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Fuelling the research engine

It benefits the profession and there are plenty of areas that could benefit from it, so how can architectural research be encouraged? Our expert panel discussed the issues

Everyone knows that research is a good thing, not only for the practices who carry it out, but for the profession in general. But why are so many architects ill-equipped to carry it out? What can be done to better match up practices with collaborators and funding? And what topics are ripe for research? These subjects were up for debate in a discussion about research hosted by the RIBA.

One of the first issues to emerge was what constitutes research. Participants wanted to make the distinction – that too often becomes blurred – between CPD, service for a client, and genuine research.

‘There’s a confusion between CPD and research,’ said Irena Bauman, director of Bauman Lyons. ‘For us, research is finding new knowledge and disseminating it to others.’ She added that true research should also involve a clear research question and methods, and be based on an in-depth understanding of the previous knowledge base.

While dissemination of research knowledge was seen as vital, this does not always come naturally to architects, whereas in other professions, such as law, there is an enormous amount of knowledge sharing.

‘Our profession is bedeviled by secrecy for fear of criticism and recrimination,’  said Cambridge University professor of architecture Alan Short, although several participants felt this was beginning to change.

While dissemination of research knowledge was seen as vital, this does not always come naturally to architects

One of the key barriers to research was the nature of architectural education, suggested Short, pointing out that most undergraduates, though potentially highly capable, are simply not taught research practices to the same degree as students of other disciplines. As a result, he added, the profession may be disadvantaged since it often does not produce the conventional research outputs that senior civil servants and other quasi-governmental bodies are used to. Nor are the brightest undergraduates likely to proceed to a graduate research degree since it would excessively delay entry to the profession.

Bauman stressed the importance of identifying a research question if you are to obtain funding for your research. ‘You have to have an interest in a subject, and research something very specific rather than an endless field,’ she said . ‘The research question is the beginning of where you go for funding.’

Anna Liu of Tonkin Liu talked about the importance of following instinct and intuition when identifying research questions that pursue the unknown and undefined. Her practice carried out research with Arup into the potential of a single-surface shell lace structure through a number of competition proposals before winning an RIBA research grant to develop this further.

This grant and an exhibition have already led to unexpected collaborations – for example, a tissue engineer has asked the practice to use the lace structure’s principles to design an insert for a trachea operation.

Not all practices are so successful at uniting funding with areas of interest, and the roundtable participants identified securing research partnerships and funding as a significant challenge. Anne Dye, who was chairing the discussion, asked what they thought might help  facilitate research partnerships between practice and academia.

While there was a general feeling that architects needed to do more to tap into the significant amount of built-environment research already being carried out at universities, several participants felt that more radical change was required.

Bill Dunster principal of ZEDfactory, was concerned about what he called ‘fake research’, which fulfills what funders want to hear, but doesn’t necessarily benefit clients or the profession. He called for architects involved in research to become more like shepherds with a clear direction of travel, rather than merely the sheep. To this end, he wanted the RIBA to step in to encourage peer review of research with universities and professional expertise.

‘As the learned institute, the RIBA should be the forum to look at research and challenge it openly,’ agreed David Saxby, co-founder of Architecture 00, who also made the distinction between intrinsic research, where an architect is developing their personal agenda, and extrinsic research, where the research is driven by an identified need or deficit of knowledge.

Dunster also wanted the RIBA to take a more active role in procuring funding and directing research.

‘Why doesn’t the RIBA approve a research topic, and organise a series of parallel research projects with other professional bodies to give collaborative, coordinated diverse responses?’ he asked. ‘Bringing everyone together would be an exciting, creative opportunity.’

‘Dissemination is easy. Quality control is the issue – that’s where peer review comes in’ – David Saxby

Short said it was possible to obtain funding for research with a significant design component as long as the exercise was constructed in an established research format with all its procedures and checks. He suggested the creation of a new research council which would identify areas for design research, and then directly fund them using money set aside by the government or the EU.

Most architects had no idea where EU research funding was going, said Dunster, adding that it was important that the research outcomes were disseminated and made available to busy practitioners.

There was also a need for architects to get closer to funders such as Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board), which recently earmarked £50 million for its Future Cities Catapult programme.

Saxby said there was a need for a brokering of partnerships to help small practitioners who wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to pursue research grants. Even understanding the bureaucratic intricacies of the necessary form-filling can be a barrier to putting bids together, he added, although Bauman thought that these wouldn’t be insurmountable for anyone used to dealing with PQQs.

