Its all About The Money: What makes a great Architecture School?

So what makes a great architecture school? Or maybe a better question might be how would you design an architecture school for this day and age. I was prompted to think this because in Australia the ERA research excellence rankings have just come out. These rankings indicate that few of our Archi schools in Australia are “well” above world standard.

The rankings measure research outputs in these terms.

  • 5 Well above world standard
  • 4 Above world standard
  • 3 At world standard
  • 2 Below world standard
  • 1 Well below world standard

In this ERA round, 5 Archi schools got 4 (Above world standard), 8 Archi schools got 3 (At world standard) and 1 school got 2 (Below world standard).

But on that basis I think Australian architecture schools are doing pretty well giving the universities have been ripping them off for the past 10 years or so, pumping them full of students, exploiting their full-time and sessional academics and giving next to nothing back for research or research training (sorry to sound so strident this week but its easier when I am writing in a hurry).

Yes, no one school in Australia got 5 (Well above world standard). So we all know how much I love metrics but hey WTF? ERA is kind of saying that of 22 Architecture schools in Australia none are well above world standard? Are we all “above world standard” and no higher and WTF is “world standard” for an architecture school anyway? I think all that ERA does is point to the poverty and the managerial disgrace of these kinds of metrics and ranking systems. Not to mention the time and resources spent, by academics, preparing an ERA application.

I would also argue that our ERA rankings in the discipline would be better if our architecture schools were better managed by university executives (I might even develop my own ranking survey around this). Most don’t have a clue what design studio is. Yes, let’s repeat that: most managerial types—across the different schools I know of–have no idea what a design studio is. Nor, do they really seem to care.

Its all about the research numbers or the money.

I reckon I could even do a Get Krackin style of TV comedy about design studios in architecture schools.

 

So my ideas for a world class plus architecture school would be:

Design Studios

Design studios are the core of any architecture school. They are highly sensitive to changes in the external environment supporting them. Such as class sizes or contact hours. You can’t learn architecture in 3 contact hours. Nor can you teach a studio with 18 students. Or spoil a studio with clueless teaching, cronyism, bias or worse still a paucity of prudent, decent and insightful design criticism, there goes your architecture school down the drain. But most managerial types—across different schools I know have no idea what a design studio is. Nor, do they really seem to care (there is that theme again).

Culture

I have written about this elsewhere. The best way to build a culture and a sense of community around an architecture school might be to have year cohort system (and an active studio system). You can’t create an architecture school culture through managerialism–sorry if this is starting to sound like a bit of theme. You won’t do it with a checklist, or a policy, nor will you do it with school prizes, nor lots of overseas studios and nor those MOFO male twerking celebrity architects coming to visit when the provincials do all the bowing and ring kissing. I have ruined my own career by never being interested in all the fawning over the celebrities. (last week we had a few visiting dignitaries, and it was like watching fawning flies on a meat carcass).

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Safety Zone Debates 

Yup, we need to do more than the above, and that is the mix where practitioners, academics and actual students can mix and in engage in the same milieu. Lots of panels are great, lots of questions, debates and discussions are even better. Debates and discussions about real issues. Debates where every voice is heard, and this is so important for the culture of an architecture school. Debates where it’s not just a macho title bout. We need to make safe spaces to have these conversations.

Of course, if the academics are too busy with their so-called “careers” and gaming their research metrics ( don’t get me started on this subject), then they will never engage in the culture of an architecture school. Even if some academics can’t design teach their way out of a wet paper bag, then it would be nice to see them at the debates, exhibitions and talks.

Diversity

Need I say more than merely using the D word. Or do I have to spell it out? I have written a bit about it here. If you want an excellent Architecture school the more diverse its constituents, the better. Homogeneous and monocultural schools just lead to the most appalling power asymmetries within their confines and then later on in the profession.

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Curricula

I have observed three different approaches across all the Archi schools in Australia.

The diverse curriculum school — as distinct from a school with diversity– the “design” school, and the focused curriculum school (oh so boring). The diverse school can be great as it will allow different lines of design research and approaches to emerge. It might even enable synergies to happen between different domains of design knowledge. Which is all ok provide the school with the diverse curriculum is structured well. But it is not great if it is usually managed in an ad-hoc fashion, all the bits of curricular just kicking around in a rubbish bin. To be great schools, these types of schools need active, attentive and balanced leadership.

