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Practical Science

In the face of new technical challenges, these firms have designed a smarter way to practice architecture.

Increasingly complex building systems, interest in sustainable materials and technologies, and demand for improved energy efficiency — most architects would agree that the need for hard data and real innovation has never been greater. Some firms have embraced what would have been unimaginable a few decades ago: the integration of practice and science-based research. Their success suggests that they may have also found a path toward more artful design.


by Nicholas Holt AIA

The Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology (CASE) is a unique scientific research partnership that was formed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s School of Architecture in 2008. CASE’s ambitions are manifold. Perhaps the most important is to produce desperately needed, game-changing technologies that will enable the aggressive net-zero goals that are being adopted in the US and worldwide. A second priority is to use the synergistic, academic-professional partnership to confront the ways in which new architectural technologies are developed and brought to market.

IC Solar Facade

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Applied research as it is currently practiced in the building industry is often slow and inefficient, and results in building systems that do not meet their potential when confronted with the practical realities of practice. The architecture profession has in large part not taken advantage of its power and responsibility to truly innovate. RPI and SOM hope the CASE model presents industry and universities with a way to change that.

SOM views CASE as a complementary practice, not a separate institution, and CASE’s headquarters are located within SOM’s Wall Street office in New York City. CASE is led by a tight group of academics and professionals: Professor Anna Dyson of RPI’s School of Architecture is the director and Associate Professor Jason Vollen is the assistant director, with Kenneth A. Lewis, a managing director at SOM, and me, technical director at SOM, acting as CASE principals. Currently more than 24 PhD, master’s, and undergraduate students actively do research and attend classes led by five professors and other guest scholars. Members of SOM’s staff collaborate with CASE investigators daily.

CASE researchers work primarily in the area of technology transfer. They mine discoveries and developments in fields unrelated to architecture, such as optics, aerodynamics, and the biological sciences, and develop them into full-scale building systems. Currently under development are sustainable building systems, such as a modular daylighting system that includes helioptic concentrators that improve the efficiency of photovoltaics; high-performance eco-ceramic masonry walls; electropolymeric dynamic shading systems for buildings; and an active-photoremediation wall system using plants to purify air, reducing the need for outside air.

SOM’s real-world experience brings considerable influence to bear on the development of CASE’s research, particularly in making conceptual ideas scalable, manufacturable and, ultimately, commercially viable. These technologies must be proven to be maintainable, aesthetically compatible where applicable, and usable in real construction. They must be shown to perform at a level whose impact is great enough to make their costs justifiable. Prototypes must withstand mockup testing and the rigorous standards of health and life-safety codes.

The firm’s involvement allows CASE’s investigators to focus on in-depth research while leveraging SOM’s expertise to challenge ideas and adapt solutions to real-life projects. The collaborative environment works. CASE investigators have successfully developed comprehensive testing prototypes and submitted their work at the proof-of-concept stage to the rigorous scrutiny of peer review, and their papers have been published in academic journals. SOM’s involvement has also been helpful in securing federal and state grants.

The benefits of the CASE collaboration include the satisfaction of attending to the urgent business of creating a sustainable world, and in playing a crucial role in the development of systems that are imaginative, ambitious, and potentially game-changing. In turn, the advanced high-performance buildings SOM is working on provide teaching moments for some of the most imaginative minds working in building-systems research today. What is priceless, however, is the dialogue resulting from the exchange of ideas between academics and professionals that enriches all who participate in it.


by Yanel de Angel AIA

In 2009, Perkins+Will made a commitment to support additional research initiatives within its practice as a means of solving our clients’ increasingly complex challenges and advancing the profession. Although these initiatives grew out of the firm’s cultural focus on the convergence of design, technology, and research, our experience indicates that these initiatives have in turn fostered an environment that is even more open to innovation and collaboration.

solar-responsive shading elements

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With more than 1,200 employees in 23 offices, Perkins+Will has organized these initiatives under the oversight of its Research Group, which includes full-time researchers whose investigations include biomimicry and ecological systems; strategies for operational efficiency; building technology and performance; design process bench-marking; policy research; carbon and energy analysis; and organizational behavior.

Currently, two initiatives within the firm focus on developing and disseminating a new generation of science-based research. The first is the Perkins+Will Research Journal, a biannual publication available online and in hard copy that documents some of the firm’s investigations, representing a range of research from behavioral studies to building science. All research articles go through a rigorous internal and external peer-review process prior to publication. Examples include articles on design strategies for double-skin façades and their impact on energy performance; energy modeling; design considerations for pools in cold climates; the effect of heat flow and moisture on exterior enclosures; and a comparative analysis of the environmental and economic performance of flooring materials. The value and significance of this publication is that practice-oriented research is documented and shared both within our global practice and with the larger design community.

