“In the end, we build a space to accommodate human activity,” says Ying Hua, Design and Environmental Analysis. It’s such a simple remark, yet it’s a point often forgotten in the process of designing high-quality, sustainable buildings.
Hua, who comes from an architecture background, says that she often sees cases where stakeholders outfit buildings with all kinds of technology and green features but ultimately fail to integrate the human dimension. In turn, the technological solutions end up failing. During the past several years, Hua has worked on numerous projects that consider occupants as drivers of a building’s success and vice versa.
“All of my work focuses on the mutual impact of people as stakeholders of a building and the effect of the physical environment on people,” says Hua.
What Post-Occupancy Evaluations Reveal
On Cornell’s campus, Hua leads a team of researchers in post-occupancy evaluations (POE) of new and retrofitted buildings. She has evaluated buildings, such as Weill Hall, the Plantation Welcome Center, the Physical Sciences Building, the Human Ecology Building, and Fernow Hall. The process of evaluation involves waiting at least six to 18 months after the building is occupied to get a full sense of the building’s performance.
Then, Hua and her team look at quantitative measurements of the building, including continuous measurements of temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide concentration, and light intensity, as well as spot measurements of light levels on multiple work surfaces. They ask building occupants to fill out a survey indicating use and satisfaction with the environment. For example, the survey asks occupants about their satisfaction with various aspects of building environment quality, including air quality, visual privacy, causes of discomfort, and coping behavior in case of discomfort.
“There is a blur of the line between life and work,” Hua says. “It’s exciting for me to study how the design of the workplace reflects some of those needs that were not considered work before.”
The goal of the evaluation is to capture people’s satisfaction with the building and their understanding of the features available to them. The evaluation also pinpoints areas of concern and for improvement.
“You can use a chair as a metaphor,” says Hua. “There are chairs that cost more than $1,000. You can adjust a lot of things to make it work for you, but people without the information just use the chair as if it’s a $100 chair. There’s a good amount of potential, but it’s not actually realized. In the building technology world, we always have to criticize and work on amending the gap between assimilated design and the actual performance.”
The POEs provide recommendations for how to improve building performance and inform future building design. For example, the POE of Fernow Hall revealed that the adopted retrofit strategies effectively improved thermal conditions, personal control, natural light, electric lighting, and window access, while occupants named “visual privacy” as a challenging issue. Since Cornell’s future is in retrofit projects rather than new buildings, it is important to develop a deeper understanding of a retrofit’s success.
Hua says that her goal is for the research to have an impact on actual building design and planning. “That’s where POEs could make a bigger impact than just a paper or report,” she says. For campus projects, Hua and her team go beyond standard methods of examination. “We create graphic reports and visual mapping of occupant satisfaction data to try to engage stakeholders and actually use that to communicate to the university architects and engineering teams.”
Hua is also developing a methodology that simplifies the building evaluation process. The eventual goal is to transition the POE project out of the realm of academic research and make it a toolkit from which facility managers to perform and learn.
How Workplace Design Can Affect Behavior
In similar projects, Hua researches how the design, planning, and operations management of a workplace can impact people’s behavior and outcome. In one project, Hua looks at how a space can promote health in new and interesting ways. She says her interest in workplaces has helped expand her understanding of sustainability and how it includes personal health and wellbeing.
“With all of the available technology, you don’t ever have to stand up. But sitting all day, a lot of research has already proven, is such an unhealthy behavior,” says Hua. She doesn’t, however, believe that older strategies—signage that reminds people to get up and move or incorporating a fitness center into an office complex—are effective.
Instead, Hua studies how personal workspaces relate to shared workspaces, such as meeting spaces, coffee stations, lounges, and staircases. “I’m interested in how these different types of spaces are related to people’s activity level and sedentary behavior,” she says. Hua plans to collaborate with Rebecca Seguin, Nutritional Sciences, to incorporate more physiological aspects into studying workplace health.
As the codirector of the International Workplace Studies Program, Hua is also concerned with new types of workspaces. One space she’s exploring is the coworking space, which is a shared office between different individuals and companies.
Coworking spaces are important to study because “it’s about sharing resources, and sharing is such a key concept for sustainability. You don’t have to own anything. As long as you can have the level of service you want, you’re good,” says Hua. As the economy changes, Hua predicts that more people will become freelance agents working from different locations—coworking spaces among them. Coworking space also provides a physical platform for building social ties among mobile knowledge workers, which is critical for social capacity and resilience building.
“There is a blur of the line between life and work,” she says. “It’s exciting for me to study how the design of the workplace reflects some of those needs that were not considered work before.” The life-work blur could mean developing spaces that have private areas for personal calls, spaces that facilitate more social interaction at work and more.
All of Hua’s work is about building spaces that can have a positive impact on people’s lives and at the same time, work for different kinds of people. “Before, you were serving a typical office worker; but now we need to pay more attention to the issue of diversity,” she says. “People have different backgrounds and skill sets; they are different genders and ages. How can a space provide people with the kind of support they need for performing well? This is a very intriguing topic to me.”