Session 7: Research and Practice

Date: April 7, 2017
Location: Milken Institute School of Public Health
Time: 12:00 pm – 5:00pm
Led by: Marisa Allen, AIA, LEED AP ID+C and Lance Eubanks, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Session 7 (Full PDF)
Session 7 Agenda
Session 7 Speakers


Research and education are rapidly becoming two of the most crucial differentiators in the hyper-competitive practice of architecture. Firms that successfully integrate research into their practice advance their value to the community and provide a greater value proposition to the clients they serve. These are the core issues explored by Lance Eubanks and Marisa Allen, and furthered by their speakers who discussed strategies for incorporating research into their firm profile, education as a means of maintaining professional relevancy, and the positive social impact of incorporating both research and education to further our collective understanding of the health and wellness of the people who inhabit the built environment.

The first speaker of the afternoon was Michele Russo, the senior director of research at the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Michele’s current work at the AIA focuses on developing and fostering practice-relevant research “to amplify and make more accessible the knowledge and research available from AIA members, universities, and other building industry institutions.” The key tool for this is what the AIA refers to as Building Research Information Knowledgebase, or BRIK. BRIK was developed in 2014 to enable and support the building research knowledgebase, and to act as a central repository for non-biased, professionally reviewed and trusted content. Michele feels strongly that the AIA’s role is to act as facilitators of knowledge and education to increase research literacy with practicing professionals. The AIA accomplishes this by providing research based lectures at the annual Conference on Architecture, it’s web learning portal AIAU, and by forming partnerships with practicing professionals and firms actively engaged in research. Additionally, the AIA has heeded the call from firms to involve the next generation of professionals within the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS). To accomplish this the AIA has introduced a new program to bridge the gap between professionals and students called CRIT Scholars, which is a mentorship where students partner with firms to work on a research project

Immediately following Michele was Andrea Love, who is the Director of Building Science and Associate Principal at Payette in Boston. As a prerequisite to her presentation, Marisa and Lance invited the scholars to watch an AIAU webinar entitled Three Firms’ Approach to Integrating Research in Practice, which featured speakers from Sasaki Associates, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, and Payette. The webinar was valuable with respect to providing a thematic framework for the session’s key topics.

Andrea began by describing Payette as a “dynamic, inquisitive studio environment,” where research is led by the Building Science Group and is heavily integrated into the firm’s culture. Payette’s research motivation, or business case is predicated on their desire to be thought leaders in the narrow healthcare architecture market, to provide staff with education and career development opportunities, to design better performing buildings, and to provide a culture where staff is afforded the time and ability to answer recurring questions that come up during design. The research process at Payette creates “partnerships between people that have hair and those who don’t have hair; people who maybe have a lot of knowledge but not a lot of time, with those that have more time but maybe not as much knowledge.”

Currently, Andrea estimates that about 69 of the 140 people, or roughly 40% of the staff are working on research projects, where employees explore a variety of topics, with the majority focusing on energy and building performance issues. The research process at Payette provides employees with billable time and concrete deadlines to foster research when there is a lull on a project. This is reinforced with meetings at predetermined intervals to encourage employees to make progress on their research projects. Key to their research is to target “sharing of findings internally and externally” by speaking at conferences, writing blog posts, and maintaining a robust research page on their website where they can share their findings. Andreas outlined a few examples of research projects on the Payette website, which includes their research on thermal bridging, which was funded by winning the Upjohn Grant in 2012. Other notable projects focused on natural ventilation in healthcare and their 2016 AIA Technology in Architectural Practice (TAP) Innovation award winning research on glazing and thermal comfort which produced a glazing and winter comfort tool available on their website.

After Andrea spoke, Michele was invited back to the front of the room for a brief question and answer session. Scholars solicited advice from Andrea regarding effective strategies for convincing firm leaders that there is value in research. Andrea indicated that research has yielded value by way of branding and providing a competitive advantage, creating business development opportunities by speaking at conferences, maintaining client relationships, and increasing the quality of work. Liability was raised as a possible issue regarding sharing information; however, Andrea indicated that they classified their published web-based research under the umbrella of the AIA’s definition of “standard of care” and a legal disclaimer which mitigates their risk.

