Good, Thoughtful Hosts #109: Post-Occupancy Evaluations with Raelynn Meissner

Rather than just walk away from a project once completed, there’s a review process that can occur called a post-occupancy evaluation. These employ both quantitative (hard data) and qualitative (survey) information to allow for a continual state of learning for both the design team and the client. They can help us determine how the space is actually being used, what improvements can be made in future iterations of a design, and how to use these lessons to further knowledge sharing.

Interested in learning more? Check out this Q&A with Raelynn and this brief summary of what to expect from a POE.

About Our Guest

Based in Billings, Montana, mechanical engineer Raelynn Meissner joined Cushing Terrell in 2004 following graduation from the University of Wyoming with an Architectural Engineering degree. She has spent the bulk of her career focusing on sustainable design and high-performance buildings, with specific expertise in building energy studies and analysis, LEED building certifications, and design of a variety of mechanical systems for building types including offices, schools, visitor centers, hospitals, data centers, and more.

Sustainable and energy-efficient design is a passion for Raelynn. A LEED-AP since 2005, she has been involved with 30+ LEED project certifications. Raelynn is also a GBI Guiding Principles Compliance Professional and has worked on projects pursuing smart building strategies, the Living Building Challenge, and Net Zero Energy goals.

Episode #109 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer
In the design process, we talk a lot about doing our research up front: Making sure we know what the client wants and bringing expertise and best practices to the table.

I’m Sarah Steimer and on today’s episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts we’re taking a look at what comes after the design falls into place. Rather than just walking away from a project once it’s completed, teams can employ post-occupancy evaluations to engage in a continual state of learning. These evaluations use a combination of quantitative and qualitative information to determine how the space is actually being used, what improvements can be made in future iterations of a design, and how to use these lessons to further knowledge sharing.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guest.

Raelynn Meissner 01:20
I’m Raelynn Meissner. I’m a mechanical engineer with Cushing Terrell, I’ve been with the firm for 18 years.

Sarah Steimer 01:27
Today, we’re going to talk about post-occupancy evaluations. And I just want to get an idea — so I had never heard of this personally — but what is a post-occupancy evaluation?

Raelynn Meissner 01:38
I like to think of it, Sarah, as like commissioning for the building program and the guiding design principles. So anytime we sit down with a client, and we’re beginning a design, we’re gathering information, we’re getting kind of the goals of the design. And so the purpose of a post-occupancy evaluation is to go back to the client after they’ve been in the space and say, how well is the space meeting those goals we set forward? Is it working perfectly for your flow? Are there things that can be tweaked? And so the way that we do that, typically, we do a survey with the client, with the users of the building, trying to get their feedback and experience. We can do on-site measurements of things like lighting, air quality, acoustics, those type of things. And then the other thing that has been really successful for us is just to sit down with the clients and do kind of an on-site interview. And the purpose of all of this is to really get lessons learned, you know, whether it’s a client that’s doing that same type of building in another location, we want to make sure we carry the best practices forward, whether it’s for our vertical market that’s doing those designs, and we just want to, you know, be in a continual process of learning and improving what we do.

Sarah Steimer 02:52
So it’s really, it sounds like it’s a nice mix of quantitative and qualitative information. Can you give me an idea of maybe what the survey looks like when you’re talking to clients?

Raelynn Meissner 03:02
Yes. So typically, we do an online survey. That way, they can email it out to employees and distribute it easily. We’ve used Survey Monkey quite a bit in the past, we’ve also used, there’s a format through Microsoft Teams. The great thing is it can be emailed out, we usually give them about two weeks for response, and then we can get the data back to analyze. And usually the survey will include questions, like I said about our design goals for the project, but also kind of about some standard metrics that we try to track, you know, how well is the lighting in your space? How do you perceive the indoor air quality? How do you perceive the acoustics — is it really noisy? Is it good for focus? How’s the thermal comfort? So those are kind of some metrics we’re tracking across the board for each of the surveys. And so those questions will be included as well as some, you know, for example, for a hospital client we did recently, they were really interested in how well a courtyard that was outside of the patient rooms was received. So sometimes we’ll include those type of questions on the survey, and the feedback will help, you know, both the owner — was that a good investment of their dollar — and us just in the design moving forward.

Sarah Steimer 04:08
So when we spoke previously, you know, you mentioned that this is no longer just sort of an added service. So I want to get a history of how you guys started doing these evaluations, what sort of prompted it, and how this is now something that is really sought after a little bit more, not just sort of like a nice to have, I suppose.