Then there are the Archi Schools focused on a single-digit idiocy, of a technical trick, brand attribute or singular focus: sustainability, materials science, fab-labbing, urban design and of course parametrics. I am not actually sure these types of archi schools are actually schools of architecture. I am sorry, but I am too much of a generalist to stomach these types of schools.

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Of course, in some schools, everyone is a designer or aspires to be one. Committed to the concept and the holy idea or “process.” This tendency doesn’t really help dismantle the celebrity cult. And this sensibility always ends up sounding like the contrary argument. It’s a philosophy or approach that might have been current 20 years ago. But increasingly, design as an autonomous field to be protected, is a head-in-the-sand issue. It’s appallingly apolitical because it is a viewpoint that continually fends off anything from outside the discipline: politics, management, technology, and of course any kind of theory. With a little bit of intellectual generosity, rather than the old hokey-pokey designer smoke and mirrors, these schools can be great.

So that’s it, and I am always amazed how different schools fall into some of the various traps mentioned up. But the real point I am trying to make is that: architecture schools are a microcosm of the profession, and if we really want to change Architecture going into the future then we really need to change the schools as well. This is so important.

Bring on the revolution then we can all get fives in the ERA rankings.

The Vampire Factor: Are the universities ripping the architecture schools off?

Are the universities ripping the architectures schools of? Sure, the 18-20 architecture schools across the country are not the most significant revenue spinners for the universities. But, those revenues are not insubstantial.

When most people did architecture up until about 2005, there was still a strong connection between the profession and the architecture schools. This connection is still mostly the case today, but the difference then was that the architecture schools largely controlled their destinies. The schools could largely dictate what could be taught and how it was taught. Architecture schools largely controlled the agenda of architectural education. For the most part, there was a close linkage between the Architecture schools, the profession—via the Institute of Architects (genuflect and cross yourself)—and the registration boards.

 

To better understand Australian architectural education, the Australia Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA) is doing a survey of Architectural education in Australia. What is great is that the study is not only for architectural academics but also for the MANY SESSIONAL TUTORS who work in Architecture schools. Yep, let me repeat that it covers issues regarding research, university resources, career pathways, the practice-academic nexus, and what should be taught in Architecture schools. If you teach as sessional or fractional academic you can do it. This is a fantastic initiative and the AACA should be congratulated.

 Take the AACA Survey  

The blurb for the survey is below:

The brief anonymous questionnaire is open to all ongoing and sessional architecture academics and may be found at the following link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/5RLYN62

It is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to shape the future of architectural education so please take a moment to make your voice heard! The survey is open until 30 November 2018.

The questionnaire will ask some questions about your teaching career and will seek your views on resourcing, teaching and learning practices, graduate pathways, and the future of architectural education. Participation is completely voluntary. You can read the participant information statement here.

This Architectural Education and the Profession in Australia study is funded by the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA), the Association of Architecture Schools of Australia and the Australian Institute of Architects, and is being administered by the AACA.

 If you have questions about the research, please feel free to contact AACA Research Director Alex Maroya on 0413 339 394 or email alexmaroya@aaca.org.au.  For occasional updates about the study, please “like” our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/aepstudy.

 This research has National Ethics Approval through the University of Technology Sydney: ETH18-2931N.

 Architecture schools no longer control the agenda. Their voice is mostly diminished within the university sector and of course, as is the habit of the profession, this is exacerbated by an increasingly fragmented professional landscape. In the past, the Architects Institute has not been much of a policy advocate when it comes to Higher Education policy. The Architects Consulting Association and Architeam seemed to be consumed, and perhaps rightly, with more local issues around membership. So who is advocating for architects at a policy level?

With the rise of, diminished federal funding, international student markets, research metrics (architects never really seem to get very many research brownie points), university managerialism (in all of its absurd glory), the architecture schools are not what they could aspire to be.

Are the Universities ripping Architects off?

