One would expect the same to happen in architecture, however, this is not necessarily the case. Of course architects are always interested in what people think about the buildings and there is a proliferation of publications around the design of architecture; but these rarely deal with the real use value, the everyday look and feel. It is a bit like admiring the design of a trainer as opposed to taking it out for a 20 mile cross country run.
In recent years 'Post Occupancy Evaluations' (POEs) and evidence based design approaches for architecture are becoming an increasingly important field in architectural research. They are used to better understand how their products perform. However, POEs are typically long technical studies on the performance of buildings carried out by specialists and are, of course, mainly read by other specialists who carry out more POEs. To use again the trainer metaphor; in this instance the shoe is analysed in great detail in a high tech laboratory and surely this process yields a lot of objective insights.
At Hawkins\Brown we carry out these kinds of POEs and, of course, we learn their important lessons; but this time we wanted to take out the trainer for a 20 mile run. As with clothing, architecture only proves its value by wearing it.
We therefore formed the 'action POE' group, to go out and test our architectural design through real life experience. We go back to the flats we designed (and that of other architects) and spend an evening doing what flats should be used for: cooking, living, socialising and having a good time. We of course do various more technical tests, for example, whether the layout conforms to space standards; however, we only do this where it is obvious, where it really strikes us, and we have the instant opportunity to understand whether a deviation really bothers us or not. The visit also allows us to test a few unconventional approaches such as understanding access problems by finding the entrance of the test flat blindfold. As architects it gives us the best feedback possible, our own physical experience of space. Something architects who tend to be glued to screens and CAD programs tend not to be doing enough.
Below are the results from our first 'action POE' carried out at one of our recently completed block of flats, Prowse Court and Lord Graham Mews.
Three groups use different modes of transport (bicycle, Uber and public transport) from Hawkins\Brown HQ to the project, testing ease of getting to the location and finding the building.
Whilst the bicycle and Uber groups arrive at the same time (including shopping) after a journey of 40 minutes, it takes the public transport group substantially longer to reach the location. Although the journey was straightforward, public transport to this location could not really compete with the other forms of transport.
Three groups tested the local amenities by having the task to buy ingredients for a Japanese curry in the area.
As Prowse Court is close to a range of food markets along the high street of Edmonton there was no problem getting most of the ingredients. The only – quite specific – component, the golden curry mix needed to be purchased in a supermarket on the way. The building is quite well served with food shopping opportunities, however, for particular ingredients it can get difficult.
First impressions, describe the arrival experience.
The arrival experience was positive for all participants. The building and surrounding amenity spaces create quite a feature in the urban fabric of Edmonton. As the area is characterised by low level dwellings and a certain urban blight, Prowse Court stands out in its newness, scale and expressive form. Everyone noted the friendly entrance and the active frontage. It keeps a good balance between drama and urban integration. Noteworthy is the comparable high quality of the brick detailing which is not prevalent in an area like Edmonton.
The Race to the Bike Shed
To test the convenience of the Bike Shed location, a timed test was taken from the front door to the moment the bicycle leaves the shed.
Richard (local): 47 seconds
James: 49 seconds (was definitely on pole position course until a combination of fiddly lock and narrow door stopped him)
Stuart: 1 minute 17 seconds
Michael: 1 minute 7 seconds
The way down to the bike shed was simple and uncomplicated. No narrow corridors or doors were in the way. It was definitely fun to jump down the generous stair. However, all the 'non-residents' struggled with design obstacles: James did not get the bicycle through the door of the shed (too narrow), Stuart could not open the lock (bad quality ironmongery) and Michael tried to open the bin store door instead of the bicycle shed (bad way-finding). The layout is well designed but as always; the devil is in the detail.
Blind Man's Buff
To test how a visually impaired resident could find their way from the front door to the main gate. Two local residents, blindfolded, attempted to find their flats.
Both participants mastered the way without major problems (only light collisions and interruptions by slightly bemused neighbours). The way from the front door to the flat is generous, doors are easy to open and there were no complicated corners. Very accessible design.
Places to Play
Walk around the building to see the communal outdoor space.
Everyone liked the nice backyard space, although small. Spatially and visually attractive this area could be the place where all the residents can socialise.
It is, however also the place for social tensions. The children of the socially rented flats are not allowed to play football in the car park as the leasehold residents complain about balls flying onto their terraces and damaging windows. Also the car park is not necessarily a safe and suitable playground. The only 'designed', not particularly attractive playground is tucked away in a corner of the yard and reserved for the children of the leasehold flats who have a fob for the gated area. Being an obvious element of social division the gate to the play space is subject to continuous vandalism. This however is not necessarily a design issue.
Rules Rules Rules!
Check whether the flat is London Housing Design Guide (LHDG) compliant.
