Blueprint Innovation: Architects + Research


Research and practice have rarely had much to do with each other in architecture. But an increase in the number of practices, of all sizes, whose investment in research has paid off not just in enriching their working environment but also in the scope and scale of their paid projects, could signal a welcome sea change


Words Veronica Simpson

Research is the bedrock of creativity. The immersion that most architecture students experience at college - delving deep into the historical, spatial, aesthetic, urban, geographic, cultural and sociological contexts within which their work will sit - is vital for their evolution into socially responsive and effective professionals. And yet how often does that undergraduate investigative zeal get extinguished in the first few years of practice, as they spend their days, weeks and months at the coalface, redesigning ceiling plans? How many practices do anything to keep that flame alive?

Richard Ogle, author of Smart World, is convinced that a sense of ongoing curiosity and engagement with the world around you is vital to creative practice. He argues that the ‘reach and reciprocity’ approach to learning - where you start with core knowledge, but constantly venture out to learn new things that you can then integrate back into that knowledge base, in an iterative process of ‘expansion and integration’ - is what makes truly smart individuals, organisations and civilisations.

Is it any surprise that OMA, one of the ‘smartest’ practices out there, is also one of the few with an overt commitment to broad-ranging investigations beyond the commercial brief?

One of AMO director Reinier de Graaf’s favourite AMO projects is the speculative creation of a European energy grid, which redefined Europe not as a series of 27 countries, but a limited series of energy regions that collaborate and cooperate with each other, to supply what the other is lacking at the moment it’s neededOne of AMO director Reinier de Graaf’s favourite AMO projects is the speculative creation of a European energy grid, which redefined Europe not as a series of 27 countries, but a limited series of energy regions that collaborate and cooperate with each other, to supply what the other is lacking at the moment it’s needed

Its multidisciplinary Think Tank, AMO, aims to ‘fertilise architecture with intelligence’ from the worlds of fashion, media, politics, sociology and economics. But AMO director Reinier de Graaf, says: ‘I’m not even sure that what we do is research. AMO was a vehicle for us architects to be less egocentric. It’s embedded in our work: whenever we did competitions or new typologies we thought about it a hell of a lot. The creation of a separate organisation was to bring that kind of preparation to the forefront, to make it visible in its own right, to give it its own independent economic life.

‘For me the most interesting AMO projects are those you would never have thought an architect could do, which really go into domains where we’re not invited.’ De Graaf cites a recent challenge to solve Europe’s energy problems via a European energy grid. ‘We redefined Europe not as a series of 27 countries, but a limited series of energy regions that help each other; they enter a situation of mutual complementarity and supply what the other is lacking at the moment they need it.’

Though AMO’s remit is not about garnering new clients, its rigour and enthusiasm has attracted an eclectic range of investigative commissions. ‘None of the clients that entertain us know exactly what they’re in for,’ says de Graaf. ‘Often we stretch out the whole question we’re asked and they get a little bit more than they bargained for. But they stick around.’

One of the refreshing qualities the think tank allows AMO to bring to its client relationships - certainly in comparison to the more traditional architect role - is humility. Says de Graaf: ‘Even though at times we make grandiose statements, we’re not afraid to admit when we don’t know. We’re assertive in demonstrating our own insecurities. It’s a vehicle for us to learn. In the contemporary world, teaching and learning, instructing and absorbing have become completely blurred domains.’ AMO, he says, ‘is an ideal vehicle to combine working and learning. It’s a vehicle to get ourselves in tune with the wider world and, hopefully, as a result of that, be of greater use to our clients’.

Cullinan Studio’s Weald and Downland Gridshell structure, a pioneering kind of building arrived at via experimentationCullinan Studio’s Weald and Downland Gridshell structure, a pioneering kind of building arrived at via experimentation

There are other large practices - for example Gensler and Aedas - which have embedded research into their DNA, but they tend to focus on sectors where they already have a significant client base. In this way, it can be seen as somewhat self-serving and not that different from the way in which any architect should be expected to investigate a project’s contexts before proposing a solution. They just do so on a bigger scale, justified by their workforce and bank balances.

