Closing the Knowledge Loop

23Dec15

An Interview with Renée Cheng, by Emily Grandstaff-Rice 

The University of Minnesota has created a program called the Master of Science in Research Practice. Students spend time in “Research Practice Internships” jointly supervised by faculty and students on research topics that are identified in a variety of ways. In this interview, architect Emily Grandstaff-Rice talks to professor and associate dean of research Renée Cheng who describes the value of the program, the nature of applied research, connection between academia and practice, and a vision for the future of the profession.

Emily Grandstaff-Rice:
You have previously written about the current state of American architecture practice as a “broken knowledge loop.” What does that mean?

Renée Cheng:
The broken knowledge is a great place to start this discussion. Former University of Minnesota College of Design Dean Tom Fisher has talked about this for years, asking the questions: Why is the profession of architecture not more evidence-based? Why is knowledge held as proprietary? Why, when a client comes to architects, is there not a better baseline answer of saying “I have seen this thing before and here’s the best practices in the field today.” While some architects certainly offer this perspective within their own offices, they don’t necessarily draw from the knowledge and wisdom from other offices because ideas aren’t being openly shared, critiqued and tested.

Think about the type of knowledge loop that would typically occur between academia and practice. Compared to public health, medicine or law, architecture does not have a shared body of knowledge. There isn’t the same connection between academic world and, for example, a clinic or whatever you want to call work in the field. In medicine, if a clinician identifies something that needs research, they don’t necessarily have the time to gather information: they use their academic side of their appointment or their academic colleagues to figure out a research project; or if people in research develop a technique or treatment, they ask colleagues about clinical trials or something that would interface with the patient. In this model, there is a feedback loop that allows ideas to originate in either place — academia or practice — each has a complementary role. Tom and I often talk about what a completed architecture knowledge loop could look like because we know there is a lot of applied research that is not shared and also more work that could be done.

Right now, research in architectural practice does not have the same level of literature review or academic standards despite its very high quality. This kind of work hasn’t been influenced by a larger need to share, replicate, reproduce, verify, all of those things that developing a rigorous body of research demands. What we envision is a knowledge loop informed mostly by practice, but we also know that our students, particularly with digital technologies, have a large capacity to build tools that can be used and need feedback on how it can be best applied in practice. In one of our first research practice projects at the University of Minnesota, the head of the architecture school Marc Swackhamer had an inexpensive variably formed panel that he developed through material and fabrication research, but he had never looked into its acoustical application, although he recognized its potential. Though our research consortium, we matched his faculty expertise with a firm and Marc’s research assistant became a research practice intern at a firm that has expertise in concert halls and therefore are familiar with the application of acoustic panels. The student observed a point of frustration amongst the architects regarding the interface to the acoustic model which was limiting their ability to get data. Working with acoustic consultants, the student was able to build a very simple tool allowing the architects to graphically move the point sources and vary the pattern on the wall in a way that would be possible to use Marc’s panels. The end result was a panel variation that could be done inexpensively but with a lot of variability and a tool that designers could actually use. While this example only got to the level of beta development, it is something that could be used by anyone who wants to take the idea and go forward.

Another example is a firm that had a desire to understand better how parametric modeling of façade and sun orientation could work for designers. One of our research practice interns took on the issue, building processes around existing tools. In the case of understanding the effectiveness of a new kind of classroom design, one of our other interns mapped how students moved in the room and how long teachers spend with students in a particular space and compared it to previous programmatic layouts. Knowledge can originate from either academia or practice and if collaboratively developed in term of priorities, this could be a knowledge loop that reciprocates back and forth.

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