Surviving a design jury presentation: The essential guide. 

Design juries can be terrifying. It doesn’t really matter if you are an architect or a student the experience can be soul destroying. Get it wrong and you can lose the job or fail. Get it right and you live in order to fight another day. Standing in front of a group of critics can determine if you get the job; or the prize; or if you are at architecture school, a pass in  design studio. It’s much harder to present if you haven’t done enough work or you don’t really believe in the project. But speaking well in public and knowing the essential lessons of presenting a design can be the difference between passing or failing.

I have sat in on numerous design and award juries. The awards or the commissions don’t normally go to the architects who talk too long, speak in jargon, or bore the jury with an explanation of the stair and or toilet details. So here are a few essentials that will help calm the nerves and get you through if you are not used to public s peaking or always find presenting to a jury harrowing.


When you are presenting to a jury. Get the timing right. Don’t run over time or drone on. Architects are notoriously bad at timing there talks. As a student I went to the old AIA International Lecture series. All I  remember is Hans Hollein talking for around 3 hours straight. Aldo Van Eyck was the same. Will Alsop did it to us as well. Each time it happens to me it is excruciating. It doesn’t really matter how good the work was an overly long talk will kill any audience interest or curiosity. But, at least Will Alsop was kinda interesting because he was long winded as well as being drunk. But I still would have given him an E for going over time.

A picture says a thousand words

If you are smart, or English is your second language you don’t have to say a lot. The more diagrams, images or other representations you have to present the less you have to say. The less visual material you have on the wall the more you have to explain what is not there. There is nothing worse for a jury than seeing an under designed scheme that is then talked up, explained and elaborated in words.

In presenting to a jury architects need to remember to right balance between about talking and what is on the wall or on the digital files. Architects are visual and jury members like to look at images. I tend to think it is better to have more visual material than text on your drawings or images. There is nothing worse than having a few thousand words of detailed and so called explanatory text on architectural presentation pdfs. A short summary of the concect is good. Like an abstarct it should be no more than 300 words or so. The rest should be diagrams including, charts, graphs, flow charts and conceptual diagrams explaining the concept. Minimal text is good. As well as two and three dimensional views that explain the design.

In short there should be enough visual material on the wall to make your life easy explaining it. You wont always be there to explain you work. This is particularly the case for competitions and when a jury member or critic reviews the project later. So the layout and the visual argument of the design with any supporting diagrams is very important. This is why clear and communicative graphic skills are important.

Just cutting and pasting the renders out of the virtual world into photoshop and then sending them straight to the printer doesn’t really work. Slapping together a layout doesn’t really work. Keeping it in the computer up until the last minute doesn’t really work. Over-talking or over-texting the project doesn’t work.Filling your drawings with slabs of text doesn’t really work.

As a presenter of a design the aim is to lead the juror’s and critic’s eyes to the drawings. The aim of what you say is to get them to understand the visual argument and, in the minds, to inhabit the space. What you say to a jury in words must be linked to the images.

Don’t avoid talking about the concept 

Some architects find it difficult to talk in conceptual or theoretical terms. This may be in apart training and it is usually because for some architects it is easier not to talk about history, aesthetics, compositional processes, form, critical theory or the politics of urbanism. But this is exactly the sort of thing a jury wants to hear.

Bad presenters or architects, or students, who have not got a great content on the wall talk a lot about the other stuff. Like, what they had for breakfast. How their semester shaped up in terms of blow by blow and sequential description of how the design happened. Usually the easiest way to do this is to talk about everything that doesn’t matter. There is nothing worse than hearing a long winded talk about the pragmatics of  project. Siting, briefing, sustainable technologies, construction and materiality, client and user preferences can all too easily dominate any presentation. A great design is not simply a response to these factors; nor should it sound like it.