Cullinan Studio’s Weald and Downland Gridshell structure, a pioneering kind of building arrived at via experimentationThe Weald and Downland Gridshell structure taking shape

For some, research is a tool for differentiation as well as inspiration. Hawkins\Brown, a London-based practice with more than 150 staff, launched thinktank in the spring of 2014, to celebrate its 25th birthday. Headed by Darryl Chen, the thinktank team has recently expanded to three, taking on the architect and former LSE academic Michael Riebel - to help develop a research programme that could marry the pragmatics of real-life practice with the rigour of academic analysis.

Cullinan Studio’s Weald and Downland Gridshell structure, a pioneering kind of building arrived at via experimentationCullinan Studio’s Weald and Downland Gridshell structure

One of the first thinktank projects was an examination of the kinds of housing emerging from current design guidelines. Says Chen: ‘We wondered if regulation does produce an aesthetic without even intending to.’ Using a survey produced by London’s forum for built environment professions - New London Architecture (NLA) - it published The Emperor’s New Housing, exploring how new models could disobey guidelines but offer real solutions to housing issues. Says Chen: ‘This research led to some really interesting conversations with clients.’ The findings pointed to four interesting new types of housing that might solve problems - including co-housing and shell & core residential - which are indeed growing in popularity. And this undoubtedly helped secure the practice a commission to develop and inform a brief for a commercial client looking to build residential developments within science campuses.

H\B has also partnered with the Centre for London thinktank, to explore the idea of mapping what it is that helps to create and sustain ‘innovation districts’ in London. And a Creative Ecology project looking at new kinds of workplace that encourage innovation and interaction has led to a collaboration with Buro Happold to develop a workplace tracking tool that can analyse building usage in order to clarify optimum spacings, flows and choreographies. Says Chen: ‘We didn’t set out to make money - at least not directly. We’re an overhead for the practice, but we always wanted to increase the design capability.’

Nonetheless, the thinktank’s existence has put the practice on the radar for new kinds of work, including a commission from the RIBA for the development of a digital briefing tool that can enable small and medium-sized practices to conduct a form of Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) - ‘It’s not a full POE but a simple, usable tool to catalyse discussions about outcomes,’ says Chen. This will be launching this summer.

Cullinan Studio’s Weald and Downland Gridshell structure, a pioneering kind of building arrived at via experimentationCullinan Studio’s Weald and Downland Gridshell structure, a pioneering kind of building arrived at via experimentation

Research for smaller to medium-sized practices is always easier to justify where an economic benefit or desirable evolution - or even a market necessity - is perceived, and this has led to some interesting collaborations between architects and manufacturers. Alison Brooks Architects (ABA) will be revealing at this year’s London Design Festival the fruit of ABA’s collaboration with the American Hardwood Export Council, exploring the structural potential of cross-laminated timber (CLT). Working with Arup, the practice has designed a large, arching tunnel which lifts at each end (hence its name, Smile) made from American tulipwood; it is the first-ever use of industrial-sized panels of hardwood CLT. As such, it heralds a new product, which could transform the way architects and engineers approach constructing in timber.

NBBJ, a practice with a strong record in public-sector buildings - especially healthcare - has launched a new research project around virtual-reality tools that allow architects to involve clients to a far greater degree in the design process; ideal for reassuring twitchy heads of NHS Trusts when it comes to innovative healthcare designs. And Aukett Swanke recently launched a concept for a new kind of hybrid workspace, which resulted directly from its own in-house R&D project looking into current and future workplace trends, titled From the Nursery to the Boardroom.

The proposed hybrid space is a huge but highly adaptable and interactive office space where start-ups and larger organisations can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way, with distinct zones that can be adopted and adapted for a whole range of work, leisure and residential uses. This is, of course, a case of research trying to stay ahead of - or predict - market shifts, within a sector that a practice is highly invested in. The same is true of ShedKM’s recent innovation, in collaboration with its long-term developer partner Urban Splash: the creation of affordable, prefabricated housing. HoUSE is a new kind of terraced development which allows buyers to configure their layouts according to their needs and tastes. The first 43 HoUSE units - volumetric timber pods - are now being delivered to the canal-side site, in Manchester’s New Islington.