 

So let’s look at a few numbers. This will help put things into perspective. I have only started working through these and happy to argue the assumptions behind them if you are interested. At the end of each year in Australia, the universities produce given that each graduate pays that is an aggregated revenue assuming each graduate pays around 36K for a place each year. As the recent AACA report stated:

Australia’s architecture schools produced around 1300 graduates from accredited Masters programs in 2017, which is consistent with preceding years.Overall, architecture schools enrolled over 10,000 equivalent full time students in bachelor and masters level architectural study in 2017, collectively bringing approximately $225 million to the university sector.

I think these figures understate the case. So let’s look at a local example.

The Subject Example

So in a subject which is 12.5 point subject out of 100 points per year that is around 4,500 per student in the subject. If I then have 280 students that’s total revenue for the subject of $1,260,000. That is equivalent to a pretty big renovation!

If the semester consumes 30% of my time that has a cost of around $50,000 per semester including all salary on-costs (using a 1.7 multiplier). If the Subject teaching budget, for tutors, is around $81,000 It will then be about $137,000 with salary on costs.

Hence the total salary costs is around $187,000.

Now let’s say that the multiplier for other non-salary on-costs such as overheads etc. (in contracted research projects this might vary between 1.7 and 2.1) is 2.5 we get total expenses of around $467,500.

Bottom line: Then the net gain to the university is, by this calculation, $792,500 a profit margin of 62.8%

The Studio Example

For a studio of 14 students as 6 hour subject with 14 students that is about 9,000 bucks per student. Hence, the revenue is $126,000 per studio. Ok, so let’s say you get 70 bucks an hour for a studio. For a 13 week semester that’s about $5460 bucks. Not a lot of bucks for a small practice. The salary on costs would be $9,282, and the non-salary on costs would bring that up to $23,205.

Bottom line: The net gain to the university for a studio is thus around $102,795 a profit margin of 81.5%.

Again, I am happy to further debate and refine these figures.

How much goes back to architecture as research dollars?

How much of this is going back to architects? This is the Vampire bit. Sure the universities support many small practitioners through sessional teaching. But how much of this is going back into architectural research?

Not a lot at all. When was the last time the Australian Research Council consistently gave anyone grants in architecture? For example, we did not raise any money from the universities for our Architeam project and getting funding for book publishing is also a nightmare.

So, I would urge you to survey as it will help present a united front on how we want to promote and shape Architectural Education into the future. But of course, the universities love architects, and I mean lerv, when they get them to brand the new campus or capital works program. Hey everyone wants that gig, But apart from that, in the meantime, the universities will keep ripping off the architecture schools and give us very little back for architectural research.

Take the Survey

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/5RLYN62

It won’t be a silver bullet but it will help.

 

ArchiTeam Funding Research for Architects in Small Practice.

Small architectural practice is one of the hardest things you do in life. Sometimes it feels like the rewards are few and far between. Even the most modest house or house renovation can take years to design and see built. Small practices contribute much to Australian cities, small practices believe in design, the elegance of details and, more often than not, the hopes of local communities. The influence and impact of small practice is everywhere in our cities and suburbs. In our cities, small practice architects are an integral part of heritage and planning debates, the business of architectural education as well as the construction and property industry. However, small architects have not been served well by existing avenues of research funding in the field.

RAsP invite

The RASP launch is just before the MSDx exhibition which will give you a great idea of the range and depth of the many fabulous design studios at MSD.

The voice of the architect

In small projects, no matter what they are it is often the voice of the architect who stands up for planning and regulatory approval, common sense and sustainability. It is the architect who pushes back against the excesses of those only concerned with crude measures of time and cost. A generosity of spirit has always been an attribute of small practice. As a result, most architects at the end of their careers have accumulated those lines and wrinkles that only the careworn seem to gather.

The voices of architects both individually and collectively are often unheard or dismissed. Mostly these perceptions come from a distracted public unversed in design and more powerful lobby groups. Architects themselves worry and wring their hands about this and wonder how it could be better. We need research to combat all of this.

In conjunction with ArchiTeam and MSD, we are hoping to crowdfund a research project that examines the value that architects add to the property. It is unlikely that this project would gain funding in any other way. We are hoping to get around $25,000 for the project.

This initiative is a unique approach to research funding for small practices, and ArchiTeam is hoping to create an ongoing research fund for small practice. ArchiTeam have branded this initiative as RASP an acronym for Research for Architects in Small Practice. Building a research fund of this kind will send a strong message that small practice based architects need to be acknowledged and counted for in the design of our future cities.

