Research in Architecture
Viktor Koen

There’s no “setting and forgetting” when it comes to research in practice for Z Smith, AIA, a researcher with a physics background and a doctorate in engineering who is a principal and director of sustainability and building performance at New Orleans–based Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (EDR).

“Most design presentations are a string of hypotheses,” he says. “Now, with the rise in prominence of environmental architecture, they predict that the building will use less energy or less water. But the funny thing is that as I got into architecture I learned that architects almost never go back to find out if that is true.”

For the past five years, evidenced-based design has been a key to the success of EDR. Performing routine checkups (keeping tabs on energy bills) and deeper dives (quantifying the success or failure of collaborative space) both strengthen the case for research while providing results both trivial and profound. For instance, Smith says, collaborative space can be a complete flop just because the office coffee pot was removed for aesthetic reasons. “It looks really great in the photographs,” he says, “but it’s not really a cozy and comfortable space for two people.”

While research can become a budget line item, it certainly beats designing and wasting money based on hunches, he says. “My initial interest in doing research into achieved building performance well past the one-year warranty period was for building our credibility and winning the kind of work we want to win,” says Smith. “We like the jobs where the clients actually care how the buildings work.”

Research certainly has a long history in architecture, and Smith and his colleagues Andrea Love, AIA, director of Building Science at Boston’s Payette, and Colin Booth, associate designer at Sasaki Associates in Boston, will discuss how their firms have embraced research in a session titled “Three Firms’ Approach to Integrating Research Into Practice” at the AIA National Convention in Atlanta.

“Rather than trying to solve problems incrementally and bit by bit, each project is building on the knowledge of the previous projects,” says Love, who splits her time 50/50 between project design and research. That knowledge, too, differentiates Payette in their market, helping to position them as thought leaders on a number or research topics, like thermal bridging, for which the firm was awarded an AIA Upjohn Research Initiative Grant in 2012.

Love says the onus to solve the pressing issues laid out in the Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan, a report published by the AIA in 2014, is on the entire profession, not just the firms actively participating in research. To that end, Payette does not keep its findings secret. All of its research projects are posted to the firm’s website to “drive a culture committed to perpetual learning.”

While firms like Payette have spun off entire divisions devoted to research, Sasaki Associates is more democratic. Booth says the firm sets aside $100,000 each year for research projects, allocates smaller amounts for on-project research, and provides money for ideas that may turn into formal proposals. Anyone in the firm can propose a project and, once reviewed by the firm’s executive committee, a period of input and selection begins.

Spending firm dollars on research is one option, Booth says, but he also sees efforts underway for architects to reap the benefits of tax credits for research and design. Ideally, he’d like to see the profession enjoying the same benefits as other industries.

Regardless of how the work is fostered, Booth says that research is vital for a firm’s survival in today’s environment. “Innovation is the buzzword, but it does reflect the common understanding that change is the new normal,” he says. “Climate change is a much more widespread and accepted phenomenon in the U.S., and therefore we’re being asked by our clients, thankfully and finally, as designers to address the issue and plan for it in our designs, not just through mitigation but now also adaptation.”