Left jittery by the oil embargo of 1973, and working in the shadow of the oncoming energy crisis that 1979 would eventually bring, architects were greeted with a graphic of a purple sun rising above the eaves of a home on the cover of the inaugural issue of Research & Design, a short-lived quarterly publication produced by the AIA Research Corp. from 1978 to 1980.
While it would exist for only another two years (nine issues in total), the magazine represented a big step forward for presenting research—long written off as the domain of stuffy academics in starched lab coats—in an accessible manner to a profession that was slowly beginning to realize its necessity.
“Research & Design was intended to build an appetite and habit among architects for learning about and using reliable, meaningful research,” says Thomas Vonier, FAIA, who, for three years, was an administrator at the AIA Research Corp., overseeing a portion of the staff that was working on several millions of dollars of research related to energy conservation and seismic safety.
Founded in 1972 and headed by John Eberhard, FAIA, the AIA Research Corp. was envisioned by the AIA as a vehicle to takeon architecture and urbanism research projects as a successor to the AIA Urban Design & Development Corp., founded in 1969 and shuttered in 1972. By the late 1970s, the AIA Research Corp. focused its efforts on the government grants made available during the Carter administration, working predominantly on energy conservation with government agencies such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Most research in the buildings sector was, and still is, about improving the technical basis of product manufacture—making better widgets, windows, doorknobs, claddings, and so on faster, at lower cost, and sometimes for greater reliability and performance,” Vonier says. “The research that interested us was directed at improving overall building performance in terms of human factors and requirements: comfort, safety, functionality, economy of operation, and productivity, among others.”
During its first five years, the Research Corp. proved that, regardless of whether or not architects accepted research as a valuable piece of their practice, it was undeniably big business. Under Eberhard’s direction, the Research Corp. grew into a $10 million, 60-employee business, and Research & Design-distributed to all AIA members, more than 9,000 design firms, and numerous design schools-was its mouthpiece.
In his opening letter in the magazine’s first issue, Eberhard mused that getting the profession to embrace research held the potential to double the $2.5 billion in architectural fees generated annually at the time, while laying out the magazine’s mission to “demystify research.”
“Without a doubt, that was our goal,” says James Scheeler, FAIA, who served as the AIA’s interim executive vice president during the Research Corp.’s heyday. “A lot of our members had the veil lifted on the mystique of research.”
While the AIA published The Journal of Architectural Research jointly with the Royal Institute of British Architects from 1972 to 1980, Research & Design was that drier publication’s more laid-back companion. In that first issue, dedicated to solar design, editor Kevin Green set Research & Design’s tone, presenting solar design concepts in a lighthearted, accessible, and readily digestible fashion while still respecting the work’s technical aspects.
The magazine briefly profiled Village Homes, a planned eco-friendly community in Davis, Calif., noting that it was not “just another free-spirited commune whose members feast on organic bean sprouts and drive around in pick-up trucks,” but rather a 70-acre subdivision that was implementing smart solar design features such as north–south orientation, narrower roads that minimized the amount of heat absorbed and re-radiated into the environment, and rooftop solar collectors.
Later in the first issue, in the feature piece that surmised the Research Corp.’s solar research and opinions, Green used as an example the hermetically sealed structure created to transport Ireland’s ancient Book of Kells during its late-1970s U.S. museum tour as a device to discuss modern design’s “very complex architecture based on very complex systems contrived to control climate for human comfort.”
According to Green, the magazine was, for most of its run, predominantly a two-man show. After being hired by Eberhard, Green turned to graphic designer Jack Beveridge, whose style graced the pages of publications such as Smithsonian and Saturday Review, to create the quarterly’s signature look. Fred Greenberg took over the graphic reins after Beveridge, and he became responsible for the production of the magazine, while Green interpreted the corporation’s research and presented it in his accessible style.
While there were a handful of architecture-focused magazines that existed at the time, none were taking a serious look at research, says Green, who left the architecture world in 2000, and has run a large floral and interior design business in suburban Washington, D.C., for the last 15 years.
“They would do technical features from time to time but nothing regular,” he says. “But there was always a big proportion of architects who were interested in technical issues, not to mention cutting-edge issues.”
Throughout its nine-issue run, Research & Design tackled a number of those issues, many of which are still being discussed in architectural publications today: seismic design, post-occupancy evaluation, and climate and architecture. The quarterly had an immediate impact. In a 1979 editor’s letter, Green noted that the publication’s very first issue generated more letters than the year’s most controversial issue of Time—based on the percentage of its readers—and requests for back issues quickly exhausted the Research Corp.’s supply. After having glossed over energy issues in a major article on new American architecture, Green noted, Newsweek was planning a piece on energy-conscious design, and Progressive Architecture magazine would present some of the Research Corp.’s techniques in its own pages.
Research & Design even drew the attention of British billionaire and book, magazine, and newspaper publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, whom Green recalls meeting as he toured the Research Corp.’s offices with Eberhard.
Unfortunately, Research & Design would end its brief run shortly after it began to generate significant traction. As quickly as President Carter’s solar panels were torn from the roof of the White House in 1980, the government grants dried up. Eberhard’s departure in 1978, and the AIA’s internal questioning regarding how much it should be directly involved in research, eventually led to the shuttering of the Research Corp., as well as Research & Design and The Journal of Architectural Research (both of which were almost completely grant-funded), in 1980.
Today, Research & Design has emerged from the Institute’s archive and lives on as PDFs available on aia.org which also heralds the AIA’s renewed commitment to research. In an attempt to create a spirit of collaboration between academics and practitioners, the Institute has, over the last decade, convened a handful of research summits and implemented two of its own research grant programs, something Vonier says was a key mission of the Research Corp.
The AIA has also partnered with the National Institute of Building Sciences to create the 21st-century descendant of Research & Design: the Building Research Information Knowledgebase (BRIK), a digital portal for peer-reviewed research and case studies. Earle Kennett, senior vice president and COO of the National Institute of Building Sciences, as well as a Research Corp. alum, says that the resource contains nearly 1,200 historical and contemporary papers and counts roughly 800,000 users.
A look through the abstracts generated by the AIA show that, nearly 40 years later, the work of the Research Corp. still reverberates, and many architects, academics, and building-science researchers continue to invest their intellectual capital into energy efficiency and building performance. As Vonier points out, however, sustainability mandates center squarely on both short-term goals and long-term impact on building inhabitants.
“Today,” he says, “we are better able to understand the effects of exposure to building materials and the urgent concerns of resiliency—in the form of resistance to disasters, deliberate attacks, and accidents—and see a much bigger picture about overall healthfulness.”
Read back issues of Research & Design at aia.org/practicing/research and visit the AIA’s Research Resource Center at aia.org/practicing/rrc.