Raelynn Meissner 04:28
I think for us, it’s just part of our knowledge base design. So about two to three years ago, we started this group really thinking that, you know, if we want to be in a continuous state of learning, we need to not only look at the design process from start to construction, but once the owner moves in, how well is the building really functioning for them? And so a couple years ago, we started working on how could we obtain that information, you know, complete the post-occupancy evaluation, and then how could we use the lessons learned to share with the rest of the firm. So, as we do each of these evaluations, we are developing a database within the firm that is searchable, that allows, you know, designers who are, for example, starting a school project. Well, let’s go to the post-occupancy evaluations that have been done and search for everything there is to do with schools on acoustics, and take those lessons learned and improve on them, you know, for the for the next project. So that was really where we started, it was for our knowledge gained and for the benefit of clients and improving our designs. And then, within the last three years, we’ve seen a shift, we’ve actually seen proposals come out, requesting a post-occupancy evaluation as part of the completion of the project. And so typically, we would see these done, at the very minimum, at least three months after occupancy, but usually more in that 10- to 11-month occupancy range where they’ve been in the space almost a year, and we can really get good feedback on the design. And the other thing I’ve seen nationally is just, you know, more requests and articles and interest on post-occupancy evaluations in the recent year.

Sarah Steimer 06:12
That, you know, it seems pretty clear how this is so helpful for what the firm is doing so that you guys can kind of go back and go, we did this with schools in the past. And here’s how it’s come out, had we kind of learned something? I do really like that phrase that you mentioned, that, you know, continual state of learning. That seems like it’s such an important thing on your side of this process. Can you talk a little bit about what this does for the client, then, to have this post occupancy evaluation happen? What do they get out of it?

Raelynn Meissner 06:43
I think the biggest thing for any client is just a reassessing of how things are going in the space. And sometimes there’s some small tweaks, you know, operational tweaks, tweaks we can make with the systems that will make spaces more comfortable. And I think it’s just really an opportunity for them to get feedback from employees, and then maybe even get some simple suggestions that can be implemented to improve the environment even more. The other thing I see coming out of it is sometimes if you’re a school district, or someone kind of doing some long-range planning, and you have a post-occupancy evaluation done, it allows you to set some goals. Like the traffic loop is really a big issue, it did not get laid out exactly how we are using it. It’s causing some safety issues and some traffic flow issues. Here’s something we could budget for or bond for potentially in the future. Now we know what the feedback is from the post-occupancy survey, we have a recommendation, we can make plans toward that. So that I think that’s a huge benefit for clients that are doing some long-term planning. The other benefit to clients is, for several clients, we do some retail clients that have repeat stores in different locations, we do some banking clients that have kind of a branch bank design that gets repeated in several different locations. And so for those clients, the biggest benefit I see is, okay, we’ve done our, you know, initial branch bank that we’re going to replicate in these five different areas. Let’s evaluate that, but find any flaws in the original design, and then we can correct and improve on them in the next five, you know, rather than doing five and going, oh my gosh, why did we never evaluate or think about or think to change this minor item that could have made the experience so much better for the employees and the customer? So those are all ways I see it benefiting clients directly.

Sarah Steimer 08:36
So taking it back to maybe some of your colleagues who get to search this database and get a better idea of maybe what’s worked in the past and what could be improved upon, things like that. What sort of feedback have you gotten from other designers, other architects, anyone else on the team, other engineers, as far as being able to dive into this database and already sort of have some answers at their fingertips?

Raelynn Meissner 09:01
That’s an interesting question. The database itself is relatively new. And so we haven’t had a lot of the employees be able to access and use that yet. Most of what we’ve done to date with our post-occupancy evaluations has been to give a presentation to the vertical market or to give a presentation of the firm as a whole. Just a month ago, we did a sustainability knowledge share on our most recent Gallatin High School post-occupancy evaluation. And that is really the way we’ve been getting out the word and the lessons learned. But for example, for healthcare, I had performed a POE on an ICU. I had another architect reach out to me and say, we’re getting ready to do another ICU. What were your takeaways? What were your lessons learned? And so I was able to just email them the database and kind of give them that list to have in front of them. So I think the sharing within the firm is still kind of in infancy but the feedback that I’ve got on the sharing we’ve done has been really positive and really helpful and just continuing to look forward to more and more data being available.

Sarah Steimer 10:07
Well, so can you tell me a little bit, you know, you mentioned that you just gave a presentation on the POE for a high school? What does that presentation sort of look like as far as disseminating this information to everyone else.

Raelynn Meissner 10:21
We’ve been doing, every three months, a sustainability knowledge-sharing. So we were the topic for that month. And so basically, we were able to share our process, you know, how we went through the process, what the design goals were for the project, and then the feedback that we got from the survey. But also in that one, we had a new tool at our disposal that we’ve been using, which is a time-lapse camera, and that was actually invaluable in that school setting to gain data and information. As far as seeing the flows of students throughout the school and different staircases throughout a commons area, what the different uses were for it. And the interesting thing is for the presentation, we were able to extract still views from that time-lapse camera and present the analysis to our colleagues. And so that and sharing some of the lessons learned about the different spaces within the school, the commons, the breakout spaces, the classrooms themselves, how the library was connected, really, it was more just a sharing format in a, you know, PowerPoint presentation, but then we had quite a bit of Q&A at the end as well.

