Sarah Wigglesworth looks at some of the careers that architects are forging from practice-based research
Research in commercial practice, a day-long symposium exploring knowledge being generated within architectural practice, aimed to discover the motivations of such research and how it is managed, funded and used.
Amid concerns for the lack of rigour in its methodology, the difficulties of dissemination and commercial confidentiality, practices may not think of their work as research. Yet there is a lot out there and many ways of generating a research praxis. Professor Irena Bauman demonstrated in three projects how Bauman Lyons Architects has built its expertise for studying communities and neighbourhoods. What began as self-funded enquiry has spiralled into a study of the results of retrofitting a Bradford City Council housing estate, funded by the Technology Strategy Board.
By contrast, the research work of Christian Derix, representing Aedas, focusses on scripting computer programmes for use in design projects, funded by methods including direct commissions. The contrast between these two – small scale and global – demonstrates that size doesn’t matter. It’s the imagination that counts.
Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton and BACA’s Richard Coutts have both constructed a career from research. Waugh’s work is fired by passion for cross-laminated timber, while Coutts’ is based on a rigorous enquiry into architecture’s response to the inevitability of flooding under global warming. To build Murray Grove flats – at nine storeys, the tallest timber building in the UK – Waugh formed an alliance with manufacturer KLH, and in the process challenged a range of regulatory assumptions.
Meanwhile Coutts sought government funding and has become the architectural authority on flooding. Both have documented their work, raising its profile and authority.
Learning from mistakes
Penoyre & Prasad’s Greg Penoyre and John Allan of Avanti offered contrasting approaches, the former describing how his practice’s research interests began by small refinements through a succession of projects for healthcare and other civic services (for more see left). His honesty in explaining how mistakes have led to improvements is something few of us are prepared to declare in a public forum. Allan explored the meticulous construction of Avanti’s expertise, starting with his dissertation on Lubetkin’s work while still a Sheffield student, which has led to a lifetime’s work on the conservation of modernist buildings, several books and close associations with organisations such as DoCoMoMo. Perhaps of all the speakers, Allan’s work is a textbook example of how to turn one’s passions into both a viable career and at the same time pass on a legacy for future scholars and practitioners.
It was evident in this stimulating day of discussions that creating new knowledge is a way to raise our game, take control of our own destiny and add value to what we create for clients and users. We aim to celebrate the things that drive forward the knowledge-base of the discipline – and business – by holding another conference next year.
Sarah Wigglesworth is professor of architecture at Sheffield School of Architecture and founder of Sarah Wigglesworth Architects. She organised the Research in Commercial Practice symposium with Satwinder Samra and Stephen Leighton in June