The business of research

Words:
Jessie Turnbull

Every architect is involved in research of one sort or another. How can they disseminate useful information to the wider world – and get paid for it?

Every project server has a ‘research’ folder that contains everything from British Standards to interface drawings scanned from Detail magazine; from photographs of brick samples to insulation data sheets with U-value calculations. Research & development tax credits allow us to quantify how much time we spend on research that furthers unique knowledge in the construction industry.  

So I attended the recent ‘Business of Research’ symposium organised by DSDHA with two questions: how do we disseminate our research and how do we get paid for it?

There was an impressive roster of participants at the symposium and I wondered how they integrated research into their practice in an ordered and meaningful way. Did they have a dedicated staff of researchers or was it integrated into specific projects? They do both: at Foster + Partners an in-house team of 50 R&D staff from an array of disciplines dip in and out of projects offering expertise ranging from structural and acoustic design to computer science analysis. Pin-ups with experts from within the office but outside the team offer immediate feedback without impinging on creativity. And how is research then fed into design? At WeWork, a small team of researchers analyse performance of previous designs to inform design directors whether a space will sell quickly based on algorithmic analysis of hundreds of floor plans cross-referenced with sales data.

Public Practice’s associates are funded on a 90% work, 10% feedback cycle sponsored by local authorities; at the London School of Architecture students pay tuition fees to carry out research, which is then fed back into their host practices. OMA uses the output of its studios at Harvard to create published bodies of knowledge, which then become the foundation of its future projects; while Assemble makes it work by self-initiating projects based on research, which compels clients to take them on. All these models offer routes into research that can inform practices, and emphasises the mutual benefit of closer ties to academia.

Clients approach OMA because they want to be challenged on their assumptions or because they have a particularly challenging site that requires intensive research and iterations of suitable resolutions. This is a skill that all architects possess, and one that we should market as a unique skill to clients; it can win projects, and adds huge value to the design services we offer.

For architects in practices of all sizes, these lessons from companies and institutions of an impressive scale and resource can be applied. Ultimately, each person in a design team develops a significant body of knowledge with the potential to be disseminated not only within their team, but also to other teams in the same office, to professionals involved in the design process of other projects, and beyond to inform best practice across the industry and public policy.

Contributors to the symposium included Assemble, WeWork, Public Practice, OMA, Superflux, Ziona Strelitz, James Soane and The London School of Architecture. DSDHA will guest edit a special issue of Architectural Design magazine entitled ‘The Business of Research’­ (Spring 2019). 

Jessie Turnbull is an associate at MICA and teaches at the London School of Architecture.


 

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