Research in Practice
John Held reflects on conjunctions of research and practice in a talk presented at the Australian Institute of Architects Flipped Forum, which asked ‘Can practice lead research?’
What does it mean to ‘flip’? In the strict pedagogical definition, it denotes swapping the roles of classroom and homework – reviewing and gathering content out of session, and using face-to-face time for discussion and exploration of the topic. But in the context of this discussion more likely it refers to the idea of practice-led or practice-based research. What forms could that take?
I have a bit of a problem with the definition of ‘practice’ as an activity divorced from academia, and the related idea of practice being just about business, profitability and technical capability.
How not to do it
Our firm was approached by a university a few years ago for seed funding for an interesting project related to sustainability. We considered it carefully but they didn’t want us involved in the research – ‘please hand us your money and we’ll give you a report at the end’. Any chance of learning went out the window, as did we.
How it informs design
If you are to be good at what you do, you have to keep up with research. If you are going to be involved in design for education, know what the research is saying.
As an example, the research of Carla Rinaldi and her influence on early childhood education in South Australia continues as architects participate in joint research on pedagogy and architecture as part of the South Australian Collaborative Childhood Project.
Keeping abreast of research on environments for aged people with memory loss is critical if your buildings are going to be calmer, happier places in which to live.
Our work with Guida Moseley Brown on Mawson Institute Building V was informed by research on research – the concept of placing disparate science and engineering disciplines together; with offices and labs directly connected, and making those researchers bump into each other and help solve each other’s problems.
So perhaps the concept of practitioners and researchers ‘bumping into each other’ is an inspiration for how we should approach practice and research.
How does it happen in practices?
In the midst of project deadlines and dramas and worrying about not having enough work or too much work, the importance of both reflective practice and internal research is really important.
Access to your own data for decision-making doesn’t sound like high-end research, but it’s surprising the stories you hear of architects who have no idea about the detail of their own practices.
In our case, as an example, we’ve spent a great deal of time and reflection on how to change workflows, project processes and outputs to suit truly collaborative BIM workflows.
It may not sound grand but it involves the same methodologies as academic research. We are also researching ways of integrating Virtual Reality into those workflows – not just for clients, but as part of our design review processes.
Finally, we realise the important links between the universities and practice, which is why we have three of our staff teaching and always have students working for us to keep those links alive.
Few small practices have the resources to fund academic research – but as a profession we should be doing this.
How does it happen as a profession?
We really dropped the ball in the last 15 years as a profession in terms of research about architects. There’s been no significant work done on the effect of documentation quality on construction costs for 17 years. It’s even longer since the CSIRO did research on fees.
We don’t know how many architects there are in Australia, how many work in alternative roles, what happens to graduates after university, and why starting salaries are below most other professions.
Susan Shannon’s work was the first I’d seen tracking graduates – and should be the basis of a much bigger longitudinal survey over many years to get a better understanding of what we actually do as architects – and as graduates who don’t get registered but do other equally important things.
The Parlour survey was the first time we’d seen the scope of the many different ways you can practice architecture.
Locally, the SA State of the Profession survey highlighted a number of issues that need to be addressed – pay, gender equity, career paths, the unexplained dropout of mid-career architects and, most importantly, the future of the profession. But tellingly, we couldn’t get the required outcomes from universities – at least not for the budget we had available. We ended up going to people who bridge academia and other non-traditional forms or practice – in this case, Justine Clark and Gillian Matthewson. And trying to get a national version of the survey up finding the funding is proving very difficult.
The spinoff – a great series of reflective pieces under the theme “Where to From Here” – again highlight a diversity of practice and a belief in the future of our profession.
Our next try at research is to get access to the large amounts of data held by government clients – in this case DPTI – to actually find out relationships between fees, hours, and building outcomes.
How does it happen as a policy instrument?
If you are going to lobby on behalf of architects to government or clients you had better have some facts to back it up – even in this world of alternative facts.
You want to change the type of procurement? Here’s some facts about what happens when you do.
Want us to work for free? Here’s some facts about what happens when you do.
Want to cut our fees again? Here’s some facts about what happens when you do.
Want to push us downstream, rather than as a trusted advisor? Here’s the evidence.
But it’s hard to find good evidence, because the research isn’t there.
We don’t have a group whose sole purpose is to produce solid research: even if the answers are not quite what you hoped.
How does it happen as an industry?
It doesn’t – at least not enough. The lack of investment in R&D in the industry is well known, and because so much of it is fragmented and comprised of very small organisations it’s not likely to improve without external funding sources.
This is too big a topic for today – suffice to say that if architects don’t help lead the push for more research, other groups will, to our detriment.
Firstly, we need to see practice and academia as a continuum, as opposed to polar opposites, because that is how it is in the real world. At the same time, we need to understand who is doing the big picture thinking about the future of practice. This can only happen if you treat “practice” (in all its forms) as a subject worthy of academic discourse and research.
Our main task, therefore, is to strengthen links between academia and practice – and understand that all the different and alternative futures of the profession are reliant on this.
John Held is the ACA – SA President and a Director of Russell and Yelland. This is based on a talk presented as part of the Flipped Forum at the SA Australian Institute of Architects on 6 March, 2017.