Sarah Steimer 11:32
I love that. I love the idea of the time-lapse, that’s, that’s really interesting to be able to add that little, that little piece of multimedia after you do a project. And you know, I’m sure that’s one of the things that’s probably, in a certain way gratifying, but also only makes the process stronger in the future. You know, you build something, you’ve designed something, and typically I’m sure it’s just okay you do it, it’s done, you walk away, whatever. But now, I mean, I can even speak to being a writer, once upon a time you’d write something, you walk away, and maybe you get some letters in, you know, letters to the editor. But now you can actually see analytics, you can see who’s clicking on what you can see what the audience is interested in what they want to know more about, I would have to imagine on your end, to kind of get that feedback after you would maybe otherwise walk away, step away from a project, that’s got to be invaluable.

Raelynn Meissner 12:22
It is, you know, I think just from a client relations standpoint, you’re coming back, you’re listening to them. I think for so many clients, once the punch list is complete, and the warranty list is complete, and the contractors left, they just don’t get any more interaction with the design team. And so I think this is a wonderful opportunity. And clients have really appreciated, you know, the chance to step back in with them once they’ve lived in this space and kind of find out what, what’s working great, what’s a struggle, what might be frustrating them that we may never have seen because we didn’t have the exact data on how that space was going to be used. We made assumptions, we made design assumptions, but were they right. And so I think that is a fabulous opportunity. But also, for us as designers, you know, speaking from the standpoint of a mechanical engineer, when I design a system, a lot of times I’m looking to design the most efficient system I can while maintaining comfort in the space. And sometimes that’s a balance. And so cost sometimes and budget is about sometimes things get beat along the way. And so being able to go back and see how things are really functioning once buildings are occupied is hugely invaluable to me in knowing what systems have worked, what tweaks could have made it work better, what to do, you know, for future designs, and I think, you know, from a lighting standpoint, lighting is changing constantly, with the move from fluorescent to LED and the ability to program colors and temperatures and brightness and interaction with daylight. So I think being able to go back and do these POEs is a huge benefit to them as well. There’s constantly new lighting control systems coming on the market. And we’ve actually had feedback from a couple of clients that were really not happy with this system. And we were able to go in and find out why. We were able to get the rep there to make some changes. So I think, you know, with the speed of advancing digital technology and all of our, you know, building systems and building aspects, it’s wonderful to be able to go back and get that feedback and make tweaks as we go — rather than being years down the road and saying, Oh, those systems just never worked and not being able to know why. I want to really underscore, highlight something that you just said: that it’s not just hearing, oh, we’re happy with this, or oh, we’re unhappy with this. But it’s actually being able to collect the data to find out why and how to make the appropriate changes, too. Exactly, yeah. I mean, I think the survey is really the first step in the post-occupancy evaluation in that it gives you that perspective. It gives you what the client’s happy with, what they’re not happy with. And then the qualitative data, the actual being able to go on-site and take measurements or do a time-lapse camera gives us the second step of being able to analyze why, you know, is it just the rooms on this side of the building? Is it just this certain time of day, maybe the systems were shutting off too early, maybe the schedule was programmed right in the front end. Just that actual on-site measurement to verify the perspective we’re hearing in the survey, I think really allows us to dig a little deeper, and then we complete the post-occupancy evaluations with a report. And typically we try to have at the end of the report lessons learned and recommendations summary, you know, so it’s not just well, this is the lesson learned, it didn’t work. It’s, here’s what you might try to fix it in the future, or what the client might even be able to try now to improve the situation. So it’s really a full circle process, I feel like.

Sarah Steimer 15:59
I mean, who doesn’t want a little bit of helpful feedback, a little bit of helpful criticism, I think that’s — you’ve got to have a thick skin with any sort of creative process, I think. But this is really not only is it feedback, but it’s it’s actionable information as well, which, that’s only going to make the organization stronger, it’s going to make the client stronger. Everyone’s going to benefit from that. Well, Raelyn those were most of my questions for you. Was there anything that we didn’t cover already that you wanted to mention before we wrap this up? It’s such an interesting conversation. Like I said, I didn’t know anything going into it, but it makes sense to me. I think it’s a kind of a fabulous process.

Raelynn Meissner 16:37
Well, I think I would just wrap up on the note that I look for us to see more requests and more leaning towards post-occupancy evaluation-type learning in the future, because we are a continuous improvement firm. I think the industry is looking for knowledge-based design. In healthcare, they talk about it as evidence-based design. And so to do that, you need the data. And so I think this is a field that we’re going to continue to see grow in the near future. And I love being able to bring this to our firm and use it to just you know, continuously better our design and client relationships.

Sarah Steimer 17:13
Awesome. Well, again, thank you so much for taking the time. I do hope you’ll send me a survey after this to let me know how the podcast recording went and everything and we can evaluate and move forward. Thank you so much. This was a lot of fun to chat with you today.

Raelynn Meissner 17:27
You bet. Thanks, Sarah.

Producer 17:36
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold and a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening

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