Saxby also suggested the idea of ‘hackathon’-style events, where architects agree a challenge and a data set, and work intensively over a short period. This might appeal to young architects, and could subsequently lead to resulting ideas being further developed with research grants.

All agreed on the importance of disseminating research. With the internet, this was no longer restricted to academic journals. Saxby’s practice, Architecture 00, publishes under Creative Commons, and has an open-source approach to its research. It recently had 1.5 million views for a 15-minute video on its digitally manufactured WikiHouse.

‘As long as someone takes the research, uses it, and then adds to the knowledge by sharing again, we don’t have a problem with it,’ said Saxby.

But too much information – or as Dunster put it, ‘web-based rhubarb’ – can be a problem in itself when it comes to navigation.

‘Dissemination is easy,’ said Saxby. ‘Quality control is the issue – that’s where peer review comes in.’

There was no shortage of ideas for areas of architectural research. Saxby suggested accessing on a human level the Smart City agenda of using data-driven systems to deliver efficiencies – for example in carbon output and resource consumption. Harnessed from the bottom-up, such technology could give citizens new choices for different behaviour, he said. Another important area was defining the metrics of the built environment so that they take account of human experience and building use.

Liu wanted to further explore biomimicry and how architects could learn from nature at all sorts of scales. Short suggested reviewing and reinventing key traditional building types, such as the deep-plan hospital and the glass office building, in the light of new knowledge on subjects such as airborne infection.

‘Reinventing the hospital is a huge exercise with enormous collaborative opportunities,’  he said.

Post-occupancy evaluation (POE) was identified as another area of great research potential but, thought participants, was being held back by lack of funding. The RIBA is looking into the role of professional indemnity insurers in encouraging POE, and Bauman wondered whether it might be possible for practices to use R&D tax credits to finance extra work in this area.

Despite funding challenges, it is clear that many architects are extensively engaged in research. Bauman felt that architects were ‘incredibly well-placed’ to carry out rigorous research and make a valuable contribution to the research community.

Chaired by Anne Dye, RIBA head of technical research

Alan Short
Alan Short is professor of architecture at the University of Cambridge. His research group develops prototypes for very low-energy, non-domestic buildings across the world’s principal climate zones within both present-day and future climates. Recent research includes the resilience of hospitals, and the opportunities for adaptation to changing climates. He won the first RIBA President’s Award for Outstanding Practice-Located Research in 2007.

Bill Dunster
Bill Dunster is principal of ZEDfactory, which specialises in the design of low-carbon, low-impact buildings. Current research includes the commercial viability of delivering affordable public and private sector housing with zero net annual energy bills. Its findings challenge government and industry-funded positions that suggest higher environmental performance standards are not commercially viable. ZEDfactory is also researching whole-life performance for climate-neutral development.

David Saxby
David Saxby is co-founder of Architecture 00, a cooperative architectural practice with a focus on sustainable design. It is notable for designing the WikiHouse, the first open-source, digitally manufactured two-storey house. Architecture 00’s research includes open-source architecture, digital design and manufacturing, and the future of housing.

Anna Liu
Anna Liu is a founding partner of Tonkin Liu. The practice was recently awarded an RIBA research grant for the continued development of Shell Lace Structure, an ultra-light, single-surface structure it is developing with Arup.

Irena Bauman (via Skype)
‎Irena Bauman is professor of sustainable urbanism at the Sheffield School of Architecture, and director of Bauman Lyons Architects. She has completed two research projects on climate change adaptation strategies for commercial buildings, and is researching Retrofitting Neighbourhoods: Designing for Resilience, which will be published by RIBA Publishing in September. Her office is also researching a digitally fabricated building system.

Researching research

While architects consider research to be intrinsic to their work, there is very little separately funded research activity in architectural practices, and few practices access public research funds.

That is one of the main findings of How Architects Use Research – Case Studies From Practice, a new RIBA report which looks at how practising architects view research.

It found that linkages to academic and other research organisations and knowledge bases are quite weak and, where they do exist, are generally based on individual relationships.

Research is mostly focused on individual building projects, and is therefore largely funded through marginal elements of project fees. It is usually technical or functional in nature, with popular areas including environmental sustainability, energy efficiency and research into materials, products and construction techniques. Post-occupancy evaluation is also emerging as an important area.

Architects included in the report include PRP Architects, which was the only practice interviewed that took advantage of major government R&D funding, and Axis, which uses research to develop its practice around Passivhaus methods.

How Architects Use Research – Case Studies From Practice is published this month by the RIBA..


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