In architecture, it can be difficult to determine where research ends and practice begins. In sectors such as medicine and aerospace, research is distinct from the rest of the business. But architectural research tends to mix with practice. Some argue that design and research are intertwined—that architects are conducting research as their design process leads them to better understand the site and other peculiarities of the project. In this guise, all design is a form of research.

While design may be considered as a form of research, not all research is a form of design. Ajla Aksamija, leader of Perkins+Will’s Tech Lab and co-organizer for this year’s Architectural Research Centers Consortium, says that differentiating between actual research and mere marketing is essential. Firms may claim to do research as part of their design initiatives, but historically, few firms have actually invested in research.

That appears to be changing, albeit slowly. “In the last decade, we have seen an increase in practices that are integrating research into their design processes and services,” Aksamija says. “The current technological innovation and complexity of design processes are requiring more research and integration between specialists.”

Recent technological innovations have given rise to a number of specializations within architecture firms. Practices now employ computational design specialists, material consultants, and sustainability experts. These are all jobs that largely didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago. And these experts don't have an established body of knowledge to work from. Instead, they are developing the knowledge pro re nata—or, as it's required.

A rendering of an aerial view of the The Living's Hy-Fi, the winning design of the 2014 Young Architects Program
Courtesy The Living A rendering of an aerial view of the The Living's Hy-Fi, the winning design of the 2014 Young Architects Program

David Benjamin, co-founder of The Living (which was acquired by Autodesk last summer) and director of Columbia University’s Living Architecture Lab, stands in this nexus between research and architecture. Regarding The Living’s 2014 installation (above) for the Museum of Modern Art P.S. 1 Young Architects Program competition, which was constructed from biodegradable bricks of fungus, Benjamin says, “There is no drop-down selection box for ‘mushroom material’ in structural analysis software.” To complete the project, he had to get his hands on the bricks to understand their architectural potential and to test their material performance. This type of research is typical for Benjamin, whose practice frequently integrates developments in material science, biology, and design computation.

Aksamija joined Perkins+Will in 2008 to lead the firm’s then-newly formed Tech Lab. Its research into high-performance design, sustainability, and computational design frequently appears in Perkins+Will’s peer-reviewed research journal, which features studies whose topics range from the effects of therapeutic gardens on children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to those that measure how lean construction affects project-completion times. While the studies have the potential to inform future design projects, they were almost always developed outside the course of ordinary design work. Even the act of publishing a research journal sits beyond the typical mandate of an architectural office.

KieranTimberlake, in Philadelphia, also uses research to advance its practice. Billie Faircloth, AIA, a partner at the firm who directs its research, explains the practice’s philosophy as one of continually searching. “Research is a design philosophy that is intrinsic to what we do,” she says, adding that it is always happening in practice, whether through learning about a new material or implementing a new process. The question, she says, is: “How far do we go in terms of the kind of knowledge we create?”

An output report from KieranTimberlake's Tally summarizes a project's environmental impacts across eight categories.
KieranTimberlake An output report from KieranTimberlake's Tally summarizes a project's environmental impacts across eight categories.

Most of KieranTimberlake’s research focuses on novel construction methods, environmental analysis, and custom modeling. Among other projects, it has led them to embed sensors in two rooms of Yale University’s Sage Bowers Hall. For a year, the team collected data on temperature, humidity, lighting, and energy consumption in order to understand the building’s real conditions. This proved so successful that KieranTimberlake subsequently developed its own range of custom wireless sensors to monitor site conditions. The firm has continued to refine its sensor technology, which won an ARCHITECT R+D Award in 2013.

This fusion of software development and building performance is typical of the firm’s research. Recently, KieranTimberlake partnered with Autodesk and sustainability software consultant PE International to improve life-cycle assessments of materials in BIM models. This research led them to develop Tally, environmental life-cycle software that the firm now offers as an Autodesk Revit app to other practices.

Innovations in building technology and building performance are profoundly altering the way in which architects practice. For firms such as Perkins+Will, The Living, and KieranTimberlake, their research enables them to become active participants rather than reactionary bystanders in this process.

Like Aksamija and Benjamin, Faircloth is optimistic about the future of practice-led research. “There are incredibly profound opportunities in our industry,” she says.

As the pace of innovation quickens, these opportunities may become necessities. Already far more specialists are involved in the production of architecture than in the past. And we are seeing signs that these knowledge workers are increasingly becoming knowledge generators. While architecture hasn’t traditionally involved researching the structural strength of fungus, or developing electronic sensors and selling environmental analysis software, some firms are now asking why not? If technology is going to change architecture, why shouldn’t it be architects who lead the research and development?

Daniel Davis is a senior researcher at Case, Inc. His technology column will appear on this website each month. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of the AIA.