Most jury members and critics are architects who know a lot about that kind of stuff. Good architects have mostly spent there life trying to escape from the contingencies of pragmatic design. Mostly they are there because they have an interest in the strategic issues, problems and broader views not the details. Jurors and critics want to hear and talk about the big ideas. For a jury member going to an awards presentation is a bit like going to one of those TED talk thingys. As a jury member you want and expect to hear about life the universe and everything in relation in a very focused way.  Design Jurors and critics like to debate ideas in relation to the design. Give them what they want and don’t avoid talking about the conceptual apparatus and how it has shaped the building.

Of course, if you just talk about life the universe and everything and not the project design then you should be doing philosophy.


Guide the jurors eyes to the design. The way you structure the presentation should reflect this. Avoid the “this is what I had for dinner” or the “passage through life” syndromes. Get to the point. The first thing a jury wants to here is about are ideas. This will give them the context from which their eyes will begin to apprehend and understand the design and inhabit the building in their imaginations.

Do it as an elevator pitch. In three or four sentences you should be able to say what the project is about. What is it’s over riding concern or concept? The sooner the jury is familiar with this the more they will feel comfortable with looking at the design. Don’t leave the concept to the last minute. The best way to present to a jury is as follows. The improtant thing is to guide the jury to the design and the images which describe it.

You also need to lead the jurors thought the building. You can do this by describing how they enter the building, how they circulate thought it and what qualities of light or spatial qualities it has once they are inside or moving through it. The point is that you need to guide, not unlike a tour guide, the jury members or critics through your design.

  1. Introduce your self and the concept
  2. Quickly describe 3 or 4 ways that the concept has shaped the design of the building.
  3. Lead the jurors through the design quickly discuss: Siting, main entrances, circulation and spatial qualities of different spaces.
  4. Summarise what the design contributes to design knowledge and what you would do to evolve the design further.

And then you can be ready questions. Of course you in the above scenario there are whole lot of things you have not spoken about. Like materials or what or how its constructed or where the toilets or parking are. Some jurors like to ask these questions and by not mentioning them and yet being prepared for them. You will end up sounding knowledgable and thoughtful. Nevertheless, the main aim in the question period is to get a discussion going about the design, its associated concepts and what it says about the designers attitudes towards the particular type of architectural or urban problem the design encapsulates.

Public Speaking 

Don’t speak as if you are channeling a bad power point slide. A badly formatted template with crap images and too much detail on each slide. Keeping it simple is best.

I once saw the director of an architectural firm destroy his firm’s chances of getting  a $150M project by the ineptitude of his presentation. After 10 minutes everyone in the audience felt the same. After 10 more minutes I wanted to stab myself in the eye with a biro. The problem was that the presentation went on for another hour. It was scheduled to be only 35 minutes. The firm did not get the job and the primary topic of conversation in my email inbox, by other attendees, the next day was how bad it was. I just hope someone told him.

All the rules of public speaking apply. Don’t forget to wear your bow tie or best shoes. Get a good nights sleep before hand and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. Practice in front of your grandmother or your non-architectural friend’s. See if they get it. After all it could mean the difference between getting the architectural commission or doing the Uber thing: Who wants to be an Uber driver after seven years of study?


Schumacher vs Aravena’s Pritzker: Slugging it out in Monterrey Mexico.

Now that Aravena has won the 2015 Pritzker prize it might be worth discussing the current fault lines in architecture that run between the technologists and what Patrik Schumacher declaims as a “safe and comforting validation of humanitarian concern”. To do this I want to briefly analyse two projects by these very different architects in Monterrey Mexico. Just after Aravena won the prize there was an unusual outburst via Facebook and across social media from Schumacher:

“The PC takeover of architecture is complete: Pritzker Prize mutates into a prize for humanitarian work. The role of the architect is now “to serve greater social and humanitarian needs” and the new Laureate is hailed for “tackling the global housing crisis” and for his concern for the underprivileged. Architecture loses its specific societal task and responsibility, architectural innovation is replaced by the demonstration of noble intentions and the discipline’s criteria of success and excellence dissolve in the vague do-good-feel-good pursuit of ‘social justice’. 