Cullinan Studio, however, has embedded research as part of its ethos, from its early years - when the practice numbered eight as opposed to today’s 40 - thanks to the enthusiasms of practice founder Ted Cullinan, says senior practice partner Robin Nicholson, who joined in 1979. Through experimentation, the practice has pioneered new kinds of building, such as the first timber gridshell built in the UK (the Weald and Downland Gridshell structure, completed 2002). Says Nicholson: ‘We now have a new Research and Initiatives Group of younger members/ partners who have written themselves a brilliant mission - “to lead - rather than follow - the market by creating initiatives that improve the quality and relevance of our work for a broader client base”.’

Their projects include a flat-pack school (the first prototype is on site in Swindon), as well as a partnering approach to land development for housing; for this, they have established a working group with five practices including engineers Hoare Lea and property agents Savills, to design a new form of housing delivery that will mitigate against London’s unaffordability. There is also an Innovate-UK funded Immersive Visualisation In Construction (IVIC) scheme, which incorporates projectors and screens to allow sophisticated virtual planning of buildings pre-construction. This is being trialled at Warwick University at the National Automotive Centre.

Cullinan Studio’s Weald and Downland Gridshell structure, a pioneering kind of building arrived at via experimentationInside Cullinan Studio’s Weald and Downland Gridshell structure

If you embed research into your culture, the opportunities follow - or you find a way to make them happen. Even tiny companies, such as Tonkin Liu for example, can seize initiatives offered by competitions. Tonkin Liu was a three-person team (directed by Anna Liu and Mike Tonkin) seven years ago, when it entered an Arup competition to design a shelter. Shell Lace Structure was what resulted: a material and form that combines the strength, lightness and resilience of seashells with the crafted precision of fine tailoring and digital design tools. It didn’t win the competition but it did attract the attention of Arup engineer Ed Clarke who worked with the pair over many subsequent competition entries, which allowed them to explore other typologies - bridges, even large-scale building extensions - through which to test and develop the idea. In 2014, thanks to a small research grant from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the firm was able to develop the idea further, to produce both an RIBA exhibition and a book.

Success has slowly followed in the form of commissions, first with one ornamental gate structure, then an urban bridge. Now, Anna Liu says they have been given two new projects. ‘Since the exhibition and after one of the talks at the RIBA, a collagen scientist approached us to design a stent for air passages, which has now been awarded an Innovate UK grant. The other project is a 10m-tall sculpture situated in Hull that we hope to complete by March 2017. It’s part of the Hull City of Culture commissioning.’

Alison Brooks Architects will reveal Smile in September’s London Design Festival. The practice collaborated with the American Hardwood Export Council and Arup, using industrial-sized panels of hardwood CLTAlison Brooks Architects will reveal Smile in September’s London Design Festival. The practice collaborated with the American Hardwood Export Council and Arup, using industrial-sized panels of hardwood CLT

Ben Adams Architects, another London-based firm, has encouraged all of its staff to pursue their research passions from the early days, when they only had a dozen to now, when there are 50. Says Ben Adams: ‘It’s something we set out to do from day one… Rather than giving it [specific] time or money we’re very much project-led. We’ll say, “Look, if there’s something you’re interested in pursuing and you can write a proposal and there’s an institution willing to sponsor it in some way then we’ll back it.” Lots of our competitors may have had that ambition, and may have started doing research with the best of intentions, but it seems [they] get led into design research around a particular type of building or form or material. It becomes part of what you should do anyway, as a reasonably intellectual design-led practice.

There didn’t seem to be many practices that allowed people interested in research to go where they needed to go. We invest money in all sorts of non-profitable things, and research ought to be one of them because it will bear fruit in all sorts of ways.’ One of the fruits this pro-research stance has resulted in is a PhD and a book from Adams’ co-director Nicholas Jewell, published in 2015. Titled Shopping Malls & Public Space in Modern China it was inspired by investigations Jewell conducted after he and Adams spent some time in China, and became fascinated with the way in which Western building types - skyscrapers, shopping malls, mixed-use blocks - were giving rise to interesting cultural adaptations and hybrids, as they are assimilated into Chinese urban landscapes.

NBBJ uses technology to help clients visualise buildings while designs are in progressNBBJ uses technology to help clients visualise buildings while designs are in progress

A current BAA research project involves analysis of three global cities - LA, Shanghai and London - ‘to ask key questions about their underlying form and structural similarities’, says Jewell. This research has confirmed the practice’s belief that there is much that could be learned in LA from London’s approach to the regeneration and repurposing - rather than demolition - of good 20th-century buildings. This in turn has given the practice the confidence to set up an LA office, which should be operational by August of this year.

