Baca Architects’ Shipston Road housing scheme in Warwickshire. The practice’s work on flood resilience is recognised internationally.
A growing number of architectural practices have adopted research as a core activity, but many are deterred from embracing research by three recurring myths.
Myth 1: Size matters
Of all the myths and misunderstandings that surround architectural research, the most persistent is the perception that it is the preserve of larger practices. There is a common belief that research teams enjoy a ring-fenced budget and are fully resourced with dedicated researchers allowing them to secure high-value research grants forged with academic partners. The reality is that, even in large studios, most dedicated research teams are small, with a research lead and two or three others, while research focussed colleagues are embedded within design teams, all with modest budgets unsupported by academic funding.
With most architects working in smaller practices, the bulk of research is actually conducted by those that don’t make it onto the AJ100. There is a growing list of small and mid-sized companies recognised for their research work, with similar team and funding structures to their larger counterparts. For example, ZCD Architects is known for its long-standing and ongoing research into designing better spaces for and with children. Baca Architects’ work on flood resilience has gained an international reputation, while Danish practice Gehl Architects is a global leader in observational research-led urbanism. What links these three is the singular focus on a core theme, conducted gradually over a number of years and then applied to the practice’s work. Start small and keep going
Research by ZCD Architects informed design decisions for a shared garden and housing scheme for Letchworth Garden City
Myth 2: Research is only for the academy
The second misconception is that research is an academic pursuit and irrelevant to practice. The notion that it takes years to generate any usable outcome, or that it is focussed either on history and theory or materials research is a little wide of the mark. Research journals are dominated by academia, which often leans towards history and theory. But this is not an accurate reflection of the research conducted in and for practice use. The limited awareness regarding the scope of practice research is due, in part, to the limited, non-academic publishing options available beyond self- published books and practice websites. Even then, concerns regarding loss of intellectual property dictate that only snippets of a few research projects are typically made public. Identifying who is doing what is time-consuming work but there are key themes.
Employed to lead and refine decision-making for architectural projects, practice-based research is most often aligned with current design sectors or future ambitions. While there are niche sectors, the most common subjects are workplace, housing, aged care, education, conservation, transport, and urban master planning.
Alternatively, cross-sector research adopts an approach that can be applied to a range of design projects, including building performance and resilience, post-occupancy evaluation, community engagement, and Modern Methods of Construction. And yes, practice also engages in digital technology and robotics, and materials development and testing, although these projects are typically conducted in collaboration with an academic or engineering partner. For each practice, within the broader theme, there is a motivation and starting point that is specific to their needs.
Myth 3: Research is prohibitively expensive
Regardless of practice size, funding remains a key challenge. Funding for research exists in several forms but it is rarely a profit-generating stream, and although practices report that clients are broadly positive about research projects, they are not always open to funding it. But there are other options.
Biannually, the RIBA Research Trust Grant offers £10,000 funding, but requires an external supervisor. Non-academic researchers can apply for funding or grants from a range of organisations, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the Arts Council. Depending on the focus of the research, UK-based architects can apply for Innovate UK and Horizon Europe grants.
Claiming Research and Development Tax Relief is the most consistent method of funding research activity, with small practice directors regularly reporting refunds of between £20,000 and £50,000 per annum. While there is a clear need for more funding to be made available for practice-based research, the adage that money attracts money has never been as relevant as it is for research funding. Small grants inspire confidence and trust, helping to establish a researcher’s credibility and placing them in a much stronger position to secure future funds.
Kat Martindale has published ‘Research for Architectural Practice’ (Routledge, 278pp, £30). See p76 of the issue for a case study on the way Tonkin Liu employs research to inform its built work