Changing practices: collaboration and sharing

Interdisciplinary work could be key to the design work of the future, suggests Sofie Pelsmakers in the third of our series on the changing shape of practices

Snohetta's ZEB pilot house.
Snohetta's ZEB pilot house.

What do architects think are the priorities for the next decade? A survey of 1,000 architects worldwide (with a large number from the UK), listed what they thought would be priorities in order of importance. These were: climate/energy/carbon; designing for social equity; building and materials re-use; ageing and health; and maintaining ethics and values.

Few of these issues can be tackled in architectural isolation; collaboration is required with other professionals and stakeholders. And how often are these priorities part of architectural education as studio briefs or what drives the architectural resolution? This both illustrates and perpetuates the gap between the needs of society itself and as highlighted for architectural practice.

When the Construction Leadership Council published a Sustainable Building Training Guide recently, the importance of inter-disciplinary collaboration was a theme at the launch, but training is still presented in professional silos. Collaboration is often not taught in schools, a lot of studio teaching is still focused on the individual’s design and not collaborative design or within a multidisciplinary team.

However, in the last few years, professional institutions and the professions have been encouraged to work better together to jointly tackle responses to societal changes, as recommended in the Collaboration for Change report by the Edge Commission in 2015. At the recent Changing Shape of Architectural Practices conference in Denmark, the benefits of collaboration were clear from several projects, including those already illustrated by some of the work of KieranTimberlake on validation, where new knowledge was created by trans-disciplinary approaches.

Snøhetta presented an example of interdisciplinary research-based design, where it collaborated with Skanska and Harvard University on HouseZero, the proposed transformation of a 1980s building. While this solution may be more easily transferable and its performance is expected to be technically impressive (both meeting its prototyping idea), it is less architecturally inspirational: its energy agenda seems to constrain its architectural language rather than push it.

Additionally, Snøhetta’s ZEB Multi-Comfort pilot house (for the Research Centre on Zero Emission Buildings) in Norway is a cooperation with Scandinavia’s largest independent research body SINTEF and others. The ZEB Multi-Comfort house design is moving away from environmental determinism and instead bringing together and integrating technology and architecture.

Nor does it forget experimental aspects (the design explores stacked firewood as external cladding) and a focus on the human experience. It points towards a renewed focus on architectural design and delight, alongside meeting high energy performance standards, highlighting that the two are not mutually exclusive and should never be.

Clearly reflection, investigation, iteration and testing are part of any practice’s forging of new roles and models. The internal dissemination of this work (and establishment of an internal research database) is crucial to allow for the maturing of these approaches and for the knowledge to be applied in other projects. This work should also be published and shared externally; at the moment this does not happen systematically or effectively, so the profession is missing out on a wider dialogue and reflection.

NonConform do their bit of sharing.
NonConform do their bit of sharing.

Clearly we need to get better at undertaking research (systematic, specific) and communicating it (publishing). It has to be shared and used by other people; not just colleagues in the same office. But where do we share it? Professor Doina Petrescu of the University of Sheffield and Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée raised the problem that there are few places to publish this kind of research and that we ‘need to build up our infrastructureas a community.

One reason why we fail to share much as a profession is the fear that others will copy. Bartlett professor Murray Fraser made a plea to get over this stumbling block: ‘If we do it collectively, we all do better; rather than all fight against each other. It is not just about being individual and think we are unique.’

Fraser also noted that as architects we often spend too long talking about ourselves, and not long enough about what we are doing. Perhaps this is why we know of only a few architects who undertake design validation and interdisciplinary work and who share how they work, though there might be more.

Several projects from both Foster + Partners and Henning Larsen, under the research and sustainability leadership of Irene Gallou and Signe Kongebro respectively, come to mind, as do several Architype projects). As KieranTimberlake’s Billie Faircloth says:: ‘It is a mode and increases the agency of the architect.’ This type of dialogue might also bring new projects and clients interested in investigating certain areas.

Dr Sofie Pelsmakers is an architect and educator and author of The Environmental Design Pocketbook


The changing shape of architectural practices conference (2017) was held at Aarhus School of Architecture (AAA). It was the third of a series of events. The research project originated in 2010 by Professor Fredrik  Nilsson at Chalmers University in Sweden and Professor Michael Hensel at AHO and culminated with a The Changing Shape of Practice: Integrating Research and Design in Architecture and another publication due in 2018.