Education of course has a vital role to play in establishing the idea that research is an ongoing and meaningful part of any architecture practice. It’s a topic close to Flora Samuels’ heart. Formerly head of Sheffield School of Architecture, she is currently helping to develop a more multidisciplinary, research-rich approach at Reading School of Architecture that brings together all the key built-environment disciplines (the first cohort year begins this September). Having been on the RIBA’s research board - and recently appointed RIBA’s Ambassador for Innovation - her key mission has been to explain the reciprocal benefits of research and practice to the profession. Even the most pragmatic and intelligible kinds of research - the Post Occupancy Evaluation - is rarely or barely attempted, she says: ‘So many architects pay lip service to the idea of it, and yet very few actually take the time and trouble to conduct investigations to show how effective their designs have been.

‘One of the reasons why people don’t do POE research is the fear that it would impact on their insurance. I talked to an insurer and they said the opposite would be true - that if the architect could demonstrate the effectiveness of their work, indemnity could be reduced. That would be a huge advantage.’ The RIBA is apparently about to make a statement to that effect, in the hope of encouraging the practice.

A new RIBA publication, co-authored by Samuel and the RIBA’s head of technical research Anne Dye, was launched late in 2015. Called Demystifying Architectural Research: Adding Value to Your Practice, it sets out through simple, case-study examples, how the two can work hand in hand. Research is clearly creeping up the RIBA agenda, with the recent launch of the RIBA President’s Award for Research. Samuel has also ‘put forward to the RIBA council that it should become a completely new, research-orientated organisation and a hub of knowledge for the profession. This has been unanimously passed and now it’s gone into the Advancing Architecture RIBA strategy document. Now there has been a change of CEO we may actually see this bear fruit.’

NBBJ uses technology to help clients visualise buildings while designs are in progressNBBJ uses technology to help clients visualise buildings while designs are in progress

Access to the not insubstantial body of research that exists - which has always been a problem - has improved recently, with the launch of the Arena-Architecture online journal, an opensource vehicle for sharing knowledge. But there are still problems to be overcome - chief among them, according to RIBA research expert Dye, is ‘a big language barrier between practising architects and architecture and built-environment academics. It’s been broken down in some places but not universally. This will change as the open-access movement changes pace.’

The complexities of language and cultural barriers between practitioners, academics, clients and users are a topic at Sheffield University, where live architecture projects have been running for the past 20 years. Says Sarah Wigglesworth, who has been teaching there throughout this period: ‘These architectural education projects have been fantastic. They have really questioned the traditional role of the architect and changed the way we think about architects and their agency in the built environment.

But I’m running a three-year project called DWELL - Designing for Wellbeing: Environments for Later Life - and what I’ve found is that you are constantly dealing with language issues, methodological differences, differences in what people value as outputs, different drivers in terms of career paths. Coming from a school that prides itself on its ability to talk to all sorts of different people, I know that sometimes it’s hard to find a shared territory around these issues. Planners have their own ways of doing things. Sociologists have their own ways. They are speaking to their own communities because that’s where their validation comes from. So bringing it together is very difficult under current circumstances.’

Cullinan studio’s innovative Holy Cross Primary School, which has a modular timber gridshell structural frame is simple to fabricate offsite and then erect in situCullinan studio’s innovative Holy Cross Primary School, which has a modular timber gridshell structural frame is simple to fabricate offsite and then erect in situ

Language - or cultural - barriers aside, Professor Susannah Hagan, research leader at the Royal College of Art, feels that many more practices would be interested in dipping their toes into research if the funding opportunities were clearer. She says: ‘The culture of funding needs to be much more open-minded.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard how important it is to address climate change, for example, without anyone coming up with very imaginative responses. There’s a lot of innovation and talent out there [within the architectural profession] that finds it very hard to get funding.’ Sometimes it’s easier to approach the bigger architecture firms for the necessary research cash - Aedas recently sponsored one of Hagan’s PhD students, John Zhang, to examine the system used in China to educate architects and produce buildings, and explore how that impacts on outcomes.