After the panel, the group was addressed by Stephen Chung, who is an architect and principal of his firm, Stephen Chung, Architect, and the creator of the public television series entitled “Cool Spaces! The Best New Architecture.” Stephen opened by positing the following question: “how [can] we as architects… provide value to the community?” This query was born out of his personal journey after the 2007 economic downturn- a drastic rescission that saw about 30% of architects, including Stephen, lose their jobs between 2007-2011. His curiosity led him to investigate how the public perceives architects, what we do, and ultimately to discover how shocking the lack of connection to architects truly is. The architect, Stephen argued, is most often portrayed in popular culture as the “Starchitect,” an elitist professional that’s not in touch with mainstream culture and represents a small fraction of the overall design community. It’s because of this inaccurate portrayal, and the general lack of respect that the profession was receiving, that Stephen found his key message: “architects solve everyday problems.” He made it his mission to educate the public by exploring new vehicles and ultimately discovered that creating a television show would be the best platform to convey his message. After attending acting school and appearing in a few small roles, Stephen pitched various networks and learned that a simple core message, packaged in a repeatable platform was how Cool Spaces! would eventually get on the air with PBS. He ended with the following takeaway: much like the design of a building, “any production is the result of collaboration.”

The scholars were then invited to take a self-guided tour of the venue, the Miliken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University. The building’s meandering main atrium afforded the scholars and speakers the ideal time to enjoy the building and engage in additional conversations that related to the material presented thus far.

After the tour, the scholars had the opportunity to engage in a presentation and a panel discussion comprised of three professionals- Abigail Brown, Susan Piedmont-Palladino, and Karl Feldman. All three are currently involved in a range of research endeavors within the practice of architecture.

Abi, who currently works at Hickok Cole Architects, presented on her firm’s approach to integrated research incubator, iLab. iLab is a program at Hickok Cole Architects that provides “microgrants” to employees who are passionate about pursing research topics outside their normal project workload. Receiving an iLab microgrant involves a rigorous proposal process, whereby the firms’ leadership awards employees billable time to investigate a compelling research topic. Abi was one of the first participants in the program in 2014, when she was awarded the opportunity to study an interest of hers, modular multi-family housing in D.C. This led her to several speaking engagements and opportunities to present her ideas to other like-minded design professionals.

Susan Piedmont-Palladino, who is an architect and the director of Virginia Tech’s Washington/Alexandria Architecture Consortium (WAAC), addressed the group next. Her interest at the WAAC, which is a highly international, globally connected graduate program, is in forms of communication. Specifically, Susan is focused on how we communicate- both in terms of our natural language (speech), and graphical language, which is acquired. Representation and communication is her obsession, and through her research she has found two main types of graphical communication styles, “drawings that draw from the world” and “drawings that draw to the world.” The former, Susan argues, is indicative- and requires an allegiance to truth. The latter, which speaks to the effectiveness of architectural renderings, has an assumed understanding and can make the world different by “enrolling someone in our wishes.”

The last speaker of the afternoon was Karl Feldman of Hinge, who is involved in research in the architectural practice, and more specifically how research can help you grow. Karl contends that research plays an important role in helping answer the questions that are holding you back, and that “even bad news is good news.” By understanding your target audience, a firm that engages in frequent research can act on an objective basis, help focus efforts and resources to be in better alignment with your firm’s niche market. Ultimately this strategy is fundamental to understanding your target audience and building engagement with potential clients by repurposing content to a variety of platforms.

Lastly, the speakers were all invited back to the front of the room for a brief question and answer session. The panelists all agreed that when you’re communicating, whether it’s graphically or verbally, figuring out exactly what you’re trying to say is paramount and requires focus, thought, and discipline. The panelists were then asked about how to build interdisciplinary research efforts within a firm, a concern for many young architects who tend to become “siloed.” Abi was adamant that putting yourself out there and pushing yourself was the key to breaking out of the silo. Related to Abi’s suggestion, Susan left us with perhaps the most compelling take-away of the day, and her area of focus at the WAAC; “we are not training people, we want to educate people to be internally resilient.”