The second initiative, the Innovation Incubator, is a funding program that supports small, focused research projects proposed by staff members with micro-grants of money and time. Launched in March 2010 with the goals of providing the opportunity for invention and creating a culture of innovation within the firm, these micro-grants provide incentive for proactive idea exploration, technical development, and design collaboration. After project completion, each participant is expected to provide a tangible product that explains the aim, procedures, and outcome of the project. Participants make detailed formal presentations of their work to their home-office colleagues, and their work is disseminated across the firm through summaries published on the firm’s intranet.

In its first year, 12 projects were selected from 90 applications, representing seven offices and 20 partici-pants. Projects included research on acoustics, energy analysis, air pollution mitigation, and energy consumption in food production, as well as an array of projects related to planning, practice, and user-based design. The program allows and encourages a range of formats: technical white papers; events and installations; project prototypes; and process refinements. Already, several projects have found second lives: Some have influenced the firm’s business policy, some inspired conferences, and others are candidates for extended internal research.

As the experience of Perkins+Will has demonstrated, practice-oriented research has a logical and comfortable role in the firm environment that is based on parallels between research and architecture. As the editors of the Perkins+Will Research Journal wrote in the second issue, “Architectural design requires immense amounts of information for inspiration, creation, and construction of buildings. Although uniform sets of systems, materials, and construction processes are considered during this process, every design is an answer to a set of unique questions and circumstances. Therefore, research becomes an integral part of the design and construction of buildings and environments, where inquiry into existing knowledge, study, and adaptation to particular circum-stances leads to the development of new knowledge.”


by James H. Collins, Jr. FAIA

Payette’s practice has always been focused on challenging not only the status quo but also our own well-established thoughts and beliefs. We embraced the pursuit of innovation and invention within the context of a traditional design process but acknowledged the lack of appropriate tools beyond our instincts. Although we could often justify (or post-justify) the directions we took with calculations or measurements taken from the final design and construction, we were rarely able to pursue rapid iterations of design modifications in a controlled setting.

thermal buffer zone with automated blinds

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Over the past 10 years, however, the development of new software tools made specifically for design analysis, coupled with a surge of interest from academia, has enabled us to bring true rigor to this fundamental part of our work. With architecture schools throughout the country emphasizing technology, sustainability, and process, we have been able to bring new architects into the firm who leverage this technology and contribute to the design process at its earliest stages.

Of course, Payette is not unique in pursuing this agenda. Firms across the country have embraced science in myriad ways. Some have focused their practices on making each project an academic research endeavor. Others have formed elite “skunk works” teams within their organizations to pursue cutting-edge technologies, often with institutional partners. Payette has taken an approach that lives between these two extremes, incorporating tools as they come online but keeping specific client and project needs at the forefront. The focus is on the practical application of design research.

To turn this concept into reality, Payette recently established a “Research and Innovation Initiative.” This effort is led by representatives from each area of the firm, who make research tools — such as modeling software, prototyping equipment, and an in-house Wiki — available to all design teams, leaving the teams to determine how to implement these resources. As part of this initiative, a building scientist joined the firm to provide expertise in the physics, engineering, and analysis of building performance.

Some examples of specific decisions that were a result of this approach may be useful. In Pakistan, we were able to develop a modern version of the traditional wind catcher, using earth ducts to provide natural ventilation and cooling throughout a new college campus. For a small community college in upstate New York, we were able to analyze multiple façade technologies to determine the cost benefit of double-wall construction under varying thermal conditions. For a small cheese production facility in suburban Boston, we were able to investigate multiple options for the development of a zero-net-energy installation specific to the needs of this farm.

The defining trait of these projects is that the results have relevance far beyond the immediate needs of the projects; this allows us to justify the additional overhead expense of the exploration. These investigations inform the entire practice and should streamline and influence future decisions. Ideally, significant research and results can be taken beyond our walls to the greater professional community through our online presence, conferences, and publications.

Ultimately, we see this as a question of leverage. We are not trying to live on the bleeding edge, inventing new technologies or materials, but we want to use all of the resources at our disposal to attack every problem we confront. Our approach to research is about strategic investigation that helps to rationalize our process, bring rigor to the work and, more than anything, develop the intuitive sense that drives all formative design work.


J. Frano Violich FAIA

We practice at a time when the stakes could never be higher for architecture to respond to the challenges of our time: health, mobility, economy, and the environment. Yet the compartmental roles institutionalized by practice have reduced the design process to a limited number of repeatable steps that favor design service over design inquiry. Architectural exploration takes place primarily within academic settings or with a handful of specialized consultants, a fact that further distances the architect from the direct hands-on investigations required to address these global challenges.

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In architecture schools in the late ’70s and early ’80s, research was limited to social or environmental factors driven primarily by program. This was followed by a tendency to explore history and the urban fabric as a design research tool. What I found missing as I entered the profession was an understanding of how systems worked, especially infrastructural systems and their implications for urbanism and architecture. Further, at a more detailed level, there was no opportunity to investigate architecture through its material properties. This was the root of Kennedy & Violich Architecture’s beginnings and the subsequent establishment of the firm’s material research division, MATx.