Hagan wishes there was more collaboration between architects and academia - as there is in the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. ‘Most UK architects interested in research will usually bring it in-house. Very few architects think of going to schools. We have to try and get to them somehow.’ Dialogue between live practice and academic research is the ideal, says Hagan. ‘For us, affecting practice makes a lot more sense than talking to other academics and slowly disappearing up your own fundament.’

Aukett Swanke’s hybrid workspace, a direct result of its own in-house R&D project looking into workplace trendsAukett Swanke’s hybrid workspace, a direct result of its own in-house R&D project looking into workplace trends

Although The CASS and Sheffield may have been embedding research into live practice for years, it must be a sign of the changing times that new architecture schools - the recently launched London School of Architecture, plus Reading’s new school - are prioritising this in their curriculum. At Reading, says Samuel: ‘We’ve had a whole series of workshops to get practices in, to tell us what they need, what they want, around research teaching. We will have affiliated practices we do research with and which are part of the teaching cohort. There will be a much higher degree of integration.’

When it comes to demonstrating the benefits of integration, there are few better examplars than Sweden’s biggest practice, White Arkitektur. Almost 50 per cent of its international workforce (some 900 staff) will be involved in research at any one time, either within the office, or together with a wide number of academic partners. Malin Zimm, head of its research and development department, says: ‘Where OMA has a big research arm - AMO - it is something completely different.

What is special with White Arkitektur is that we use the word immersed… We are really close to practice. The research is conducted within the project. It’s part of our knowledge handling. White Arkitektur does not separate out the R&D department and point at research as something in a league of its own, looking at the future. It’s pretty much in the now and integrated with what is happening.’

Aukett Swanke’s hybrid workspace, a direct result of its own in-house R&D project looking into workplace trendsAukett Swanke’s hybrid workspace, a direct result of its own in-house R&D project looking into workplace trends

Sustainability has underpinned the practice’s research initiatives for decades. And it’s within the framework of social and environmental sustainability that the other strands of research appear to sit. For example, digital technology has its own research strand, called DSearch. But it’s not about the usual ‘smart’ narratives. Rather, the question is: ‘How can digital technology make the design of buildings safer, more effective, more creative?’ says Zimm. The manipulation and maximisation of daylight to achieve optimal lighting levels for energy efficiency and wellbeing has also been an enduring topic, as has the study of how the design and programming of healthcare buildings can be fine-tuned to improve patient wellbeing and recovery rates.

The practice’s careful husbandry and dissemination of the information that results has influenced subsequent buildings - for example this summer sees the opening of a new facility in Sweden, the New Karolinksa Solna University Hospital, in which its idea of ‘patient-centred healthcare’ comes to fruition, with each patient contained comfortably and safely within their own room, while all the clinicians come to them; the hospital will feature separate public and professional zones, and dedicated circulation to facilitate the smooth running of this new patient-first typology.

The careful husbandry of knowledge and intellectual resources has undoubtedly helped the practice land them large, experimental projects, such as the relocation of a entire mining community (Kiruna), a project that uses participatory design methodology to try and enhance community identity and engagement with its new location. Time and opportunity for research is maximised within the office - through its White Lab, which justifies architects investigating issues that the client brief and budget wouldn’t otherwise justify - as well as externally, through academic links.

In Kiruna, the relocation of a whole mining community, White Arkitekter says it used ‘participatory design methodology to try to enhance community identity and engagement with its new location’In Kiruna, the relocation of a whole mining community, White Arkitekter says it used ‘participatory design methodology to try to enhance community identity and engagement with its new location’

The ownership structure of White Arkitektur - a cooperatively owned practice - plays a huge part in setting the agenda here, as CEO Monica von Schmalensee states in an interview: ‘This is a very bottom-up organisation. The ownership that we have facilitates our putting a lot of money into R&D. But this is what architects want to do: to improve the quality of their work rather than have high salaries.’

Is she right? Undoubtedly some - the major architecture ‘brands’, whose ‘off the peg’ skyscrapers are now dotting the developing world regardless of their suitability to the cultural or climatic context, or those who scatter quick-fix, one-size-fits-all sheds for retail, office or education across the world - might disagree. But the rest, given the choice (and a living wage), would probably choose intellectual stimulation and satisfaction over economic enrichment. As Reinier de Graaf declares: ‘Ultimately, it’s a vehicle to satisfy your own curiosity. And curiosity is the most wonderful quality you can have as an architect.’





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