Designing for users
Behavioural considerations and recognition of the diversity of users is critical to the design of building services and in ensuring the effective management of workspaces, as Sara Kassam of CIBSE explains.
Behavioural issues and their impact on the design of the built environment are an important topic for building-services engineers and facilities managers, one where there is a definite appetite for better understanding, which was why it was a key area of focus at CIBSE’s recent conference.
The event saw Professor Rhiannon Cocoran from the University of Liverpool consider how wellbeing is related to place, Professor Alexi Marmot from UCL look at factors affecting performance and productivity, and Polly Turton from Arup speak about how workspaces can be made more flexible and adaptable. Ann Marie Aguilar, also from Arup, give an insight into understanding behavioural responses to engineering and design.
Ann Marie Aguilar’s presentation focused on a report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Economic & Social Research Council and consultant Arup. The document, ‘Built for living: understanding behaviour and the built environment through engineering and design’, focuses on fostering good health and wellbeing, boosting performances and productivity and improving the stewardship of energy, water and waste.
The report is available to download at the link at the end of this article; it makes some interesting points relevant to those involved in the design and operation building services some of which are outlined below.
Good design is about developing an inclusive, user-centred solution which will work for the majority of a building’s occupants. However, a major challenge for designers looking to provide a user-centred focus is that there is no single agreed model of human behaviour that they can use.
The situation at the moment is that engineers, facilities managers and architects all have different areas of knowledge and different experiences of the interrelationship of design and human behaviour, often at different stages in the lifecycle of buildings. Bringing together this knowledge has the potential to enrich designers’ responses. To this end, there is an opportunity to aggregate knowledge already in existence and to add to it through further research and post occupancy evaluation.
Since no single discipline or profession has all the necessary expertise, a ‘systems thinking’ approach has been suggested as a way of enabling multidisciplinary collaboration. By helping identify how different parts of the system interact, designs can be developed to incorporate the complex interactions between buildings and the people that use them.
Some existing processes such as Soft Landings can provide a means for designers and constructors to enable a building to be designed to meet the end user’s needs. Soft Landings ensures occupant behaviour is included by involving the occupants early in the scheme design. Participation is continued throughout the construction process and continues with involvement of the design and construction team beyond practical completion.
User involvement is critical when considering the application of new technologies. Designers and engineers, for example, understand how it is technically possible to save energy in buildings through the use of particular technologies. However, what they often fail to consider is the importance of human behaviour and that users need to understand the purpose of the technology and how to use if the technology is to perform at its optimum capability.
Designers also need to be aware that the careful handover of a building is required to ensure the building works for them, while those maintaining the building understand how to actually make it work best for the users and to enable the building to perform to its maximum potential.
Eight practical principles for design have been proposed for use throughout a project, from architectural brief to final use.
• View human behaviour in the built environment as a complex socio-technical system.
• Use collaborative methods and tools to involve all key stakeholders, especially end users, throughout the design process.
• Include behavioural issues from the very beginning of the design process, in particular making the behavioural assumptions explicit at the outset.
• During design, explicitly consider key characteristics of all users.
• Make it easy, fun and engaging to create and sustain good habits.
• Ensure the system gives users feedback at the right time and in the right format.
• Empower users to handle problems with the system as they occur.
• Learn and apply lessons from related domains.
Incorporating these principles into a project should help improve design outcomes.
As a proactive organisation CIBSE includes direction on the impact of occupant behaviour on the design of building services and the management of facilities in its guidance. In particular the recent editions of ‘CIBSE Guide F: energy efficiency in buildings’ and ‘CIBSE Guide M: maintenance engineering and management’ both acknowledge the potential impact of occupant behaviour.
Ultimately, people cannot be treated as components with predictable properties that can be engineered into a system because people often don’t behave in the ways designers expect.
Instead, by increasing their focus on users’ behaviour, building-services engineers have an excellent opportunity to both improve the performance of buildings and the people in them.
Sara Kassam is head of sustainable development at the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers.