Palomar Medical Center West, a $960 million state-of-the-art hospital in Escondido, Calif., will open in 2012 boasting a number of innovative healthcare design features, including patient-healing environments and daylit surgical areas that provide staff with views of trees and greenery in courtyards.

Daylighting is unusual for surgical platforms, says Thomas Chessum, FAIA, a principal of Co Architects, the Los Angeles–based firm that designed the building, but it was used in the project after a joint research team of hospital and design staff analyzed, proposed, and endorsed the idea. “We always advocate daylight but hadn’t done it before,” Chessum says. “This was a research project in which the client became an ally and supported us.”

Research will continue when the 360-bed, 740,000-square-foot hospital starts admitting patients. Co Architects will undertake a post-occupancy controlled-research survey to assess the benefits of daylighting on staff performance and productivity, job satisfaction and employee retention, and patient outcomes. These numbers will then be compared to the performance of the health district’s old hospital.

“The world out there demands more research,” Chessum says. “Clients today are looking for advantages in buildings and systems, and we have to tell them what those benefits will be,” he adds. “We can’t just wave our hands and say this or that works. We have to capture what we know and make it understandable, and that is dependent on real, hard facts.”

Once the mainstay of academic institutions and the private sector, research today is attracting more resources and funding at architecture firms than ever before. The trend will likely continue as advances in many fields—from materials science to energy use—generate new ways to design buildings and to measure the performance of increasingly complex systems. “There is research now in everything we do,” says Leigh Stringer, director of innovation and research at global design firm HOK. “Clients are demanding more, and so we have to be innovative at every level,” she says. “Research is integral to innovation. Without research, HOK has no business.”

How Data Can Sway Clients
Exactly how much firms are investing in research is difficult to discern, because funding sources are often mixed. But interviews conducted for this story suggest that both the overall amount of that investment as well as the number and variety of research projects are on the rise. The trend will likely continue as firms capitalize on their research initiatives to drive product and business development, and to refine how they market their services to sophisticated clients in specialized fields.

The phenomenon is evident in practices of all sizes. HOK, over just the past two years, has developed books, methodologies, and software—almost 200 items in total—through firmwide collaboration across practice fields and the efforts of its dedicated research staff of three employees. Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake also has a dedicated research staff, which currently includes seven employees (up from four a few years ago, and including a full-time research director) out of a staff of 66. And many smaller and newer firms such as UrbanLab in Chicago and Kennedy & Violich Architecture in Boston, were founded with research as a core value.

Architecture Research Office, a midsized, middle-aged practice, was established in New York almost 20 years ago and has developed an integrated approach to research in which the work is shared between all 23 employees. Research initiatives originate from client projects and also from what the firm itself is interested in pursuing. One project, called Paper Wall, started because “we were interested in combining CAD-CAM technology and craft and working with a prosaic material,” principal Adam Yarinsky, FAIA, says. The project explored how a humble material such as paper could be transformed through laser cutting into a material that was 3D, foldable, opaque, and capable of filtering light. A few years later, a client read about the Paper Wall research and was so impressed that he asked ARO to use the technology in his Central Park West apartment: The firm, based on the Paper Wall research and other studies involving laser cutting, developed wall dividers that resemble latticed screens. Over the years, ARO’s research has also tackled broader themes, such as climate change and its impact on cities, as well as ultralow-energy building prototypes.

At a giant such as HOK, the expanding scope of research reflects not only the size and reach of the firm’s practice areas but also the changing role of the architect as expert and consultant in specific fields. “Research isn’t just about having something clever to say to win the work,” says Clark Davis, vice chairman of HOK. “The expectation of the client and the marketplace is that our knowledge is more specialized and current and relevant to an individual client’s situation.”

Diane Hoskins, FAIA, an executive director at Gensler, says that her firm uses its research initiatives—especially its expertise in pre- and post-occupancy workplace management—to help differentiate the firm in business pitches, a critical factor in a brutally competitive environment. “Our clients are looking for a partner to challenge them and engage them with ideas that are outside the realm of what they may have thought of before,” she says. “If you have the knowledge backed up with research, they will go to that new place with you.”

That dovetails with what Hoskins sees as the changing role of architects. “If there is someone good at only drawing, there’s nothing wrong with that,” she says. “But that is the past. You have to come to the table with knowledge and insight, and research is part of how you do that.”

