Fuel for innovation

The RIBA launches its review of research in practice later this month. We got a sneak preview of the findings

Architects are being urged to leverage the research skills that are already integral to the way they work. ‘Research is fuel for innovation, productivity and growth, but arguably the architectural profession has not fully engaged with research knowledge, resources and processes,’ says Adrian Dobson, director of practice at the RIBA. ‘Connections between academia and practice are quite weak in architecture.’

A series of interview-based case studies provides a snapshot of research activity in practice. It examines the impact of research knowledge on a practice’s performance and quality of work, and probes the areas of study in which firms are most interested and ­engaged. 

There were some key findings. Practices value research and consider it intrinsic to their work, with most of it focusing on the requirements of individual building projects: little is separately funded and few practices have access to public funding. Most research is technical or functional – frequent areas of interest are environmental sustainability and energy efficiency, analysis of precedents, and inquiry into materials, products and construction techniques. However, post-­occupancy evaluation is also emerging as an important research activity. 

Some practices use research in areas such as design theory, sociology and policy to develop their philosophical approach. Any broader programmes tend to focus on developing sector expertise which enhances credibility and provides competitive advantage. 

Research ranges from understanding client needs and evaluating project contexts, to assessing the performance characteristics of materials and building components. 

Where practices have a portfolio of work focused on a particular sector (or sectors) there was recognition of the value of specialist sector knowledge developed through broader research, not necessarily related to individual building projects, as a way of demonstrating expertise and differentiating themselves in the market place. A specific research knowledge base both informs work in a specific sector and is a useful marketing tool.

While most of this broader practice-based rather than project-orientated research was concentrated on technical and functional aspects, there were examples which were more geared towards design theory, sociological and policy matters. For some practices this was important in enabling them to develop a distinctive philosophy and demonstrate thought leadership. 

Larger practices had more compelling examples of formal engagement with academic and research institutions, which went beyond teaching or individual research. These firms showed an appreciation that research could be developed as a business service; part of a more diverse practice offer, which could broaden their market and generate new revenue streams. It is noteworthy that where practices were engaged with academic researchers this tended to be with individuals rather than at an institutional level. 

Because the project-focused nature of architectural practice tends to mean that research is mainly undertaken in relation to individual building projects, it is largely funded through marginal elements of project fees. Overall, links to research organisations and bases of research knowledge were often weak and ad hoc in nature. However, there is strong evidence of an increasing awareness of the potential role for research not just as part of project processes but as a distinct area of practice activity, which can be an additional revenue stream.

Dobson sees the emergence of lessons for both practices and the institute. ‘The report shows that the RIBA must work with architects to increase their research skills, and to match-make connections between practices and academia, so that they can benefit more fully from the rich variety of contemporary architectural research,’ he says.  

How Architects Use Research will be launched in January. 

How architects understand research

Practising architects can engage with research in a number of ways but the case study interviewees did not draw a clear distinction between these forms: 

• Research knowledge: the subject of the research, for example knowledge about sustainability principles and how they can be integrated, knowledge of which materials to use in a specific context. 

• Research processes: ways of researching and finding knowledge, for example site review, visit to an archive technology transfer. 

• Research resources: ways of accessing knowledge, for example a journal article, the archive itself, blogs or websites.