While design may be considered as a form of research, not all research is a form of design. Ajla Aksamija, leader of Perkins+Will’s Tech Lab and co-organizer for this year’s Architectural Research Centers Consortium, says that differentiating between actual research and mere marketing is essential. Firms may claim to do research as part of their design initiatives, but historically, few firms have actually invested in research.

That appears to be changing, albeit slowly. “In the last decade, we have seen an increase in practices that are integrating research into their design processes and services,” Aksamija says. “The current technological innovation and complexity of design processes are requiring more research and integration between specialists.”

Recent technological innovations have given rise to a number of specializations within architecture firms. Practices now employ computational design specialists, material consultants, and sustainability experts. These are all jobs that largely didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago. And these experts don’t have an established body of knowledge to work from. Instead, they are developing the knowledge pro re nata—or, as it’s required.

A rendering of an aerial view of the The Living's Hy-Fi, the winning design of the 2014 Young Architects Program

A rendering of an aerial view of the The Living’s Hy-Fi, the winning design of the 2014 Young Architects Program

Credit: Courtesy The Living

David Benjamin, co-founder of The Living (which was acquired by Autodesk last summer) and director of Columbia University’s Living Architecture Lab, stands in this nexus between research and architecture. Regarding The Living’s 2014 installation (above) for the Museum of Modern Art P.S. 1 Young Architects Program competition, which was constructed from biodegradable bricks of fungus, Benjamin says, “There is no drop-down selection box for ‘mushroom material’ in structural analysis software.” To complete the project, he had to get his hands on the bricks to understand their architectural potential and to test their material performance. This type of research is typical for Benjamin, whose practice frequently integrates developments in material science, biology, and design computation.

Aksamija joined Perkins+Will in 2008 to lead the firm’s then-newly formed Tech Lab. Its research into high-performance design, sustainability, and computational design frequently appears in Perkins+Will’s peer-reviewed research journal, which features studies whose topics range from the effects of therapeutic gardens on children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to those that measure how lean construction affects project-completion times. While the studies have the potential to inform future design projects, they were almost always developed outside the course of ordinary design work. Even the act of publishing a research journal sits beyond the typical mandate of an architectural office.

KieranTimberlake, in Philadelphia, also uses research to advance its practice. Billie Faircloth, AIA, a partner at the firm who directs its research, explains the practice’s philosophy as one of continually searching. “Research is a design philosophy that is intrinsic to what we do,” she says, adding that it is always happening in practice, whether through learning about a new material or implementing a new process. The question, she says, is: “How far do we go in terms of the kind of knowledge we create?”

An output report from KieranTimberlake's Tally summarizes a project's environmental impacts across eight categories.

An output report from KieranTimberlake’s Tally summarizes a project’s environmental impacts across eight categories.

Credit: KieranTimberlake

Most of KieranTimberlake’s research focuses on novel construction methods, environmental analysis, and custom modeling. Among other projects, it has led them to embed sensors in two rooms of Yale University’s Sage Bowers Hall. For a year, the team collected data on temperature, humidity, lighting, and energy consumption in order to understand the building’s real conditions. This proved so successful that KieranTimberlake subsequently developed its own range of custom wireless sensors to monitor site conditions. The firm has continued to refine its sensor technology, which won an ARCHITECT R+D Award in 2013.

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