The divide between architecture school and practice is well known. Coursework typically focuses on original thinking and creatively presented concept designs; the real world rewards a well-functioning building delivered on time and under budget. Unlike high-tech or the life sciences, our country’s notoriously conservative building industry rarely allows for implementation of exciting research. Yet as Karsten Harries writes in The Ethical Function of Architecture, “Architecture has an ethical function in that it calls us out of the everyday . . . . It beckons us toward a better life, a bit closer to the ideal.” Creating that better life feels slow going when we can’t easily incorporate new research into what we build.
The most diligent studies in the construction industry, including invaluable experimentation on energy-efficient systems and assemblies, have been at engineering societies and Department of Energy national labs. But how can we seamlessly integrate this into the profession as opposed to simply responding to its results? Ultimately, all the research carried out within schools or labs is advantageous only if it is understandable to those in practice and beneficial to a broad audience. This requires our rigorous research to be available to those architects with access to clients and builders.
In response to this divide, firms are exploring ways to make research part of their office practice. For example, Katherine Darnstadt AIA of Latent Design spends an atypical amount of time analyzing clients’ needs. This allows her to better understand relevant socioeconomic issues and expand the value of architectural practice by providing services that range from grant writing and developing stem (science, technology, engineering, and math) curricula to programming and, finally, building design. Payette has a paid research director who spends half of her billable time on formal research, allowing the firm to confirm manufacturers’ claims and make more knowledgeable choices of materials and systems. An instance of this is its comparative study of triple glazing and double glazing with room-side low-e coatings in order to build a “glazing and winter comfort tool.” Gensler, a giant in the profession, has a staff of five researchers and a firm-wide rfp process through which approximately 30 employee-led teams complete studies every year.
Is the profession as a whole benefiting from the firms that have committed to research? These offices often share results on their websites or, in select cases, via annual publications. Yet it remains difficult for practitioners to sort through information coming from multiple sources and completed to varying levels of rigor.
Two recent initiatives are catalysts for the weaving of exacting research into practice. The first is a partnership between the AIA and the National Institute of Building Sciences to create the Building Research Information Knowledgebase, aka BRIK. This clearinghouse of architectural research, launched in 2013, harbors publications created through partners with rigorous review processes, ranging from private practices such as Perkins + Will to nonprofits like the International Academy for Design & Health. The goal of BRIK is to make research transparent and accessible; it also focuses on research that can be directly applied to professional work — from techniques for creating resilient architecture to best practices for coatings on historic buildings — with topics organized broadly into design, economics, and practice.
The second initiative is the design profession finally taking advantage of techniques pioneered in other industries. In 2016, MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning started an accelerator, called DesignX, that will speed the growth of start-ups — strengthening the connection between academic research and viable design businesses or nonprofits. DesignX selected its first class in December, supporting proposals ranging from virtual reality technology that enhances communication between project teams to sensors that monitor human behavior and may assist firms with postoccupancy studies. The curriculum of the accelerator program includes several criteria, two of which are typical for start-ups: user-friendliness and the ability to handle the complexity inherent in the design process. A third criteria stands out, however, for its idealism: a commitment to social justice and mindfulness of the diverse society in which we work.
The original thinking that comes from academia and rigorous research is necessary to create “a better life, a bit closer to the ideal” — and one that is not circumscribed by the constraints of time and profit. Yet this research will be effective only if it is implemented in the real world multiple times and at a large scale. Architectural practitioners and researchers need one another. The more opportunities there are for sharing ideas, the more likely we are to influence not only the lives of well-heeled clients but also the lives of all those who inhabit the world we build.