It’s the time of the year when landscape architecture firms across the nation begin determining which projects to submit for consideration for the ASLA Professional Awards. Only a small fraction of any firm’s work is ever submitted for design accolades, with only the most compelling and photogenic projects supplemented with publication-ready graphics considered. Costs related to producing submissions are high, thus only projects with the best chances of winning recognition for the firm are normally submitted.
While award-winning projects reflect our profession’s definition of “good design”, they are not always the sole measure of design quality. Design is our primary product, and we could not remain in business if most (perhaps all) of our designs did not meet the measure of “good” to some degree, at least in the opinion of our paying clients. But what do we even mean when we refer to “good design”?
There are both quantitative and qualitative issues designers must consider when pondering whether a design meets the criteria of “good”. On one hand, many aspects of a design’s performance are quantifiable – lighting, acoustics, temperature, humidity, durability of materials, amount, and the distribution of space – measurable aspects easily evaluated. Then there are qualitative aspects of design relating to issues like sensory appeal, aesthetic beauty, and visual compatibility with surrounding context – aspects without conventional methods of measurement relying upon subjective personal judgements to evaluate.
Designers ultimately evaluate qualitative aspects of design through the lens of their values. The term “evaluation” contains the word “value”, in this case the personal and professional perspectives influencing how we subjectively judge a design’s value, failure, or something in between. These values inform our design approach, and eventually become the foundation of our personal design process.
How well does our built work reflect our design values? And how do we determine the extent to which our projects succeed? Social, economic, environmental, and aesthetic values are expressed during pre-design and schematic design. However, most projects lack any post-construction or post-occupancy evaluation (POE) and monitoring to determine if, and how well, our values are conveyed through the installed design.
POE can be described as a process of evaluating design by studying built projects in a systematic and rigorous manner after the project has been opened for use. My initial research into the subject revealed POE can be a very complex, time-consuming, and expensive process that, in some cases, has evolved beyond evaluations focused primarily on the performance of projects. For example, Universal Design Evaluation (UDE) focuses on a holistic, process-oriented approach to project evaluation, including an analysis of political, economic and social forces shaping the built design.
Motivated by a personal desire to learn more about the value of the POE methodology and its professional application, I recently visited the Monrovia Station Square Transit Village. One of AHBE’s most recently completed projects, the Monrovia Station Square Transit Village offered a test case for identifying and integrating the POE methodology into our design process:
Monrovia Station Square Transit Village: Myrtle Street streetscape (view north toward 210 freeway and San Gabriel Mountains) May 2013, before project ground-breaking. Photo: AHBE
Monrovia Station Square Transit Village: Myrtle Street streetscape (view north toward 210 freeway and San Gabriel Mountains) February 2018, two years after project installation. Appears to be an improvement over what once existed here. There is more living biomass sequestering CO2, planting areas adjacent to the parking lot and street receive urban run-off, trash receptacles help keep the community clean, furniture and seatwalls provide opportunities for visitors to linger and get to know one another. What design lessons does this design provide that can be used to elevate the design of our next project? Photo by Darren Shirai
Monrovia Station Square Transit Village Amphitheater: February 2018, two years after installation. It was a clear, sunny day in Monrovia. Temperature in the mid-70s, 11:00~11:30am on a Saturday, President’s Day weekend. Is this space an example of “good’’ design. How do we know? I only observed one other person besides myself inhabiting the space during my 30 minutes survey. Which metrics should we apply to evaluate a design?
Monrovia Station Square Transit Village Amphitheater: February 2018, two years after installation. The only other person observed occupying the space besides myself was this fellow. How clearly are our design values revealed through the projects we pursue and the way we design them?
Many of us wipe our hands clean after the handover of a project, considering it the final stage of our involvement. However, we should not cease caring about the condition of our built work after opening day, noting some of the most valuable lessons about design coming to light only after a project’s completion. Verifying whether an installation is performing as intended is a major contribution to a firm’s professional expertise, delivering feedback about identifiable successes to be repeated with future projects, or conversely, aspects of a project that did not meet expectations. Evaluations also reveal and identify whether innovations are missing their targets. By collecting data from several projects landscape architects can improve their understanding of experiential appeal in general, while also providing the foundation of an updated thesis to inform future design decisions.