Architectural Research: Design or Research

I have always been keen on the contribution of research to the advance of architecture. I chair Be (Collaborating for the Built Environment), which is doing major research work, and I’ve previously assessed proposals for the EPSRC. So I’m strongly behind the start-up of a research department at the RIBA, directed by Keith Snook and with Professor Alan Penn of the Bartlett.

The aim is to link practice and the research community, matching needs and broking relationships so that academia does more relevant research and practice gets what it seeks. There is a great need to produce more evidence of the way buildings create or destroy value for occupiers. This will be my emphasis in advising the programme.

However, this step forward uncovers some knotty problems. Architects think of research as being inherent in design, not only in the work done to establish need and uncover solutions, but in innovation in the project.

The academic world sees research as “off-line” and expressed in refereed papers alone. The Research Assessment Exercise, which recently marked all architectural school research as below the excellent level, did so on the basis of papers alone, as if architectural research were physics or philosophy. But Penn believes that UK schools’ research is excellent and the assessment method defective.

So we have a design problem. How do we distinguish between work to advance understanding and support innovation and that done to execute a building project? The industry doesn’t have the luxury of a significant off-line research activity and, indeed, the most stimulating environment for innovation is often the project with an unprecedented need. Take the Eden Project, where some really “stretch” objectives led to remarkable on-the-job R&D. Or Bedzed, which demonstrated several sustainable concepts in a unique way. Or Hampden Gurney School, which reinvented the building type for today’s inner city. None of these are research-based in the academic sense. All of them are in the architectural sense.

The government’s view of research as the necessary source for innovation is also confounded by design-based innovation. Where is our research so we can have tax relief on it?

Reith lecturer Donald Schon tried to define how professionals do their thinking with the phrase “reflection in action”. This is the idea that our trained minds decide on the optimum compromise between part-understood factors by experience-enhanced judgment. We inject our ideas into the problem cluster, both solving it and adding intellectual and artistic stimulus. We are researching, often intuitively, as we explore the problem. We “develop”, in the R&D sense, as we work out the technical consequences of our ideas.

Practice needs academe to support and track this kind of work, making the learning more available and rigorous. Academe needs to develop ways of assessing “reflection in action”, not just classic off-line work. As most research papers say in their conclusions, “this subject needs more research”.

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