Making Research Pay
Of course, starting a research initiative requires funding. Many firms rely on grants from private and public institutions to supplement internal resources. Awards such as the AIA College of Fellows’ $100,000 biennial Latrobe Prize are another source. (The initial research behind ARO’s Paper Wall, for example, was funded by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts.) Other firms work directly with sponsor companies to research and develop products, a tactic favored by Kennedy & Violich. Licensing agreements for cutting-edge innovations can also help generate revenue, though firms have often struggled to secure such agreements or find viable commercial partners for their products.

Los Angeles–based Gehry Technologies (GT) offers one creative business model. Spun off from Gehry Partners’ in-house research and development team in 2002, GT now boasts a staff of 135 employees and eight offices worldwide; it functions as an independent firm that provides project-management technology and consulting services to other firms. “It made sense to be external,” says Dennis Shelden, GT’s chief technology officer. Gehry Partners still does most of its work with GT, but this relationship represents only a “small fraction” of GT’s overall business. “This benefits everybody,” Shelden says. “We keep the Gehry connection. We have an anchor client, and they have premier relations with us.” (Frank Gehry, FAIA, is co-founder of Gehry Technologies and chairman of the board, and he and his firm have an equity stake.)

Firms also help fund research by teaming up with academic institutions—for example, the Center for Architecture Science & Ecology, a joint venture between Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and HOK’s partnerships with the Biomimicry Guild and Washington University in St. Louis.

But what about the potential return on investment? At KieranTimberlake, which won the first Latrobe Prize in 2001, “research is not an adjunct activity that waxes and wanes through economic declines,” says James Timberlake, FAIA, a founding partner of the firm. Rather, research remains core to the practice “even if it may or may not be directly profitable.”

Indeed, the firm exhibits a clear commitment to research, allocating 3 to 5 percent of gross annual profits to its pursuit and the development of intellectual property, such as the patent-protected SmartWrap technology—a lightweight, energy-gathering, mass-customizable building envelope material that has been employed in firm projects such as the Cellophane House for a Museum of Modern Art exhibit. Other current research projects include 35 studies into the inner and outer building envelopes for the new U.S. embassy in London, and the monitoring of the post-occupancy environmental performance and energy systems, including green roofs, at seven buildings that the firm designed. The data is shared with clients and added to the firm’s knowledge base—part of what Timberlake calls “a cycle of continuous improvement” that research affords.

For his part, Timberlake says that the decision to pursue research topics is not determined solely by the potential return on investment. “We consider research at all levels to be useful to us, our clients, and the profession.” If ROI was the only consideration, he says, “we would exclude exploring research or socially responsible projects on a variety of topics because a team, or the firm, cannot ‘pre-prove’ the investment possibilities.” He adds that ROI is measured on a firmwide basis, on all projects including research, but not on silos of individual exploration, projects, or initiatives. “We don’t place unreasonable or narrow boundaries on what we do simply based on what we want the profit outcome to be,” Timberlake says.

You Can, Too
Small firms looking to start research projects may not have the financial means of a KieranTimberlake. But they can cut costs by pursuing academic partnerships and sharing resources such as equipment and space. To secure client- or project-based funding, ARO’s Yarinsky advises focusing on one particular aspect of a project for investigation that can be framed as having value to the client. “Even a conventional material like brick can be explored in terms of patterns and sizes, or it can be a quality of light or space, or something related to energy use for the building,” he says. This way, “it is possible to conceive of every project, no matter what size or type, as a form of research.”

Perhaps the most important consideration for small firms: ensuring that they are generating meaningful results. James Timberlake worries that research has become so trendy that some firms are jumping on the bandwagon without applying the necessary rigor. “They are hopping on and saying, ‘We can do this,’ and promoting it to the client, but it’s on a superficial level, without proof and the facts,” he says. “We want everyone doing it in a serious, peer-oriented way.”

Research is becoming more of an interdisciplinary effort, a reflection of how fields such as biology are influencing design practice. “Research will not be limited to people with backgrounds in architecture, design, and planning,” says HOK’s Davis. “The rich mix of challenges will get more people involved.”

Nicholas Holt, AIA, SOM’s technical director, believes that future research will gravitate more to systems than to components, and to systems integration across multiple platforms, such as energy: “In short, the next frontier in architectural research is going to be looking at how all of the information it is now possible to gather in buildings will be leveraged to enhance performance and experience.” Or, as his colleague, managing director Kenneth Lewis, puts it, “In the future, every building will have an IP address.”