The [arch] Office Part 2: RESEARCH

14 May

Research – I don’t know about you, but I dreaded research growing up. I enjoyed writing school papers, but tracking the research was a drag. In contrast, college made me respect the valuable knowledge and neat information that one can discover through research. And now, I wish I had more time in the day so that I could actually do some research!

In this, Part 2 of “The [arch] Offce” series, we are going to briefly discuss what ARCHITECT magazine found as to how some firms have made research an integral part of their practices.

Part 2: RESEARCH - Copyright ARCHITECT Magazine

In The Fountainhead Ayn Rand portrays the Howard Roark version of the architect: an unchallenged creative visionary that proved that an architect was to pursue individualism more intently than collectivism. Well, peace out Mr. Roark! ARCHITECT has found that “the firms that will succeed will do so in part because they can effectively capture data from their projects and demonstrate the value of design using hard numbers.” The two phrases in bold seem to be the biggest challenges facing our industry. However, research, in many ways, holds the answers.

“Building on an ever-increasing knowledge base will ensure that [a firm’s] architecture remains cutting-edge.”

While the exact amount of time and resources allotted by firms to research is difficult to compute, interviews are showing that both the number and variety of research projects are on the up and up. Research is proving to be a great way for firms to capitalize on initiatives that drive product and business development.

Everyone wants positive outcomes from the use of research; yet, many firms are still without this valuable asset. I can guess that smaller firms have wondered how to utilize their limited resources to use research to their advantage. However, the research “phenomenon is evident in practices of all sizes.”  For example, HOK, a large and awesome firm, has developed books, methodologies, and even software, accomplishing almost 200 of these items “through firmwide collaboration across practice fields and the efforts of its dedicated research staff of three employees.” On the flip side, some smaller, newer firms have been founded with research as one their core values, such as UrbanLab in Chicago (you can read about them in an upcoming follow-up post later this week).

I personally like the “Google Approach” that the Architecture Research Office in New York City pursues. I have learned from friends that Google apparently allots a given amount of time per week for their employees to pursue their own projects. I believe this is an amazing approach to innovation…you know about Google Maps?  Yeah, that was created through that research innovation! Research initiatives at the Architecture Research Office follows a different, but similar approach, creating research initiatives derived from client projects and firm interests rather than “force feeding” themselves research projects. One research project in particular, “Paper Wall,” started simply because of some curiosity of turning paper into a 3-dimensional, opaque, but light filtering material. Sure enough, a few years later, they found a client so impressed that they got a commission for a project utilizing their Paper Wall research. Now their research encompasses a myriad of subjects, from climate change to low-energy building prototypes and, yes, paper!

HOK, because of its immense size, certainly has an amazing scope of research work. An important point can be seen from their research: the role of the architect is changing to becoming an expert and consultant in specific fields. As Clark Davis, vice chairman of HOK states: “Research isn’t just about having something clever to say to win the work….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.”

Considering more specialized knowledge, on top of an architect’s already large sum of necessary practice knowledge, seems absolutely daunting. However, this can also be more exciting than painful. As Diane Hoskins, an executive director at Gensler, states: “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….If you have the knowledge backed up with research, they will go to that new place with you.” To me, that is very exciting!  Through the use of research, we as architects are no longer simply the tools used to create a clients vision. We are now in a great position to use research as a driver for taking a client’s vision to the next level, while also moving architecture toward an innovative future.

"Paper Wall" - Copyright ARCHITECT Magazine

$ Show Me the Money! $

Funding, Funding, Funding. Research, as we know, requires funding, and this tends to be the most difficult challenge for many firms. Grants, internal resources, and awards are proving to be the biggest drivers for firms in turning their research initiatives into positive outcomes and products. Partnering with sponsor companies and creating licensing agreements for innovative ideas are also great ways for generating revenues, despite the occasional struggles in making these work. However, I would guess that partnerships and licensing agreements will and should become more common as the understanding of the architect’s role changes from “draftsman/designer” to “designer/innovator.”

Partnerships with academic institutions are also becoming big drivers in spurring innovation. This is especially exciting when firms get the benefit of research aid while students get unique opportunities to learn exciting new ideas and generate potential solutions for upcoming architectural challenges.

Now the big question: RETURN ON INVESTMENT. Those three words make many firms shutter, as ROI is an important part of staying in business. Often times, research becomes an intangible benefit that doesn’t yield a direct profitable outcome. Consider this: KieranTimberlake, based out of Philadelphia, has a patent-protected innovation called SmartWrap technology – “a lightweight, energy-gathering, mass-customizable building envelope material”. In an increasingly energy-sensitive and forward-thinking world, that material technology could make KieranTimberlake grow to a wide reaching and successful firm. While intangible at first, research ideas could open new doors and create new paths for firms to take.

I personally enjoy James Timberlake’s quoted approach to ROI: “We don’t place unreasonable or narrow boundaries on what we do simply based on what we want the profit outcome to be.” Thinking beyond money…now THAT is exciting!

– If you think you can’t, YOU CAN-

We can all do research to move our world forward! While many smaller firms may not have the resources to pursue full- or part-time research, there are ways to get something done. Academic partnerships, grants, and forward-thinking clients may open new doors. At the Illinois Institute of Technology, for example, an exciting program called IPRO (Interdisciplinary Projects) brings together interdisciplinary student teams with project sponsors to develop new ideas and innovative projects. Some of those projects have been implemented, while others became great learning experiences for both the students and project sponsors.

The IPRO program is a strong example of research’s trend toward interdisciplinary efforts. As Clark Davis again points out, “The rich mix of challenges will get more people involved.” As it should!

There seems to be one major caution in all this. Research appears to be getting “trendy,” and when that happens, it can often be utilized without the necessary discipline to create meaningful results. As James Timberlake again puts it: “They are all hopping on and saying, ‘We can do this,’ and promoting it to the client, but it’s on a superficial level [“greenwashing” rings a bell here, doesn’t it?], without proof and the facts….We want everyone doing it in a serious, peer-oriented way.”

In conclusion, there is a lot of innovation on the way, and it will be through research that we see a true jump in the forward progression of architecture and product development. Find ways to turn every project, even a simple one, into a research project, and find ways to ensure meaningful results!

I would love to hear your comments! Please leave your ideas/thoughts in the comment field below, or email Ryan at

Stay tuned for Part 3: Research next Monday, May 21st!


Based on “Your Office, Your Future” from ARCHITECT magazine. For more information and case studies, visit

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