Thursday, December 16, 2010

Research Opportunities Are Everywhere

I recently read an article by Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, that was part of the material attached to the Boston Society of Architects publication regarding their Research Grant program. The article, Research in the design studio, from page 6 of the 2009 Research Grants program review and report, reminds us that research opportunities are everywhere in our daily work. Sometimes we just don’t recognize them and then don’t use disciplined methods to record that information. Too often we don’t look for and use available information, better known as someone else’s research. Thomas Fisher’s message is clear and applicable to all of us and in all that we do. We shouldn’t be intimidated by the term “research” and think that it is done by someone else in a “lab” somewhere else. Remember our life and our work is our lab. I believe his message is all about how we approach our questions, our inquiry, our curiosity and our search. That search will allow us to take on the big challenges that face our profession and our planet.

In case the link above does not display, page 6 is pasted below.

Research in the design studio
Thomas Fisher, AIA

Research occurs in design studios and offices all the time: historical research, precedent studies, and programming analyses, form explanations, functional evaluations and so on. But we often don’t think of this as “research” and so we rarely frame our work using research protocols, such as hypothesis statements, testing methods, evaluation criteria or generalizable conclusions. Nor do we document and share the results of this research with colleagues very often. If we are to transform architecture into a more evidence-based, value-added discipline and profession, we desperately need to see design as a form of research and to capture and peer-review the knowledge we produce as a result.

At the same time, peer-reviewed research rarely gets folded into the work of design studios or architectural offices, which often means that we end up repeating or rediscovering what we already know, without much attention to the discovery or development of new knowledge. This happens, in part, because we don’t have a good sense of what constitutes “new” knowledge in our field. The need for greater access to and inclusion of research in our work has never been greater, even though our field has given it relatively little attention or funding.

In universities, design studios have many of the same features as “labs,” requiring the same levels of computing equipment and shop support. However, conceptually, most architecture schools treat them more like fine art studios, in which originality and individuality gets rewarded rather than the common knowledge generated there.

We can no longer afford this fine arts model, not because it is too expensive, but because the world needs architects and designers to grapple with the big problems we face on this planet – such as climate change, habitat fragmentation, dysfunctional cities, inadequate shelter for billions of people, etc. We need to find ways to identify the most pressing problems, identify the best solutions and peer-review them for broad dissemination. The world needs design studios, be they in universities or offices, to act more like research labs, and we will have no choice but to respond to that need.