The proposal

The research project aims to measure if architect-designed houses and house renovations improve capital gains in the Melbourne inner city housing market. The precise wording of the research question is “Do architect designed renovations improve capital gains in the Melbourne residential property market?”

In concise terms, the research will involve a descriptive, comparative quantitative analysis of two data pools. One pool will be based on sale data from architect-designed houses, and the other will contain sale data from non-architect designed houses. The data from each of these pools will be aggregated, analysed and compared. Descriptive statistics, as well as correlation and regression analysis, will be employed to compare the two pools. Email me if you have any questions about how we will do it. A research contract is in place the crowdfunding amount will go into a fund administered by MSD and ArchiTeam cooperative. The money will principally fund research associate time and data costs.

ArchiTeam 

For regular blog readers who do not know ArchiTeam was founded in 1991. ArchiTeam Cooperative is a membership association for Australian architects working in small, medium and emerging practices. ArchiTeam is democratically run by members, for members. Every member is encouraged to play an active part in shaping the organisation. With over 800+ members, it is the leading dedicated voice of Australia’s small architectural practices. This research proposal is unique and specific to the profession of architecture and small practices. It positions ArchiTeam as both a sponsor and a leader in applied architectural research in Australia.

You are welcome to come along to our celebratory launch night and the details are below. Justin Madden of Arup, Rosemary Ross of ArchiTeam and myself will be speaking. The RASP crowdfunding button will then go live !

RAsP invite

The RASP launch is just before the MSDx exhibition which will give you a great idea of the range and depth of the many fabulous design studios at MSD. Hundreds of projects will be displayed throughout the building during the exhibition, from 22 June to 6 July. If read this blog and see me there come and say hello.

 

TESTOSTERONE FUELLED TECHNO-OPTIMISM: 2018 Global Architectural Research Survey Part 2.

This blog follows on from the previous blog discussing the responses to my rapid survey of research attitudes and structures in architectural practices. I have sprinkled a few thought provoking quotes from survey respondents throughout.

As a new practice with limited mentor-type assistance research consumes a massive amount of time which results in inefficiency and financial stress. It is nevertheless a constant element that underpins all projects through all phases. The assumption is that through research we develop our knowledge and the ability to recall and apply it in order to achieve better result and with greater efficiency.

Research Ad hocism

Around 57% of responding architects have no, or only partial, systems within their practices to capture research knowledge. Yet as noted in the previous blog on this many architects still claim that they are doing research in informal ways as they design projects.

Chart_Q18_180322

If all this ad hocism is the case then it is reasonable to ask: what sort of research are architects currently pursuing in their wonderfully ad hoc, informal, doing the project-at-hand and organic ways? The survey asked a two questions about this. The first question asked: Does your firm conduct research into any of the following established research areas ? The results are below:

Chart_Q12_180322

Perhaps the survey question could have been sharper. But look at the chart: Lots are doing sustainability research (surprise, surprise), lots are into Urban Design (I am old enough to remember when no-one did this) and then different variants of health, housing and education crop up. Health and ageing looks like its a bit low. Nonetheless, my innate trained at RMIT cynicism tells me its a list of the usual suspects.

What is probably more interesting, in the above somewhat prosaic list of responses, are the outliers (the other responses) and these were things like: indigenous cultural awareness, forensic architecture, animal welfare,  pre-fab, modular, briefing methodologies, co-living, design advocacy and dispute resolution.

The list certainly reflects broader economic realities. Being the areas where clients have the money and the architects are following. As they say, follow the money.  So this may simply reflect broader economic realities.  But is this really a list of research areas that are going to help architects enhance their agency in the future? If everyone is doing the same research how can an individual firm differentiate itself?

I’ve noticed many practices in the UK do formally engage in meaningful research and employ full time research staff to organise and catalogue information. Not only does it help to strengthen the practices body of work, but also their image as a practice that engages with contemporary issues, this consequently gives them a competitive edge when competing to win much sought after public projects and roles involving design advisory for government bodies

One strategy for firms is to set up structures, to research the things around what the practice is currently doing but also develop a few research projects that lie outside of the firms expertise; research that might create knowledge that will differentiate the practice.

Chart_Q19_180322

The research carried out by the practice is underutilized, and should be benefitting the practice and the industry in general.