One of the greatest challenges for the profession is to establish a place within the discipline that integrates research with the design process and the workplace. As digital drafting tools evolve, so, too, do fabrication tools, and they are becoming increasingly synergistic within the design process. Details of an exterior building envelope that have been generated through an algorithmic script to respond to climatic exposure can be 3D-printed or routed to test design characteristics from the assembly of parts to its overall look and proportion, all of which can be done without even leaving the workstation. Almost half of KVA’s office in a converted bottling plant is dedicated to research and fabrication, including spaces for optoelectronics, digital prototyping, and analog equipment, such as table and band saws, drill presses, soldering guns, and sewing machines. The intersection of digital and hands-on fabrication is a foundation of KVA’s research process. It is not always a pretty sight to come into the shop and see the latest swatches of high-performance textiles, flexible CIGS photovoltaic panels, electroluminescent panels, digital circuitry, lithium-ion batteries, milled lumber, plywood, and recycled plastic strewn about the workbench and even sometimes the floor. However, research is by nature a messy business. It raises many more questions than answers and, in this sense, is less noun than verb. How research is conducted is important, yet equally critical is where it is done, because spaces dedicated to research offer the room for an expanded range of projects to occur, from industrial design to temporary installations and architecture, promoting an office culture where “making” exists side by side with “drawing.”

The work now coming out of KVA/MATx has never been more diverse: a law school at the University of Pennsylvania; a prototypical urban solar rocking chair and charging station; sustainable housing in Hamburg; portable power and light for communities in the Amazon; a ferry terminal in New York City; and the planning of 5.5 miles of the Upper Mississippi in Minneapolis as an urban ecological landscape. Yet the work has become more focused, primarily due to a commitment to practice that applies speculation and inquiry to contemporary conditions that affect our quality of daily life. Maybe it’s time to step out of the office and plug in to the shop.


Seeding Knowledge: The BSA Research Grants in Architecture

by Carol Burns FAIA

Research, broadly defined, is systemic inquiry directed toward the creation of knowledge. Research adds to a profession’s body of knowledge.

Why, then, has the architecture profession failed to embrace formal research as part of its culture?

Although architects in practice regularly engage in investigations in which they gather, evaluate, interpret, and analyze information, these efforts are rarely considered “research.” Formal research is framed by protocols, including statements regarding hypothesis; methodology; and the formulation of claims, evidence, and generalized conclusions. In sharing or disseminating research, the peer-review process upholds the accepted standards of a discipline and prevents publication of irrelevant findings, unwarranted claims, unacceptable interpretations, and personal views.

As a field, architecture is not effectively using and creating knowledge. Peer-reviewed research is rarely incorporated into work in professional practice. Research protocols rarely frame professional efforts, and results are rarely documented for sharing. As a consequence, architects rediscover or repeat what is already known and fail to focus on the development of new knowledge. The tradition of research has not been adequately recognized and honored, and the vital role of research has been undervalued as well as underfunded.

Recognizing the importance of research, the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) established a program in 2004 to provide funding to individuals and teams to conduct research in architecture. The BSA Research Grants in Architecture program supports original research in any area of architecture by anyone with a clear methodology and the potential to contribute to knowledge. With a focus on practice-based and practice-oriented research, the program has funded 55 projects in areas including: materials and technology (about one-half of all projects funded); social, economic, political, and cultural dimensions of architecture; aspects of physical design; and historical topics. Many projects cross two or more of these categories, speaking to the interdisciplinary nature of architecture.

The BSA program is distinguished in many ways. Grant amounts and recipients have varied widely depending on the scale and need of the project, from $2,000 awarded to students to $10,000 awarded to support studio-based projects and $40,000 awarded for more significant research projects that can bring together professionals, industry representatives, and academicians. No other program offers grants of this size targeted to support substantial work by interdisciplinary teams. After seven years, the BSA Research Grants in Architecture program now occupies a unique niche in architecture as a “long-lived” program.

What has the program accomplished? The completed projects have been shared as lectures, publications, and books. In direct response to this initiative, the AIA has created new research programs, including the Upjohn Award. The BSA has contributed to the creation of a culture of research within the profession. Where should it go? In my view, architecture is a “generalist” profession that demands knowledge across a wide spectrum, and practitioners should be able to search for and obtain useful “evidence-based” knowledge at their desks. Presently, the BSA takes the first step by posting on its website all abstracts and reports of completed projects. Alliances with other web-based publications are being explored to support peer review and enhance accessibility.

The field of architecture is constantly evolving, and research has never been more important to our profession than now. As Thomas Fisher states in the pioneering chapter on research in the Architectural Graphic Standards 2007 edition, “For architecture to flourish as a profession, we must have a reliable and researchable base of knowledge shared among ourselves and proven in ensuring people’s health, safety, and welfare.”