A Unique Model: Research Based Design Initiative

May 20, 2015

In both practice and education, one of the greatest challenges we face in architecture is finding an effective way of documenting and communicating the vast body of knowledge that we continue to build on a daily basis. This has been the case for generations, but I would argue that, in the context of what we know now about the impact buildings have on health and the environment, finding an effective way to share our innovations and discoveries is more urgent today than it has ever been. While some might see the intellectual capital accrued within an internal body of knowledge as something that give universities and practices a competitive edge, a more progressive perspective would be to view any research we conduct which can strengthen our collective response to equity and sustainability as something that should be openly shared amongst our peers.

It is with this philosophy that a small group of professors at the Portland State University School of Architecture reached out to a number of local firms, including SRG Partnership, to institute the Research Based Design Initiative and Teaching Lab. Initially structured as a seminar, the RBDI invites each participating office, at the start of the quarter, to identify unique, project-specific questions that need to be addressed. The students, in turn, choose from the list of topics to identify the issue that interests them the most. The students are then embedded in the project team at a participating firm, to not only learn about the specifics of what they have been tasked to explore, but also gain exposure to the professional design process. The results of what they discover while researching their particular topic are collected into a report that is then presented at a symposium hosted by a participating firm.

As you might expect, this process is incredibly beneficial for all involved. From an academic perspective, it not only introduces the students to research methodology and cutting edge analysis tools and techniques, but it instills in them the critical role that research can play in architecture and design. In the professional realm, these student investigations have become a valued resource to our firm, allowing us to investigate ideas and solutions that we may otherwise have not had the time or resources to explore.

Perhaps even more important than the individual reports themselves, though, is the substantive body of work that has been generated through this initiative that continues to grow online at www.researchbaseddesign.org. While no single document on this page is by any means a definitive take on a single topic, it begins to paint a fascinating picture of larger industry trends-exhibiting not only the most pressing questions that we face as a profession, but also how our peers are tackling similar challenges related to rapidly evolving technology and sustainability practices. It is through this aggregate of data-driven design investigations that the Research Based Design Initiative has the potential to make a much bigger impact on the greater design community: it is in a unique position to map the tools and methodologies applied in practice across projects and firms that, collectively, begin to suggest the most effective and efficient ways to ensure we are making the most responsible decisions throughout our design process.

For all of the aforementioned advantages, it is important to realize that the RBDI only augments, and does not replace, more thorough and in-depth building science research. The critical work that SRG has conducted in collaboration with groups such as the University of Oregon's Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory has been incredibly impactful on our projects and the industry as a whole. The initiative is also not intended to compete with the in-depth practice-based research that is openly shared by firms such as Perkins + Will and Kieran Timberlake, whose whitepapers and websites have become an invaluable resource for architects around the world. Instead, it is a new way for academia and practice to leverage our collective energy and creativity in a way that benefits both the students and the architect-a unique model for helping to improve our individual projects and, potentially, our process as a whole.