Which leads us to the next chart, the second question about what architects do, which was intended to be a little more future orientated:

Chart_Q13_180322

Looking at this one, I am beginning to wonder, again with my cynical hat on, if anything outside of the techno-optimistic agenda might be too hard for architects. But all of the other usual and overtly macho-boyo technical suspects were there including: BIM, Parametric Modelling, Drones & 3D Printing or Scanning (stab me in the eye with a biro),  Virtual Reality, CNC Fabrication and Advanced Prefabrication. Not a word about the organisational or social sciences. The what?

I was somewhat shocked to see that a huge slab of architects listed BIM Modelling and Parametric modelling as the big ticket future research items. Maybe not so suprising. Surely, any future research in these areas is more about incremental rather than radical innovations. Perhaps architects are now lost without a kind of technical agenda for guidance.

But, as someone said to me if you are going to research this stuff don’t dabble in it. Either do it as pure research or do it as serious applied research, at the other end of the chain, which will give you some kind of competitive advantage. But don’t dabble.

Little thought is given to incentivising staff to carry out research. For more could be achieved if there were incentives for staff. Staff are assumed to be interested in research but many capable members of staff feel they are too busy to do it especially when they do not see a return.

Heres another chart looking at research governance:

Chart_Q16_180322

While there is a knowledge bank from previous successful and never built projects that can be accessed by anyone in the practice, it is a tool that it is rarely used. There is this idea among architects that there is always the need to reinvent the wheel, even when sometimes the answer is within previous research and projects undertaken by the practice.

Ladbrokes 

For my money I am betting with my Ladbrokes account on research into data analytics and social media. This is because I think architects can profitably bring their creativity, spatial thinking skills and ability to see across disciplines fields like data analytics.  Maybe those qualities are a bit old school. But, I am over the boys-with-toys technologies in architecture. And what really worries me is all that testosterone fuelled techno-optimism has eroded our ability to think clearly.

Research-In-Practice: 2018 Global Architectural Research Survey Part 1

The Surviving the Design Studio: 2018 Global Architectural Research Survey is in. Thank you so much to everyone, to those architects, who responded. I was working off a few different contact databases.  Next time I do this research survey I will more effectively target respondents and make the definitions and the questions more precise. I have interspersed the survey with quotes from the respondents.

Architects are slowly starting to wake up to the fact that they need to do research to in order to stay ahead of their competitors whoever those competitors might be.

I work in a practice three days a week that is run by one principal and 3-4 staff. He is interested only in the projects he is working on and would consider research a waste if time and resources.

With the rise of the Design as Research movement in the early to mid 2000s architects began to question and argue about what constitutes research. For the most part this project, or push, was a response to the introduction of various research metrics and research evaluation exercises in universities in Australia, the UK and Europe. This push also coincided with the rise of parametric design and a renewed interest in technology in the discipline.

Many firms do not provide budget allocations for research or post occupancy studies and any research allocation can be difficult to get and has to be in relation to a particular project and only as a small time/money allocation. Therefore most research that I do is in my own time and often after hours.

But what might have been missed in all of this was the idea of industry development in relation to Research-In-Practice. Even in the universities we still don’t know what Design as Research is. Even that old Etonian and architect Jeremy Till and now head honcho at Central St Martins  doesn’t seem to have quite got his head around it in this piece on architectural research.  He seems to have boiled architectural research down to “three stages” and then provides us with the diagram devised by Alejandro Zaera-Polo & Guillermo Fernandez Abascal as an example of research “into architectural processes.”

The diagram looks like an updated version of a Charles Jencksy diagram that only reinforces architecture as a narrow canon of profiling and privilege. Yes, that’s a cheap shot at Jeremy and Alejandro and Guillermo and yes, I need to look at that diagram in detail. But it looks like hocus pocus to me.

So read on: The Surviving the Design Studio: 2018 Global Architectural Research Survey is in. 

Response rate

The response rate from the database I was working off was around 13%. Respondents came from all over the world and 47% were either partners or directors. 63% were from Australia and so the survey gives a pretty good idea of what is happening in Australia. The next biggest block was 10% from the UK and  8% from the Americas and about 8% came from Asia. 27% of practices had more than 50 people and 21% had from 11 to 50 people, and the rest 52 % had less than 10 people.

