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On “Science” (Fall 2011)

The discussion of LEED and USGBC (“The Shadow Government”) in your “Government” issue [Summer 2011], followed by your “Science” issue, was a nice juxtaposition of the challenges facing the profession. Sergio Modigliani, in his letter to the editor, is partly right when he alerts us to the danger of LEED and USGBC further diminishing the status of architects. But the principal danger is making architecture even less relevant than it already is in the minds of the public.

Its relevance has diminished by virtue of architects becoming less and less informed about the practical and functional aspects of buildings: structures, mechanical systems, and envelope design (in other words, building science and technology) on the one hand, and construction, permitting, financing, and delivery systems (project implementation) on the other. Architecture schools are guilty of fostering this deficiency but so is the profession as a whole by focusing primarily on one segment at the expense of others. That is why it is high time to revamp curricula across the board by reintegrating all the components of good architecture. This idea applies not only to architecture schools but also to all schools that prepare professionals who will go into the construction sector of the economy.

The most relevant trigger for such a revamping is climate change, which has changed all the rules of the game. If all design studios were to adopt the interdisciplinary approach to designing projects that cutting-edge firms now use—namely IPD, BIM, and modular building delivery systems—combined with a green mindset, the profession would move back toward its essence, which is creating real (i.e., quantifiable) value for the projects that architects help guide from inception to completion.

A petition aimed at just such a curricular revamping by the National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB) is available at Its goal is to inspire NAAB to set as its 2013 Condition for Accreditation that every North American architecture school’s curriculum provide all graduates with the theoretical and practical competence to design high-quality carbon-neutral/zero-net-energy built environments while preserving the traditional values of architecture in its striving for beauty and service to society.

Peter Papesch AIA
Chair, BSA Sustainability Education Committee

The Society of Building Science Educators’ (SBSE) listserv featured a discussion recently regarding architecture journals that focus on technical issues. Over 50 journals worldwide were mentioned in this discussion, and I don’t think I had heard of more than two or three of them. At about the same time, my subscription to Science was running out, and I was wrestling with whether or not to renew. I had found that most of the articles deal with issues outside my areas of interest, although there is typically one article per issue pertinent to climate change.

Then the ArchitectureBostonScience” issue arrived. It was exhilarating to hold in my hands a magazine focused on the issue of scientific inquiry in the field of architecture, and the discussions within were inspiring. Although the field may not need one more journal, I feel strongly that a publication (preferably online) that assembles and distributes cutting- edge information and examines the performance of research-based design is essential to the progress of the architectural profession. I am not asking your fine magazine to depart from its editorial mission but hoping that your Fall 2011 issue will inspire a new enterprise that could serve a vital need.

A. Vernon Woodworth AIA, LEED AP

The recent “Science” issue got me going again! As an undergraduate at Harvard College in the dimming past, I chose as a major Architectural Science. The Arch. Sci. program consisted of two studio courses—works in two and three dimensions—and several classes on the history of architecture from the Tower of Babel to Rockefeller Center. This left me time for other interesting electives: David Reisman on his Lonely Crowd; Erik Erikson on his Human Life Cycle; T. Lux Feininger’s studio painting; James Watson on his (and Francis Krick’s) discovery of DNA; and Clyde Kluckhone on anthropology around the world.

This is a roundabout way of explaining my reaction to the “Science” issue: My dictionary—also from those distant college days—describes art as the “production or expression of what is beautiful, appealing, of extraordinary significance,” and defines science as “systematic knowledge of the physical/material world.” I think the promise of modern architecture is multifold: delight in personal use; contribution to the public realm; showing grace plus economy of means; and celebrating the art of making, with durability and safety. The current, and hopefully continuing, focus on energy and resource conservation should be in support of the social and aesthetic settings we create. Hi-tech is a brainy way to make all our lives better, not just a style of interior or exterior decorating.

John Wilson FAIA
Principal Emeritus, Payette

Appealing and timely though it might be, the practices of true science and architecture are inherently so different—grant-funded research for uncovering unknowns vs. fee-based businesses for producing a product—that we need to be careful in making direct translations.

A common theme in several articles in your “Science” issue is monitoring and recording building performance. However, making this useful information accessible to the full profession is a huge chore. As Tyrone Yang points out [“Two Views on Two Cultures”], there are inherent proprietary problems, potential lawsuits, and serious funding challenges. Pure science—that is, basic research—usually funded with public money, doesn’t have these problems.

When scientific research is specific for product development, it is usually undertaken within the closed confines of industrial companies, funded from later patents and sales of said product. Architecture doesn’t have this economic luxury.

Another common theme in the ArchitectureBoston articles comes from firms describing research. These firms appear to have variations on a common approach—part mining the existing literature for products, materials, or engineering, and part original research/ development, sometimes in association with academia. These firms deserve praise. Also to their credit, each has some outreach to give information to the general profession. However, the potential and need for research is far greater than any one firm, or even firms working in collaboration, can undertake. True research is very expensive, out of reach of most fee-compensated practices, and probably requires the expertise of dedicated scientists. Again, proprietary interests present inherent conflicts for publication.

So the questions become: How can performance information be collected, organized, and distributed without running afoul of proprietary problems? How can basic research be conducted at the scale required, and its findings organized and distributed? And how can each of the above be funded?

Several entities (the National Academy of Environmental Design, the National Institute of Building Science, and the Center for Building Science, to name a few) have begun to address these questions. However, it is difficult to imagine a way forward that doesn’t involve a far deeper and directed connection with academia. Only academia has the wide expertise in the myriad of fields without the conflicts and encumbrances of private clients. Academia also has the best organization for access to deep-pocket grant monies. That connection, however, needs to be considerably strengthened and formalized, maybe independent from or on the periphery of the architectural departments.

The biology department at Stanford University may provide an adaptable model. A few years back, it erected a new building (by Norman Foster) now called Bio-X. Stanford recognized that many current science topics are simply too complex for any one discipline. X refers to the uncertainty about which disciplines—neurobiology, physiology, genetics, biophysics, and biochemistry, for instance—will be required to investigate any particular study. Consequently, subsets of these departments reside within Bio-X so that disciplines can be cheek-by-jowl (with the mainstay of the departments in other buildings). Stanford now has a competitive advantage in its grant applications, touting its coordinated cooperation with physical adjacency to back that up.


Frederick Noyes FAIA
Frederick Noyes Architects