Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA
Photography: Carl Bower

Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA, is the director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota and he is also the Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design at the university’s School of Architecture. In a 2017 essay for ACSA’s Journal of Technology | Architecture + Design, entitled “Research and Architecture’s Knowledge Loop,” Fisher, a regular contributor to ARCHITECT, argues that differences in how academics and practitioners define research hamper architecture’s capacity to truly be driven by research. That challenge, he argues, is more urgent than ever—particularly for small and medium-sized firms to thrive. His leadership in developing the Institute's research agenda addresses this and other challenges.

While there are language issues around [how we define] research, I think the research challenge facing the profession goes deeper than language. The architectural culture has not had a robust tradition around research, which means that much of the research that goes on in offices for projects rarely gets tested, generalized, and shared. In medicine, for example, it is unethical for a doctor not to see and monitor patients post-surgery, and yet rarely do architects revisit and monitor the performance of buildings and conduct post-occupancy evaluations of them. This should become standard practice, written into our contracts, and the knowledge gained from this work needs to be peer-reviewed and communicated.

Many firms tend to see their research as proprietary and are unwilling to share that knowledge more broadly for fear of losing their competitive advantage because of it. At the same time, many schools pursue the research that gets funded, which is often not in a form immediately useful to firms. The architecture culture has also framed success in terms of individual design contributions rather than in terms of who does the best discovery and communication of new knowledge. Finally, the profession continues to straddle the divide between being a trade, which keeps trade secrets, or a profession, which shares knowledge. To finally become the latter, we need to do a much better job of gathering, assessing, and communicating the best research coming out of the schools and the firms.

There is a lot the profession could do to boost its research production without needing big budgets. The schools, for example, could require a course on research methods and integrate questions faced by firms into the work of the class. And they could develop research internships in offices—as the University of Minnesota has done with its master’s degree in Research Practice—that would be both educational for students and beneficial to firms. At the same time, firms could do more to reach out to schools to frame the questions most in need of answers and of most relevance to practitioners. —As told to William Richards