Most practices do not have a formal R&D program established

Chart_Q6_180309

Yet most Practices claim to have an informal R&D program in the office.

Chart_Q7_180309

Everyone thinks Design as Research is a valid form of research.

Chart_Q8_180309 (1)

But not all practices think competitions or speculative design projects are part of a firms research activities.

Chart_Q9_180309

The majority of practices do not have a research function.

Chart_Q10_180309

Design as Research ?

Architects in practice still think design is research but then, by and large, they have done little, for whatever reason to foster research or build a formal infrastructure around research. Most architects think they are researching when they design stuff. This may be why most architects think don’t have a formal research program, or research function in the office, and yet claim that they are still doing research.

In practice, the Design as Research proponents have failed to help practices, and the profession at large, to build the research infrastructure, methodologies and discourse required to help  architectural firms.

In academia, the Design as Research proponents have failed to convince those who don’t think design as research of this merits. Yet some of these same proponents have simultaneously supported themselves in the university system via the mantra of Design as Research.

Walking the Talk

I am an adherent of the Design as Research project. But the primary aim of this project,  to recognise design as a research activity, has been weakened by a lack of rigour to say the least.

Those who are sceptical about Design as Research cannot be blamed for that scepticism. If the knowledge produced through Design as Research cannot be verified, tested and positioned as new knowledge why wouldn’t you be sceptical?

Those architectural academics (many of whom, have aligned the project with the new delivery technologies) who have pursued the Design as Research have done little for its take up in Practice. Some academics just mouth of about it. It is little wonder that sceptics of the concept have not been swayed. Embedding a researcher into a practice and getting them to do things is not necessarily going to produce good research. Getting notable architects to reflect on their “body of work” is not necessarily going to produce new research knowledge that will help to develop architecture as a discipline.

Research-In-Practice

I see more hope for research in the practices themselves; I think even Jeremy the Etonian thinks this as well. Architects need to change their practice models if they are to survive. Its no good to just say we do design and that is research. That doesn’t just mean giving someone a job or a role as the research person in the office. It means changing the way design knowledge is created, conceptualised, captured and distributed in the office. That would require a Knowledge Management approach. But as well know many offices struggle with even the most basic and simplistic notions of management. Yes, different offices will require different models, and yes, smaller offices and sole practitioners obviously need a different research model as compared to a larger firms.

Finally, as one respondent noted:

There is a strong trend within the architectural community to claim what is in reality ‘work’ as ‘research’ for what are essentially marketing purposes. This is especially true with Design led Research which seems to rarely meet any sort of broadly accepted or quantifiable bar set by the broader research community.

 Design led research is an excellent way for practices to contribute to the profession and broader community but a better definition and clearer bar needs to be established for it to gain traction or credibility within the research and broader communities. Sadly architecture doesn’t have a great track record in this area and the current systematic abuse of the term Design led Research does little to improve the standing of the profession.

 If we can’t get more rigorous we will never take on the authority we need to build better cities.

 

 

The Double Whammy Stigma: What architectural academics do over January in Australia.

Happy New Year to all regular readers and visitors to this blog. if you read this blog post shortly after it’s posted I will still be on holiday.. This year I am on a road trip to Queensland to K’Gari traditional home of the Badtjala people. This was a early 2017 and popular blog on the travails of being an architectural academic. I have reposted it. I think it expresses a little about the incoherent simplicity of national university policy and the populist anti-design sentiments that seem to bedevil architects.

I know many international readers of this blog will imagine me lolling about on  beaches, surfing the waves, driving across the dunes, wrestling Crocs, or drinking in the pubs. Of course when I look at the Instagram and Facebook feeds of the other architectural academics I know they are all having a great time over summer. Maybe the new social media landscape is what is giving people the impression that architectural academics are slack arses who do very little when the students are not around. On Instagram my fellow academics are on beaches, in forests and far flung places like Central Java, Coolangatta,  and New York City. Mostly they all seem like they are eating a lot of gelato ice cream and chugging down the French champagne. But that’s only how it looks.

In anycase I have got sick of going to dinner parties over the holidays and people saying, “so I guess you have 3 months of holidays with no students around.” Generally the conversation goes something like this:

Fellow Guest: Great to meet you I hear you are an academic.

