Who in the World does Research Anymore?

Research is an important part of the design process, and doing it right can make a big difference.

What is Research? In our age of information overload, does anyone have the time to do research? Does research lead to innovation, especially in the architecture practice? What is the future of research? How can the American Institute of Architects help? To find these answers and many more, the AIA Research Summit met this past summer in St. Louis. The delegation of 24 was split almost halfway between academicians and practitioners, with some AIA staff. It was a unique experience for me because research is not spoken in the same vocabulary or at the same level in my practice as was done at the summit. It is evident that academicians and practitioners see research with very different perspectives. Hence, the summit’s two distinct tracks of academic and applied research. The goal was to understand the similarities and dissimilarities among the two, form a connection between them, and make it easier for researchers to exchange information and learn from each other.

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Image by Lindsay Roffe at Ink Factory

Academic research focuses on gathering information and deducing specific conclusions. It generally tends to be lengthy as it includes background information such as method, experiments, data, and details in addition to the conclusions. Academics are striving to find new information and the results are rigorous. Applied research may be understood as simply doing a Google search, although it would not be considered serious “research” in academic terms. Applied research involves finding information, aggregating the facts, and applying them to practice. Practitioners look for concise abstracts and many are driven towards visual forms of information. Small firms have multi-skilled professionals who do research as part of their other activities. Most of the large firms today have dedicated researchers on staff, creating specialized deductions to be used in the design practice.  Although small firms spend limited amount of time in research, their projects don’t seem to require the level of research a large firm might need. Apart from all this, Terrence E. O’Neal, AIA holds that there is tacit knowledge held in the minds of researchers, which needs to be extracted before the baby boomers retire.

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Image by Lindsay Roffe at Ink Factory

Research is being done at many levels and the modes of research include observations, case studies, experiments testing comfort levels, interviewing, outcome based research of modeling and analysis, post occupancy evaluations (POE), surveys, life-cycle testing and analysis, evidence based design, quantitative data gathering, etc. The complexity of the topics, methods, and approaches can be simplified with a Pyramid structure, an outcome of the summit discussions, which allows everybody to share information.

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Image by Lindsay Roffe at Ink Factory

Meta analysis, a study of studies, is at the tip of the pyramid followed by experimental (with control), quasi-experimental (no control), comparison studies or POEs, case studies, benchmarking, expert opinion, best practices, tours with anecdotal info, and observation. These levels are based on the rigor and quality of research. Researchers of all backgrounds are able to penetrate and contribute to the pyramid at some level. Some research may be measured vs. modeled, i.e. built facility vs. simulation study.  Some may be peer reviewed vs. non-reviewed, but all are meant to have a literature review.

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Image by Lindsay Roffe at Ink Factory

For continued progress of our profession, sharing of information is the key. In Reg Prentice’s opinion, “applied research tends to get proprietary because practitioners need to have a competitive advantage. Although the surveys and conclusions may be shared, the database or software to do the analysis is not shared to avoid replication.” In academia, the research is judged by the method, whether it was rigorous or experimental. So there is in-depth sharing of information, including failed experiments. Firm practices tend to project success and show optimism. In order to gain the trust of clients, firms hide their failures. Unlike other professions, failures in architecture put lives in danger on the clients’ dime. Much of the information is shared as best practices, without calling it failures or lessons learned. In the quandary of these different approaches, where the intent is to share while the tendency is to hide, is where AIA can become the crucial conduit for information exchange. The AIA can fill the role of a “collector” of research and has already begun the process of developing a portal to collect research and knowledge through a partnership with the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS). One of the components of the initiative is the creation of the Building Research Information Knowledgebase (BRIK) as an interactive web portal or website that would serve as a bank of all types of research. Similar to Wikipedia, it will be designed for easy access, input, or comment. It will contain vital, robust, validated, reliable, replicable research with data and conclusions. Predictive and credible knowledge will be shared that may not necessarily be rigorous, but will be curated, trustworthy and useful. It will allow sharing of information and links internally and externally. It will track the number of downloads, and users will be able to rank and score their research focus and hold conversations.  The site is scheduled to launch in early January and announced at the NIBS Conference in DC on January 9.

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Image by Lindsay Roffe at Ink Factory

While the design for BRIK is being envisioned, it would be prudent to keep in mind the future audience. To avoid creating a site that gets outdated before it is launched, the design team should involve the young generation in their 20’s. The upcoming generation of Twitter and Pinterest users is very visual with not enough time to read lengthy treatises. As Gerald (Butch) Reifert FAIA put it, “sometimes less rigorous research and water cooler discussion is where innovation occurs.” It would be essential to make the information available in various lengths: one-sentence abstract, one paragraph, single page, and the complete research paper. The format should be interactive with diagrams and photographs as applicable. Similar to the Khan Academy, videos should be integrated. The published material should focus on the reader and user who would apply the knowledge towards further research or practice benefiting the clients. Just like the medical, engineering, and other fields that share their research and build upon each other’s findings, when the members of AIA begin sharing their research through BRIK, the entire membership and profession will benefit from the increased value of collective research.


Deepika Padam, AIA, LEED AP bd+c is a registered architect based in San Francisco, California. She is the 2011-2012 Communications Advisor for the National AIA Young Architects Forum.

Categories: Architecture, Sustainability

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