I recently lectured architecture graduate students about the importance of research in architectural practice. More than a few of these students have yet to work in an architectural office, and given the importance we place on research within the academy, this talk probably seemed ridiculously obvious. Yet those of us who have practiced know how difficult it can be to find time for meaningful research endeavors in the workplace—much less the funding to support them. In this case, I am referring to general research that operates interdependently of projects; not the project-related research that architects know well and which constitutes the bulk of research in practice.
There are plenty of issues that need addressing beyond the scope of a typical project. Since we know that buildings contribute heavily to energy consumption, resource utilization, and related emissions, architects must be involved in developing more environmentally responsible design strategies for buildings. Industry transformations such as digital fabrication, building information modeling, and mass product customization also merit intensive study beyond the particular questions raised by a single project. We must also address social concerns and humanitarian efforts, including the so-called “design for the other 90%” movement, so that we can demonstrate architecture’s value beyond the sphere of the elite.
It’s relatively easy to make the case for general research, but it’s harder to implement in practice. Taking cues from other industries, architecture could do well to devote a target percentage of its operating budget to such endeavors. When possible, this money should come from non-project-based sources—like grants and tax credits—so that research efforts don’t become too great a financial burden. Although grant-seeking has not been a typical part of the practice of architecture, it should become a more integral component to our work. Fortunately, there is an increasing number of promising funding possibilities—from federal stimulus programs to the Latrobe Prize—that focus directly on architectural-related research. We can hope to reinforce this trend not only by increasing our participation in grant-funded research projects, but also by demonstrating the value that such research provides. In light of our current economic troubles, funded research will also send a hopeful message to today’s architecture students, who are worried about becoming a lost generation.