Peter R: Yes, that’s right.

Fellow Guest: I guess you have holidays now for a few months that the students are gone.

Peter R: Like most people we only get four weeks off a year. 

Fellow Guest: Oh huh really !??!?

Or maybe ordinary people, whatever that category is, have a distrust of expertise and think that it’s all bullshit. Because, you know, teaching at a university is a bludge job anyway. A job that is entirely funded by the public purse and one where you get to travel a lot and all you are doing all day is thinking and writing and researching stuff that no one gives a toss about anyway. Not to mention the fact that you are hanging out down the pub all the time with the students.

The above summer conversation is not so different from the other one architects have all the time.

Fellow Guest: Great to meet you I hear you are an architect.

Peter R: Yes that’s correct.

Fellow Guest: That’s INTERESTING. My partner (brother, sister, boyfriend, fill in the relationship here) always wanted to be an architect. But they decided to be an economist, lawyer, orthodontist or management consultant instead. 

or

Fellow Guest: I was going to employ and architect, when we did our renovation, but we decided it was too expensive to get an architect so we got the builder, draftsperson to do it.

I mean architects are so rich and all they are doing is really really really big white houses for rich people. Houses full of white Italian bathrooms and marble and Cinemas. Or they are doing whacky buildings with crazy roofs. It’s like a double whammy for me because: holy Mother of baby Jeezus I am an architectural academic. What a stigma.

Its amazing to think there are people who still think that working as an academic means that you have a bludge, as some might call it in Australia, job for life (I wont bore you with the onerous and narrow KPI regime we have to work under). My university facilty is essentially a not for profit business with revenues in excess of $50M or so. I wish people would understand this. Most of that revenue comes from teaching and international students. Most universities use teaching revenue to cross subsidse research programs. In Australia the education sector is the third largest export earner after coal and iron ore. That could be a good reason for our Federal government to have a decent policy on universities and university funding.

But there has been a lot of uncertainty in the higher education policy realm and so far not much has happened in regards to Commonwealth policy.

Many people I know in universities are employed on casual contracts and this is particularly difficult for female academics as set out in this report. It is also difficult for our young academics who are the best and the brightest. But, why would the punters care, when our politicians will always jump through hoops when it comes to the car industry or worse still the coal mining industry.

Maybe the above is because in Universities there is still mindless talk about universities needing to be like corporates. It’s similiar to the Trump phenomena. Lets try and run the university, or in Trump’s case the country, like a so called “business”. A university is a complex entity in terms of its operation. How it generates both research knowledge as well as revenues to support itself is quite different to a NASDAQ stock or a mining company or any kind of listed company for that matter.

During a change management program I was witness too it was horrific to see a executive manager say to a whole bunch of people about to be made redundant: “Thats how they do it in the corporate world.”  So much for managerial intelligence and authentic leadership when you have these kinds of brutal mantras alive and well in your institution. After that some of my colleagues wondered why I had lost faith and trust in the organisation. I have more faith in it now.

I am heartened by the fact that  my university supports an entrepreneurial start up program that I think is really great. As well as the fact that that my university is currently promoting and advertising its research itself with advertising on bus shelters around my city. Its a great way to get ordinary people to associate universities with their core task of conducting research.

If only the architects would do the same and advertise at a macro level and radically promote the value they add to our urban spaces, communities, policy and culture. That might go some way to me avoiding the double whammy and stigma of being an architectural academic.

No matter where you are located, or how you are placed, in the great global game of architecture, have a great 2018. I am looking forward to another incredible Surviving the Design Studio, year and really looking forward to interacting with those of you who faithfully read this blog.

The Research Paradox for Architects: What is design research?

The image on the home page next to this post is a picture of a typical architectural researchers desk. Sadly there are people in this world who dont think architecture has much to do with research. Even I sometimes have trouble convincing people that I am actually doing research. 

Yet, in recent practice, architects have argued that architectural design is a research activity in its own right.  The research activities of architects include a range of problem solving and design related research activities such as data collection, workshops, internet searching and design drawing. In addition architects also research historic precedents, climatic issues, construction methods, products and materials. Design as research, also points to the emergence of research amongst architects related to the scripting of programmes, 3D digital modelling and prototyping. But is design research simply speculative or generative designing?

