As The DQI building appraisal system uses similar criteria to those used in Building's "Building revisited" series, Building decided to return the complement. Here the DQI is itself appraised in one of its pilot projects, a post-occupancy appraisal providing feedback from a recently completed building. This is the award-winning Darlaston Swimming Pool in Walsall, designed by Hodder Associates and consulting engineer Arup and opened in November 2000.

The DQI appraisal at Darlaston was convened by the CIC and entailed five of the building's stakeholders filling in standard questionnaires during a two-hour session in April. The five participants were Walsall council's development manager, the pool's manager, two community representatives on a committee that advises the council on its leisure facilities, and the pool's most frequent user, who is currently training to swim the English Channel. Building visited the pool in June after the five completed questionnaires had been analysed by the CIC and the results encapsulated in spider charts.

Architect Robin Nicholson, who introduced the system to the five participants, is in little doubt about the success of the exercise. "I was extremely anxious before the session," he recalls. "But after I had explained it to them, they started filling out the questionnaires with such enthusiasm that I was completely amazed. And after they had completed them, we chatted about the building and how it worked."

Nicholson draws two lessons from the Darlaston session. "Firstly, they're fantastically proud of the building, and that's heartening. But there was a subplot, too, as if the building's manager and users were saying to the council, 'Please pay more attention to the problems, such as the ineffective air-handling system'. It was a wonderful opportunity to get these problems sorted out."

Terry Blyde, the council's development manager, filled in his questionnaire separately from the other participants and turned up towards the end of the session. "As the project lead officer, I thought it was important to let people express their own views," he says. "The feeling was that it was a positive day, with people quite keen to voice their opinions. This building project had very extensive community involvement from day one, and the DQI gave the community representatives a formal way of evaluating whether the building does what it said it would do."

For pool manager Dean Etchells, the appraisal exercise was useful for underlining problems that had still to be resolved in the recently completed building, such as the poor air-conditioning in the fitness suite. But Etchells also points out: "A lot in the questionnaire is too specialist for me. As duty manager, what I'm concerned about is whether the building works properly, whether the customers are happy and whether staff are happy."

Confusion does seem to arise, even though the DQI questionnaire has been drawn up with simple, non-technical questions that are intended to be accessible to a building's specialist designers and builders, managers and users alike. For instance, questions on the building's internal environment, covering air temperature, ventilation and lighting, crop up in three sections of the questionnaire – internal environment, performance and engineering. At the Darlaston pool, stuffiness in the fitness suite drew widespread criticism, and this was accurately reflected in the low score for air quality in the internal environment section.

However, low scores were also recorded in the engineering section, in which specialist technical questions inquired whether the overall design of the building minimised its reliance on mechanical control systems. Particular pains had been taken by the architect and engineer to orientate the building and its glazing so as to reduce mechanical cooling, heating and lighting, but these had little – if anything – to do with the air-handling system. This means the whole engineering design of the building carried the blame for one system. As the answers the questionnaire's more technical enquiries are beyond the grasp of many building users, perhaps a "don't know" category should be included.

Pool manager Etchells also points out a life-and-death problem that seems to have fallen through the DQI net. The level and quality of daylight and artificial lighting at Darlaston all score well in the survey. But there was no statement in the questionnaire that was able to reveal that the high level of daylight, especially with low early-morning sunlight, causes glare and strong reflections on the water surface, which in turn obscures bathers who might be drowning down below. "We've had to add an extra lifeguard and set up a chair at the deep end," says Etchells.

A universal questionnaire that would cover every conceivable design eventuality for every building type would be unmanageable. However, DQIs targeted at specific building types, such as healthcare buildings, are being devised to more accurately reflect their peculiar features.

The lesson from testing the DQI at Darlaston Swimming Pool might be that the resulting spider charts tell a limited and sometimes distorted story. On the other hand, low scores to specific questions graphically pinpoint problem areas that require deeper probing, discussion and resolution. It seems the act of gathering together a varied group of stakeholders to discuss and assess the building is in itself the most useful part of the whole exercise.

Nicholas Spencer, who runs the DQI initiative within the CIC, points out that the appraisal of a completed building is only one of several applications for the system. "The premise of the DQI is that it is used to set the objectives for a building before it is designed," he explains. "After that, it should be used to track the project to completion to evaluate how well it meets these objectives."

Adrian Friend, Darlaston's project architect at Hodder Associates, welcomes the idea. "As large public clients are breaking up into small private trusts and developing new buildings, they don't have the client skills to brief designers. The DQI will help them do this."

Based on the experience at Darlaston pool, the various stakeholders of a building are only too happy to supply the project team with well informed commentary. It is up to the project team to elicit this commentary and incorporate it into the design – and now they have no excuse not to do so.

How Darlaston pool did: Functionality

Reassuringly for Walsall council, Darlaston Swimming Pool scores resoundingly well on the most vital aspects of the building’s function. According to the five respondents to the DQI questionnaire, the open-plan building interior works well, easily accommodates the users’ needs and enhances the activity of people who use it regularly. The building scores poorly on just three out of 27 functional points. These include accessibility by public transport, an issue beyond the control of the project team. People with impaired sight were reckoned to be poorly served, probably referring to discreet notices that were designed by the architect with tiny lettering and have been replaced by big bold notices in red lettering. Storage space also scored low marks, which becomes glaringly obvious when manager Dean Etchells reveals his laughably poky office and staff room. Though not brought out in the responses to the DQI questionnaires, one of the most critical failings of the building is glare on the water surface caused by the extensive curtain walling. The glare obstructs lifesavers from spotting struggling swimmers.

How Darlaston pool did: Impact

The building scores well on character and innovation, as respondents reckoned it lifted the spirits and praised its quality. “The building is new, fresh and exciting,” says manager Etchells. However, forms and materials came off poorly – the stylish fold-over metal-sheathed roof was not regarded as a pleasing shape, and the quality of materials and detailing were criticised. Orientation also drew criticism, especially with main entrance being located inconveniently at the back of the building away from the road. Air quality and thermal comfort also come off poorly. This, explains development manager Terry Blyde, refers to complaints about stuffiness experienced when the fitness suite fills to capacity. Another environmental problem that is not brought out by the spider charts concerns reception. “It’s a hard place to work,” says Etchells. “It’s hot, and when there are screaming kids in the pool, it’s loud. I would put up a screen between the desk and the pool.”

How Darlaston pool did: Build quality

In terms of engineering, the building scores poorly, and this, suggests development manager Blyde, is almost entirely related to the unresolved problems of stuffiness in the fitness suite. “It’s an engineering problem that’s down to the chiller units,” explains Blyde. “It probably originated when the installer, Rotrax went into receivership in the last throes of the building contract. A report has been commissioned from another specialist contractor and this is now with the main contractor, Willmott Dixon, under the defects liability agreement.” The stuffiness problem in the fitness suite is doubly exasperating for Blyde and manager Etchells as it eclipses a top-of-the-range ventilation system within the main pool hall. As designed by Arup, the beauty of the ventilation system here is that air is extracted through the water run-off around the rim of the pool, where it is at its most humid and rich in chlorine vapour. The air at breathing level around the pool is left free of humidity and chlorine.

Design Quality Indicator