The only two LHDG deviations to be noted were:
- The free area in front of the toilet was blocked by a protruding basin which in return does not provide sufficient space in front of it.
- Two missing units in the kitchen.
The flat is generally LHDG compliant, and in a lot of areas over compliant. The kitchen is generous and could easily take 3-4 people trying to frantically cook a Japanese curry. Bedrooms, bathrooms and living room are all over compliant and the flat is therefore larger than required by the LHDG.
In areas where the flat either meets the LHDG just about (like for example the 900mm wide entrance corridor) or is only slightly above the minimum, like the width of the living room (only 200mm wider than the minimum), it becomes obvious that the LHDG is really only a minimum standard. For a flat to be spatially pleasant it has to exceed the minimum dimensions, as the studied apartment did indeed.
The narrow entrance situation is the result that haunts most modern flats: the coordination of the concrete structure with stud walls. In theory, this could be avoided either by a different form of concrete structure (i.e. concrete / block walls instead of columns, which is less efficient) or wider stud walls which waste a lot of Net Internal Area (NIA). Architects always try the latter which is usually ignored by the developer.
Check how much the internal life of the flat is exposed to the outer world.
The flat we had access to sits on the first floor and has large windows. This means that all spaces, except the kitchen (the deepest area) are exposed to views from the outside, as can be clearly seen from the photos.
In terms of privacy this is not 100% positive, curtains / blinds are necessary to improve the privacy. However, the large windows give the building a very friendly appearance and in return this means the flat has a very good outlook. The large windows also improve the light and air comfort of the flat. This out-weighs the privacy issues as the neighbour told us.
“The Flat is very bright and airy, especially in the morning. This is the best aspect of a flat...”
Resident Prowse Court
Cook a curry for 10 people, testing the layout and usability of the kitchen space.
Yummy, yummy, nice, no problems, kitchen large enough for four people working and additional people pretending to do something. Spot on.
Hang out and talk, the spaciousness of the communal areas.
Sitting with 10 people in the living room did not feel too jammed; however, the deep narrow layout automatically separates the guests into smaller groups. It is a sociable space, however big parties would challenge the flat. The table for the meal proved to be the best space for a good group conversation. (And of course the kitchen).
The triangular terrace is a pleasant personal amenity. Although functionally not efficient, this space adds a lot of quality to the flat. It is also a good place to hang out and talk.
Rate the storage
Not enough storage (but that applies to every new built flat). The shape of the storage is narrow and deep, so storing things means piling them up. Looked like an interesting art installation.
Bathroom Fog Test
Run a hot shower and time the amount of time it takes for the room to de-mist, using the mirror as the measure.
10 minutes. Quite impressive.
Lessons Learnt from the Project Architect
As the project architect on this scheme, carrying out this POE was a rewarding experience. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons to be learnt is that architects should make the time to revisit their schemes after practical completion - once the buildings have had time to weather, settle and the social dynamics have emerged.
I was particularly interested in the sequential experience of the project and whether it met our aspirations as a practice to design from ‘district to door knob’ and what lessons could be learnt and taken forward into future projects.
- Are we a nice neighbour? - The increased density and massing feels right and appropriate to the context. I believe the scheme makes a positive contribution to the high street. We should continue to work with local authorities to identify opportunities for increasing density in a responsible manner that contributes towards future housing demands.
- Communal space - It is unfortunate that much of the planting has wilted and the play space is underutilised. The restricted access of the space has led to some social issues. It would be good in future projects to raise the client aspirations for the communal areas – like the build to rent model.
- Wayfinding – Generally the wayfinding is reasonable. The location of the entrance lobby is clear from the street. Some of the visitors went to the wrong door for the bike shed so perhaps this could be made clearer with better signage.
- Are the space standards enough? - Moving into the apartment we had an opportunity to get a better understanding of what it means to design to the London Housing Design Guides. Generally meeting the space standards appear to be reasonable however the entrance to the apartment did feel tight despite being compliant. The entry to the home is an important threshold and should be reviewed in future layouts to be more spacious and welcoming.
- Going beyond the standards - The living space was well proportioned and felt generous – maybe due to the dimensions slightly exceeding the LHDG. We should look for opportunities to exceed the LHDG wherever possible particular in the main living areas.
- The nitty gritty - Surprisingly the odd protruding columns that couldn’t be avoided due to the sculptural plan form were not actually that detrimental to the internal feel of the space albeit we would always try to design these out.
- I do have one question, where do you hang the washing?
Overall the feedback was positive. There were some areas that could be improved particularly in the open spaces but for the most part I feel we were successful in meeting our design aspirations. This is only one POE, but the intention is that it will be part of a series. This study will help us better understand residents’ needs and the impact we have as designers in creating the homes of the future.