I like many other architects agree with the proposition that designing can be research. But this is clearly a problematic proposition.

 The design as research culture

Numerous PhDs, design studios, books and even entire courses have been built around the notion of Design as Research. In fact no one really knows how to write it: design research, or is it Design Research, or is it “design as research” ? But the real point is that, many architects regard design processes such as creating sketches, making digital CAD models, building physical models and building prototypes as research. But is that what design research is?

Of course, some have had a go at defining what it is. Dr. Peter Downton at RMIT argued that design is a ‘way of enquiring a way of producing knowledge; this means it is a way of researching.’ In a study of architectural design PhDs Radu asserts: ‘Architectural design is to architecture what research is to science’ and the ‘process of architectural design is close to the process of knowledge creation in the sciences’

No research infrastructure

Across the globe system there is clearly a lack of research infrastructure for architects at a number of levels; research infrastructure doesn’t just mean having big grunty boyo computers. In my country of Australia, research skills are not clearly articulated in the architectural accreditation system. Architects don’t often do formal research methods courses and few graduate schools of architecture offer courses around design research. Notably, my own school does offer such a course. Worse still design research outputs, such as buildings are not counted in research evaluation and publication exercises.

The reality of practice.

In actual practice, I fear that the documentary, formal and methodological structures supporting the organic activities of design research are fragmentary and adhoc. Few practices have formal R&D procedures in place, and few practices have developed procedures for articulating and documenting its original design outcomes. Aside from, practices publishing their projects for peers and marketing. much of the knowledge generated by all of the research in architectural offices remains largely implicit within firms.

Few firms write research reports on the information they collect and yet many often claim that research information is transferred to other projects. These adhoc practices make it difficult to ascertain, and argue, which aspects of architectural research are a contribution to new knowledge.

 Research models in practice

As a result, many firms flounder around when it comes to research. A lot have tied their own research models focused around digital design and fabrication. Other firms have focused their research on Sustainability. But simply having and seeming to follow through on this research focus is not enough. A few firms go beyond a simple focus on a strategic research area. Many dream of, or attempt to adopt, research models related to a management consulting. Larger firms are better at this. But this is, more often than not, without the well-worn and templates and proprietary methods that real management consultants have.

Moreover, only a few architects have embraced research models related to patent innovation and product development. I am still struggling to teach graduate archi students what Intellectual Property is.

The research paradox for architects.

The paradox is that many architects often state that research is a part of their design philosophy yet there is often no further articulation of this. Often in practice the organic integration of routine research and design as research activities makes it difficult to identify what is routine design and what is design which creates new knowledge. Establishing the contribution to knowledge of any research endeavour is necessary if it is to be regarded by non-architects as research. I worry that to many architects in practice R&D is about simply placing product and materials information at the back of a project file.

This is not to say that architects do not develop new knowledge or insights as a result of design processes. But, many firms appear to lack the methodological infrastructure, systems or research training needed to support R&D activities. This makes it difficult to isolate and position the research knowledge and innovations arising out of design research. Without these methodological and meta-structures in place it is difficult for architects to argue how design as research makes a contribution to knowledge. It also makes it difficult to position and distinguish new design from previous design research.

Policy failures

The focus on design as research, and its rise in architectural schools, has too often tended to emphasise research related to material issues: drawing, modelling, fabricating and constructing. But further research in the architectural schools could identify to what degree design as research in practices is focused on non-material and context-dependent topics: urban space, gender identities, teamwork, and cross cultural issues. Not to mention history and culture.

Arguably, few other professionals would actively have this broad range of skills and expertise at their disposal. Yet, the role of architects is not often accounted for or encouraged in national innovation systems or construction innovation policies.

All the politicians love a so-called smart and sustainable city. We require initiatives need to examine in the potential role of architectural design as research in national innovation systems. These considerations could lead to policies that highlight the linkages between, design as research arising out of architecture and new technologies, construction, industrial design and manufacturing.  But at present the design thinking and research of architects is often subsumed and only seen as a minor element in national innovation, research and educational policies. As architects, we need to build and develop our industry in a way that substantiate, explore and promote the design research agenda to the max.

Just designing, and then making something, and then claiming that this is research will not be enough.