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Two Views on Two Cultures

Forget beakers and Bunsen burners. Architects can learn from the way scientists think.

Tyrone Yang AIA, PhD

If architects behaved more like scientists, perhaps architects would systematically observe and measure how buildings are performing. Experiments and studies would adjudicate disagreeing ideas. Articles would be written about buildings not just when they are shiny and new, but years later, when they have been used and tested by people. But architects are not scientists. Their primary goals differ (creating unique, memorable places versus discovering general laws about the world), as do the demands of their professions. Nevertheless, some of the practices from the field of science could be useful in architecture.

For instance, the scientific method could address architectural questions. Good scientific hypotheses make predictions. Data are collected to evaluate these hypotheses, which, if consistent with the data, are promoted to theories and sometimes laws that help organize our broader understanding of a topic. Schooled in this method, practitioners, not just researchers, would know how to evaluate questions and assumptions, such as whether student performance in schools might improve with better daylighting or whether thermal comfort is higher in naturally ventilated or in mechanically conditioned buildings. Architects could rigorously investigate the causal mechanisms that explain phenomena that they observe in practice; the answers to such questions could influence health, comfort, and energy use in buildings. Where controlled experiments are not possible in the real world, scientific thinking could still guide critical reasoning: When the USGBC posts the claim on its website that people are healthier and more productive in green buildings — which may indeed be true — architects would note that cause and effect is often complicated in such correlational studies.

Architects could also learn from the methodologies that science has developed to manage knowledge. Architects typically employ a personalization model of knowledge management, in which knowledge resides in various experts, such as the consultants on a project team. Science has a more established system for codification of knowledge, organizing it into journals, verifying new findings through formal peer review, incorporating previous studies by accepted citation methods, and producing review articles on a regular basis to synthesize knowledge in a particular area. Applied to architecture, such a system could replace the informal amalgamation of reports, client feedback, and anecdotal evidence that substitutes for a knowledge base in most firms. Better codification would aggregate information from a variety of firms and projects and advance architectural knowledge in a broader manner.

Although these practices have already been implemented by building-science researchers, they are not typically integrated with routine architectural design practice. Compared with other areas of science, research in architecture faces particular challenges, such as client privacy, liability, and a lack of funding for even the most basic investigations, such as building performance evaluations.

In the future, enabling science to benefit architectural design may require a multipronged effort. Most important, clients, the public, and the government need to understand the value of creating better-performing buildings and the utility of science as a means of achieving this goal. Funding — from the industry, government, and clients — would create better cross-talk between practice and academic research. We might see new collaborations with specialist consultants — not only engineers but also building scientists and human-factors researchers. Perhaps new technologies like those for ubiquitous sensing, now under development at the MIT Media Lab, could automate data collection or create more responsive buildings. The way to advance the profession is to advance its knowledge, and that will come only with a change in the profession’s intellectual ecosystem.

Nevin M. Summers AIA

Scientists are discoverers, driven by curiosity. Their discipline is not a belief system but a knowledge system that uses reason, observation, and empirical finding to separate causation from correlation and to unify and explain otherwise disparate, unfathomable phenomena. Science thrives on unexplained facts that challenge the validity of current theories that are shown to be incomplete by their lack of universality.

Perhaps the best way to understand how scientists differ from architects is to look at the ways they create, disseminate, and use knowledge.

Much like the most collaborative of architectural practices, science is a community effort. Although there’s intense competition to discover and publish first, the intellectual enterprise thrives on collegiality and shared knowledge. Academic labs are run as knowledge studios supervised by professors.

Unlike architects, however, these professors are also part of a larger economic ecosystem: They are encouraged by federal grants to found startups under “tech transfer” policies that maximize commercial value to society but minimize conflict-of-interest. (The entrepreneurial biotechnology industry originated this way.) Although a scientific discovery per se cannot be patented, a method, machine, or composition of matter that employs such a discovery in a novel, unobvious, and useful way can; this is the work of engineers, who apply scientific principles to make the products demanded by society. Science is thus the driver of the modern economy and is therefore closely aligned with the national agenda, benefiting greatly from federal funding.

Where scientists strive for simplicity and universality, architects pursue fitness within the context of place, purpose, and culture; the unique, the custom, and the individual predominate. Architects are integrators charged with achieving a synthesis of many disparate factors; their work is much more complex and multifactorial.

Neither science nor architecture, however, is immune from the simple fact that, left alone, any discipline will develop a proprietary culture that seeks to restrict the flow of knowledge for private gain. Research on problems that adversely affect all players consequently goes unattended, despite the fact that knowledge is built as a shared enterprise “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Vitruvius and Newton both noted.

Knowledge is a wasting asset. Like money, it diminishes in value over time unless it is invested and its growth is allowed to compound exponentially. An unfortunate systemwide inefficiency of private (Western) capitalism is that competing firms, which must keep their work secret to preserve patentability, create a massive wasteful duplication of effort. In industry, even failed scientific experiments are sequestered for fear others may use that knowledge for benefit; the architectural analogue is sealed settlement agreements regarding building failures. Entire industries can stagnate from a hyperproprietary culture, as in the case of pharmaceuticals today, where innovation has stalled despite vast sums of aggregate (but uncoordinated) spending on research and development.

Darwin showed that competition is necessary to allocate resources and to propagate the fittest, most adaptive individuals. But competition alone is insufficient. There must also be cooperation to satisfy the evolutionary tendency toward increasing complexity. Without collaboration among disciplines, we will not develop the knowledge we need to become better stewards of the global environment — the greatest issue facing society today. Environmental challenges such as climate change do not respect professional boundaries; they mock them.