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Building occupiers aren’t stupid – so let’s stop treating them that way

May 2016

Nobody likes change.

I for one nearly cancelled Easter when I discovered Kraft had decided to change the recipe of the Cadbury’s Crème Egg chocolate from delicious, melt-in-your-mouth, takes you back to simpler times Dairy Milk to a vomit-inducing abomination called ‘standard cocoa mix’.

But that’s ok. That’s normal. If you’ve found something that you like or something that works for you, why risk changing and ending up in a worse situation? (In a somewhat deserved twist of fate this change of recipe resulted in a £6 million loss for the business – so I can’t be the only one who called time on my loyalty to the British chocolate institution).

But change is exactly what’s happening in the built environment industry, and there’s a limit on how much we can influence that change. In the words of Judit Kimpian: “policy has a trajectory and changing that trajectory by lobbying or presenting evidence is not very effective”. We’re not the rule-makers; we’re the rule implementers. Regardless of our opinions of these changes we’ve got to adapt to this new policy landscape, do the best we can with the framework we’re given and feed our experience of the practical implications of this policy back into the system wherever and whenever we can. People always have different opinions on green policy, and that’s what’s great about this industry. You might not agree with someone – but that doesn’t mean you can’t get some great ideas by listening to what they think.

In this spirit we hosted an informal debate as part of the Green Sky Thinking week of London-wide events to get a feel for where the built environment is in it’s opinion of the latest developments in green policy (namely the axing of solar subsidies and the green investment bank, the scrapping of zero carbon homes, the lack of clarity on non-domestic CO2 targets and the long term route to meeting EU CO2 reduction targets).

It was a great discussion with a lot of interesting points and a few fiery opinions. One of the things that stood out the most for me was something Paul Fletcher said:


“We need to stop being such arrogant gits – treating building occupiers like they’re stupid is the worst thing we can do”


It’s very easy in the design process to make assumptions about the ‘type’ of person that will be using the space. Not big assumptions in themselves but a number of small ones that ultimately lead to big design decisions that affect the way a space can be used. Whether this is through the removal of occupant control by automation of building systems, or assuming that all of the problems with the performance gap between expected energy use and actual energy are because people “don’t use buildings like they are supposed to”.

If you assume that the occupants of your building aren’t able to make smart decisions about how to use and condition their space, you end up trying to take that control away from them for their own good. But if you provide a building that has already made the decisions for them – taking the majority of control away from them – how do you expect them to use it effectively and efficiently? We should be providing an environment that has the flexibility to allow them to make decisions.

So what’s the solution?

If the policy isn’t there to dictate how we should be designing, then it’s no longer about us. It’s no longer about the product that we want to provide; that we think people should want. It’s about the service and lifestyle that people buy into.

Your initial reaction to the notion that anybody (particularly Millennials and those struggling to keep pace with the exploding prices of the London housing market) has any choice about the things they look for in a home might be to completely dismiss it as wishful thinking. That their influence on the quality of housing is being hampered by high house prices. That in a market like ours you’re lucky to get anything at all, never mind being able to dictate the type of home you want.

I’ll admit, that was my first reaction too. But if you take a step back and look at the way people make decisions it becomes clear that no matter what it is that you’re considering buying, 90% of the time it is, at it’s heart, not something you actually need. You’re not buying the product; you’re buying the lifestyle that it facilitates.

This might sound like a cliché, and goodness knows I hate clichés, but think about what’s popular right now; organic food, artisanal coffee, Apple products… very few people actually need these things (bar those with specific dietary needs and creative professionals), yet their popularity is rising exponentially. It shows that no matter who you are, no matter what you actually need, nobody is immune to the concept of aspirational living. Whether we admit the fact or not, these are things that influence our decisions and ultimately, without policy, the only thing that has the power to influence what the market provides is what we demand from it.

I can see the result of these changes in policy moving us towards a market focused more towards listening to what people actually want and then providing them with an environment that gives them that. Whether that’s developing your own set of criteria based on previous project experience and post-occupancy evaluations or using an established international system like the WELL Building Standard or the BRE’s Home Quality Mark. It could be engaging with occupants, using the information and data that both they and the facilities managers have collected, analysing the business case for what’s most effective and feeding this back to clients and the design process. You could tap into your past experience – no project is perfect and there are always lessons to learn – and use this to inform future design strategies. Or, if you’re light on experience in a particular type of development there are lots of resources out there like the four year Building Performance Evaluation study by Innovate UK looking at how real-world buildings perform; from schools to apartments, supermarkets to offices, health centers to houses (final non-domestic report download here and final domestic report download here). Or if you need an abundance of case studies to look at what has been done before – what works and what doesn’t – then using Carbon Buzz as a resource as early as Stage 0 will always put you in good stead.

Whichever route you decide to take, it’s probably going to be a change from what you’re used to.

You might not like the change. You might not agree with the change. You might wish you could take the change by its smug little face and bury it 6 feet under, where nobody will find it. But the truth is, the change in policy is here, the change to market forces is real. And if you want to adapt in this industry you’ve got to embrace the change and make it work for you.

Because if you don’t, you’ll end up standing at the supermarket checkout, wishing you were back in the good old days when Crème Eggs were tasty and green policy was heading in the right direction.

And when you’re gripped by nostalgia for the past, you can’t do anything for people in the present.


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