spaces at the campus. What was more enlightening, however, was what was revealed by monitoring the use of different spaces.

The researchers found that some spots were really uncomfortable due to wind corridors, and spaces without shade were empty in summer.

People tended to gather around cafes, unsurprisingly, as well as around entrances to buildings for shelter from the elements.

As a social species, people tended to cluster and opt to share spaces with others. People also tend to occupy spaces with high visibility and accessibility to key facilities.

Outdoor areas deserve some love and attention

Dr Grocer told The Fifth Estate there’s a growing awareness of the importance of the outdoor spaces surrounding our buildings, with a robust collection of research showing productivity and overall wellbeing is improved when workers and students spend time outdoors in nature.

Some of the more innovative organisations purposely don’t provide indoor cafes to encourage occupants to take a break outdoors to breath in some fresh air.

Dr Gocer says that assessing post-occupancy performance of outdoor spaces is useful for university campuses, which typically consist of multiple buildings and connective outdoor areas. The methodology would also be useful in other complex facilities, such as schools, hospitals and business parks.

It isn’t easy

Post occupancy evaluations are a useful part of the design process – they expose unexpected shortcomings, challenge design assumptions and subsequently allow designers to learn and improve.

Specifically, it involves assessing a building soon after occupation, where initial performance is compared with the targets and expectations established during design. These assessments tend to measure health, safety, functionality, psychological comfort, aesthetic quality and satisfaction of occupants.

Dr Gocer says that the outdoor environment threw up some new challenges to the methodology used for indoor spaces.

For example, the climate can’t be controlled outdoors, which complicates the assessment process. And, unlike buildings that are occupied by certain tenants, all sorts of people are coming and going in university campuses, which makes user surveys difficult to control.

The final methodology, which she calls “spatio-temporal mapping”, aggregates user, space and microclimate environment data to get a holistic picture of how these areas perform.

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  1. For making the most of outdoor spaces for people, see Dr Gayle Souter-Brown’s research on ‘salutogenic’ spaces and how to transform and rejuvenate conventional design

  2. Interesting article and important work by Dr Gocer. A good grasp of post-occupancy evaluation (indoor and outdoor) should be compulsory for anyone involved in designing environments, from room to region. I’ve been teaching ‘place evaluation’ to my postgrad students since joining academia ten years ago, sure to see more of this as people reflect on the spaces in which they live, work and play post-pandemic.