The normative practice of architecture begins with boundaries and ends, hopefully, with a building. In between, at least one person on the design team will have a clever idea, and a good project can be transformed into a great one. But, if Euripides is right and cleverness is not the same thing as wisdom, what is the golden thread of the design process?

Research on materials, technology, ecology, and delivery systems has been an element of this process as far back as Vitruvius. Gothic cathedrals benefited from experimentation among architects, engineers, and builders working to achieve greater heights with ever-thinner walls. Renaissance architects tinkered with geometry to probe Platonic ideals, and 19th-century metallurgy helped architects and engineers create stronger structures in iron and glass.

For the last century, architects have sought greater distinction from the fields of engineering and building—as arbiters of art and science who design for a living. And, in doing so, the explicit pursuit of research has largely been eclipsed by the pursuit of design as a business and a trade. The tide seems to be turning again, however. Call it Post-Modernism or call it pluralism, but over the last 40 years architects have been co-opting other research-intensive disciplines—from chemistry to geography to sociology—in order to bolster their design aspirations.

“Architecture can connect to just about anything, if you let it,” says Jennifer Yoos, AIA, principal of VJAA Architects, the 2012 AIA Architecture Firm of the Year. The Minneapolis-based firm has made research a consistent thread throughout all of its work in what its principals describe as an “ecological approach” to design—emphasizing site, circumstances, and climate, which led to back-to-back COTE Top Ten Green Project Awards in 2008 and 2009.

In the case of Tulane’s 151,000-square-foot Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life (completed in 2007 and awarded a COTE Top Ten Award in 2008), VJAA achieved a design that can be passively cooled for half the year—not a small feat in muggy New Orleans—as well as one that adapted more than two-thirds of an existing building at a cost of $189 per square foot. The Lavin-Bernick Center was only half complete when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, but the project remained on track, in part because of a hurricane-resistant glazing system—an important research consideration during the design phase, a phase that lasted several years.

For VJAA, research is a reinvestment in practice. “A knowledge-based firm means that content and methodologies are transferable across our practice to inform our ideas. We’re not a large firm, so we don’t have a lot of overhead costs, but we consciously allocate profit for research that benefits all of our work,” Yoos says.

In general, research on, say, cutting-edge uses of carbon nanotubes, renewable kenaf fibers, or durable carpet that doesn’t off-gas takes time (and labor). So does research on systems such as high-performance façades and graywater filtration, or research on historical context for an adaptive reuse project.

“Research requires some tricky management skills, and it potentially opens the door to endless amounts of work,” says Vincent James, FAIA, founding principal of VJAA. “There’s a tension between the pragmatics of delivery and the desire to investigate something, so there has to be rigor.”

Research is tricky enough, in fact, that only 6 percent of AIA member firms report offering it as a specific service, according to the 2012 AIA Firm Survey. When compared to other services such as engineering (8 percent), construction management (18 percent), and planning (52 percent), research ranks as the least common service on the menu. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an explicit (or implicit) part of the design process. “We don’t have a categorical research service that we offer clients, but, categorically, we engage research all the time,” says Ted Flato, FAIA, of 2004 AIA Architecture Firm of the Year Lake|Flato Architects in San Antonio, Texas. “We employ an engineer, whom we call our ‘sustainability coordinator,’ and she acts as a resource to everyone in the office to make each project more scientifically sustainable. But every architect in our office invests time in research on climate, weather, soil, and context—both historical and geographical,” Flato says.

A few years ago, Lake|Flato established a separate company called Porch House, which provides architect-designed, factory-built homes to communities in need of more housing. Porch House has grown to be much more than a side project for the firm because it offers a useful feedback loop. Research conducted to build a better Porch House often finds its way back into the design process for other commercial projects. In turn, resources and lessons learned in those other projects help buoy Porch House as a discreet enterprise.

It’s all of a piece, though. The $200 per finished square foot of Porch House might cost less than Lake|Flato’s custom residential projects, but the same basic design constraints exist in either case: budget, time, resources, and environmental factors. And creating transportable housing units that can meet demand caused by natural disasters or economic migrations, such as the one surrounding the Bakken shale oil boom in North Dakota, is fundamentally the same as creating a solution to any other client’s problem.

But Porch House’s first real client was Lake|Flato itself. “It started out as a business strategy to weather the recession,” Flato says. “A whole lot of research goes into Porch House, but it continues to bolster the rest of our practice.”

Kennedy & Violich Architecture Ltd. (KVA) has a slightly different take on design-driven research. Since 2000, the Boston-based firm has incorporated the efforts of its in-house materials research unit, KVA MATx, into its institutional and civic projects. The thinking was this: Architects design buildings, but people experience spaces. And spaces are material propositions. “Architecture has traditionally been a domain which uses and organizes materials,” says Sheila Kennedy, AIA, a founding principal at KVA who teaches architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We’ve always made a strong commitment to materialize our work and to reflect on changes we see in material culture.”

Kennedy is quick to point out, however, that her firm’s work centers on design-driven research rather than research-driven design. “We insist on not segregating design workflows,” Kennedy says, “so there’s no ‘research department,’ which means we had to literally create a new type of architecture studio workspace—one that brings open-office 3D modeling and parametric design in close proximity to analog and digital production workshops.”

One of KVA’s most recent projects to incorporate MATx research is the 34th Street Public Ferry Terminal in New York City, which combines real-time GPS and water-flow data to interpret the tidal flows of the East River estuary. At 15,000 square feet, it’s a relatively small public building in a larger transportation system that incorporates information from disparate sources, such as hydrology and solar energy, to create a safe, functional terminal on one of the busiest waterways in the U.S.

The firm accomplishes what its principals call “intelligent infrastructure” in several ways. If adverse river conditions disrupt ferry routes, real-time information is incorporated into posted schedules. Fluctuating temperatures inform the integrated radiant heating in the terminal’s floor to keep passengers comfortable. And, in a more static way, the river’s wave formations were folded into the design of the terminal’s perforated walls, which appear to undulate in a nod to the program’s maritime function.

It’s also, reportedly, the first public building in New York born of digital fabrication. “We had to really think about how our workflows could be integrated by design in a studio and not just have a model shop in the basement,” Kennedy says. “It was a significant investment to break away from the rental architecture office paradigm, [but] I recommend this move for all young practices.”

For Kennedy, utilizing design research on materials and digital fabrication is the firm’s identity, but it has also been an important economic factor in the aughts, a turbulent decade for any firm’s bottom line. “We’ve developed areas of research expertise that are relevant both to the discipline of architecture and to larger global shifts in attitudes toward materials and infrastructure,” Kennedy says. “And for this, we’ve had the privilege to work with Fortune 500 companies—something which we did not do before.”

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