Research in Architectural Practice - 6 ways for architects to create upstream knowledge

Peter Raisbeck , 18 October 2016

How can your practice amplify its research capability? Peter Raisback suggests six strategies.

Research is vital to architectural practice. Numerous architectural websites and brochures are full of statements about how research is valued and prioritised. But sometimes it all seems a little bit too “feel goody” and “mission statement” like for me. Architects need to be specific about their research aspirations.

Most architectural firms are keen to ‘go upstream’, to create distinct knowledge that helps a firm to get clients and charge more. There are, however, a few things small firms and teams of architects can do to amplify their research capabilities. Even larger architectural firms would benefit from some of these strategies about research.

1. Actually have a research strategy

Research involves developing knowledge or expertise in a particular area. But this knowledge needs to be integrated across the firm. For that reason it makes sense for an architectural practice to focus their research efforts in a way that aligns with their business strategy (if they have one). For example, if the firm seeks to develop a competitive advantage in health, or facade design, or sustainable design, or some aspect of urban design then its research efforts should align with this.

Research is not about simply implementing new technologies in offices, or figuring out what the next bit of funky software the firm should buy (see no. 2 below). Technology is important, but it may not be very effective to see research in these limited terms. Having said that, sometimes the line between these activities and strategic research is blurred. One office I worked for, in the earlier days of CAD, spent a lot of time researching and understanding the expressive possibilities of CAD design and architectural representation. As CAD developed this gave them a large competitive advantage. Clearly the knowledge gained, as CAD systems themselves developed, had strategic benefit to the firm.

Research is not simply about finding out about new materials, or the latest technical thingo, for your latest project and then filing the information into an electronic folder for later reference. Unless, of course, you think that the knowledge gained from the material and technical research process can be used elsewhere. But, that is what many architects think: That extra knowledge they gain on one project can be used on another. I am a little sceptical about this – it seems too ad hoc. Especially, if the firm does not have a research strategy or its projects are highly customised and different each time.

I would always push for a line of research in the office that is aligned with its current strategies or with its intention to develop new areas of expertise

2. Wacky research is ok

Sometimes architects might do research just for the hell of it (this kind of contradicts the first point above). There is a balancing act between conducting research to improve current capabilities versus working on seemingly new and radical innovations. Getting the balance right is important, but sometimes research needs to be wacky. Research is about trial and error and indeed about making mistakes – Buckminster Fuller is a pretty good example of this.

If you are a politician or a shock jock or a member of conservative think tank, all research has to be somehow ‘practical’ not ‘obscure’ and have some demonstrable value to the tabloid-reading public.

Those of us who have worked and struggled with their own business in the real world understand that you have to undertake research, or take positions, that are risky or may not have an obvious or immediate benefit. But it’s the risky research that’s probably going to give a firm the real disruptive edge in business. Arguably, the obvious, less risky thing is the thing everyone else is doing as well.

Firms, universities and individual researchers, all gain competitive advantage when they pursue knowledge for its own sake.

3. Create a research network

Architectural firms who prioritise research build an ecosystem of mentors, advisers and experts that they can interact with to debate and test new ideas. Almost all start-up companies will have advisory boards that advise them through the pitfalls and hazards of commercialising an idea and then growing. So why not architects? Networking isn’t always about trying to find new jobs. It can also be about gaining knowledge of what is going on across the domains of knowledge where you practice. At least one person in any practice needs scan the horizon for new ideas or the latest research developments.

Although far removed from small architectural practices, a good example of creating a research network is Google. The Google platform is an ecosystem that includes consumers, software innovators, content providers and advertisers. It is a permeable system where outsiders can also become collaborators. Hence, it is not simply a matter of trucking in people or experts to help you solve a problem. It is about creating a network or ecosystem of collaborators who can help a firm to create new knowledge and to also understand what is happening within architectural and urban discourse.

4. Use your staff to create research knowledge

Another dilemma for architects is how to organise a firm to do research. A top-down approach is not nearly as effective as a collaborative one.

In the old days all wisdom in the architectural office came from the ‘Master’. He (sadly, always a he) was usually the ‘designer’ by force of ego, class background, cachet of education, or through experience and perseverance. When I worked for a ‘Master’ in the 1980s as a young architecture student I could do nothing right. He was a truly good architect and in later years proved to be a designer of international note. But, he was never wrong and always insistently right. Contending with the Master’s wisdom was really not a great career move. It was a little like being in a cult. Masters love acolytes and they, of course, prefer acolytes who agree with them. And yet the worst thing a firm can do is to create teams in it’s the image of its master, rather than diverse teams that I would argue are they key to creativity.

Ownership of new conceptual ideas or design processes is, more often than not, shared. It never really resides in the mind of one person no matter how much symbolic capital they may have as a master. As they say at Pixar: ‘A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organisational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.’ One of the most effective models of knowledge management is based on the Japanese management theoretician, Nonaka and his colleagues. They understand that knowledge creation in an architectural firm, or any firm for that matter, is a collaborative and iterative process. Their work points the importance of knowledge as a vital source of competitive advantage, there is little understanding of how organisations actually create and manage knowledge dynamically’.

5. Collaborate with academics

Bring academics into your firm’s research ecosystem. Research and Development is central to any relationship, engagement or linkage between architecture academia, practitioners and emerging businesses. There are two potential difficulties you need to consider. The first is that academics are often time poor and hemmed in by teaching commitments and an overly regulated bureaucracy. The second is that not all academics understand the dynamics of practice or business protocols. But, drawing academics into the world of your practice can help address the second issue, if not the first.

Most academics in architecture schools love to do research. They also like to talk about it! So it is a good idea to contact and foster the participation of academic researchers (like me!) into a practice’s work. Invite them in as critics. Invite them to the firm’s Christmas party. Give them a glass of wine and see what they say. Allow them to participate in planning workshops or esquisses. This will help the academics understand the pressures and time frames of the practice. It will also get them thinking about what you do as a firm and what you can do better. It’s like having your very own management consultant attached to your firm (sort of).  Before you know it you will become part of some useful collaborative research projects.

6. Teach a studio

Another good way to start conducting research and create new knowledge is to teach a studio at an architecture school. The knowledge developed through setting up and running a studio can help studio leaders, as practitioners, to position and locate themselves in relation to various policy debates and programs, as they emerge in urban discourse.

This enables a firm that teaches to gain an advantage over its competitors by actively being a part of an ongoing public and policy debates. After all isn’t that what it’s all about.

Dr Peter Raisbeck is a senior lecturer in architectural practice at the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne. He has had over 20 years of professional experience as an employee and contractor in architecture and project management, and has an MBA in finance. Peter’s research interests focus on the points of convergence between global finance, construction management and architectural design and practice. He believes that architects must grow their profession by understanding that research, practice and theory are inextricably linked together.

This article was first published on Peter’s blog Peter Raisbeck: surviving the design studio.