Interview: Fionn Stevenson – Will we never learn?

Fionn Stevenson (Demo)

We need to innovate less and understand more, argues architect Fionn Stevenson. Talking to Mark Cantrell about her new book, she explains how the industry can learn to do just that

“It’s not about innovation, it’s about using the technology we already have and using it well and using the knowledge we already have and applying it effectively.”

WE hear a lot about how technology can be used improve the performance and the lived experience of our homes, but Fionn Stevenson isn’t quite so readily impressed.

As far as she is concerned, the housing industry needs to gain a better understanding of how its basic product works ‘in the wild’, as it were, before reaching for the techno-fixes.

“We can’t innovate our way out of housing challenges,” Stevenson says. “It’s not about innovation, it’s about using the technology we already have and using it well and using the knowledge we already have and applying it effectively.

“The trouble we have in the industry is that we’re constantly being encouraged by Government to look forward and come up with the next new method. We’re not encouraged to look back and learn.”

As the chair of sustainable design at Sheffield University’s School of Architecture, Stevenson is very much an advocate of learning, but as a built environment professional her interest is far from purely academic. She wants to change the industry’s mindset, so it can learn how to build better homes by figuring out why those already built don’t perform as well as they might.

“All too often, housing does not meet the needs of its occupiers,” Stevenson says. “Further to this, there is no consensus in the sector on how this could be improved. Despite good intentions, both ‘affordable’ and standard housing routinely uses twice the amount of energy it is supposed to use, and often fails to satisfy even the basic needs of its occupants.”

Stevenson argues her case in Housing Fit for Purpose: Performance, Feedback & Learning, released last month. The book is at once a practical guide and something of a manifesto calling for the industry wide implementation of post-occupancy feedback (POE).

She adds: “[The book] aims to demonstrate why and how the design, construction and management of housing can be linked to feedback and actual evidence of how people choose, and learn, to use their homes, examining key concepts that underlie participatory design, occupancy feedback and learning.”

This is no esoteric technicality, however; it goes to the heart of creating sustainable homes capable of weathering the future.

Essentially, we’re talking about a mechanism for establishing institutional learning; live feedback and evidence gathering at every stage of a home’s lifecycle, to explore not only how a property is performing, but also the all-important why. This, so the theory goes, serves to inform – and improve – future design and delivery. As it is, Stevenson claims, the system is myopic to what’s going on.

“We have a housing system that is not very good at dealing with feedback,” Stevenson says. “It tends to separate the customer surveys, which give us soft feedback, from any technical evidence and evaluation of what’s really happening in the homes, in terms of how they are physically performing…

“This business of looking at housing feedback can actually help housing organisations and designers to really understand why all this is happening – not to understand it superficially, but to understand it holistically – and to look at a variety of factors rather than focusing on a narrow range.”

The matter goes beyond the technicalities of designing and constructing homes, vital those these are. The feedback learning loops Stevenson advocates are just as much, if not more so, about human health and wellbeing.

That remains so whether in the more immediate sense of a creating homes that are warm, dry, well-ventilated, and easy to maintain, or the wider sense of efforts to tackle global heating and climate change. It’s not enough to simply reduce housing’s carbon footprint; in making today’s homes better insulated and easier to heat, are we creating unbearable hothouses for a climate likely to offer more frequent heatwaves? If so, a home that is fit for purpose today, may not be so conducive to human life tomorrow.

“Housing design is never static,” Stevenson says. “That’s why we need the feedback loop because the world is changing. Technology is changing. The environment is changing. We are getting more pollution. We are getting more climate change. We are getting wetter, windier and warmer weather, and all these changes impact on housing design.

“The only way that designers and housing clients can learn how to deal with these changes is to get feedback from how the homes that they have designed and delivered are actually performing in relation to these changes.”

We learn from experience, of course; Stevenson wants us to pay attention – so nobody must burn their fingers.

Housing Fit for Purpose: Performance, Feedback & Learning is published by RIBA Publishing. September 2019. ISBN: 9781859468241.


This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine #6 October 2019


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