When I read proclamations about political correctness I instantly associate this with a neoliberal and regressive politics. A politics intent on discounting social difference. Please forgive my skepticism but I am an academic after all. But an architecture focused on “specific societal tasks” might just mean: important big projects. For “responsibility” the cynical might read: more big projects designed by Patrik and Zaha and “architectural innovation” could refer to an architecture driven by all of the new technologies: drones, 3D scanning, 3D printing, AI and above all parametrics; and all of this innovation is promulgated through the new digital media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TED talks and Linked-in-Profiles (I should talk) and maybe even Snapchat. Social media is nowadays the new collective imagination of architecture.

A more clear sighted and less cynical analysis might ask if Schumacher is correct in his stance and is Aravena’s position any more worthy? Is it any more innovative and to what extent does it lose any sense of societal tasking and responsibility? Does the work of Elemental, Aravena’s firm, posit itself as a credible and alternative architecture?Schumacher goes on to directly criticise Aravena suggesting that it is a kind of comforting opiate for the “humanitarian” set. Perhaps he might just be right?

I respect was Alejandro Aravena is doing and his “half a good house” developments are an intelligent response. However, this is not the frontier where architecture and urban design participate in advancing the next stage of our global high density urban civilisation. I would not object to this year’s choice half as much if this safe and comforting validation of humanitarian concern was not part of a wider trend in contemporary architecture that in my view signals an unfortunate confusion, bad conscience, lack of confidence, vitality and courage about the discipline’s own unique contribution to the world.”

Reading this I was intrigued by what Schumacher meant by the terms “frontier” and  “our global high density civilisation.” It starts to conjure up images of John Ford’s film The Searchers.  Interestingly, I found that both architects have produced schemes in Monterrey Mexico which in its own way is a frontier city. A city where narcotics, capital and America’s free trade agreement with Mexico collide. I know Monterrey reasonably well having visited a few times with post graduate MSD students in 2010 and 2012.

Monterrey is a city that has little planning regulation, has grown in a adhoc manner and contains extremely rich suburbs along side informal settlements.  It is a city full of contradictions it is a large industrial city with many factories supplying the United States whose border is only 3 or so hours away by truck. The total amount of Nuevo Leon’s exports, the state in which Monterrey sits, in 2012 were 35 Billion USD, 11% of Mexico’s total exports.  The city is home to one of the most important universities in Mexico and Latin America: Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM). It is even home to a large Lego factory. It contains both the richest and poorest suburbs in Latin America. It is where   Narco-Mansions are sited near informal settlements with no sewerage or drainage exist within close proximity of each other.

Don’t get me wrong I love Monterrey and would go back anytime. But it is an example of what happens to a city when global capital is allowed to run wild. It is in many respects a test bed of free market urbanism

Aravena’s and his firm Elemental’s 2009 project in Monterrey Mexico sums up a lot about their approach to affordable housing. The housing is designed to be incremental, in the sense that the inhabitants can add to the housing themselves as personal economics allow. It is an open ended approach and adhoc approach. A relinquishment of architectural agency in a sense. The final form of the housing appears to respect the surrounding grid pattern and typology of Monterrey. I don’t want to impose a european reading on this work but the project arguably sits formally in a European canon. The flat roof and form of the housing seems to have its precedents in Corbusier’s Pessac project and even seems to evoke the urban morphologies of a Rob Krier or a Latin American version of  Taut’s housing in Weimar. In other words it is affordable housing with an aesthetic and tectonic edge. It is an effort, I think, to forge a frontier in the gap between ordinary lives and high architecture.

In contrast Hadid and Schumacher’s scheme for Monterrey there is nothing adhoc about this project; there is not doubt that it has been designed with a capital D; nothing has been left to the residents to design; its hive like cells and sinuous and curvilinear forms are at odds with the cities surrounding typology. The central landscaped space is full of nice people enjoying the sun. The renders have a lot of gym action and treadmills in them. This is another Monterrey development that proclaims its wealth. A project made to take advantage of Monterrey’s low cost wage structure and labour intensive concrete technologies. Complete with 981 units that look like they could be anywhere in the global and urbanised civilisation that Schumacher aspires to cover the earth with.

I remember as a young naive architecture student, in the dinosaur age, Eisenman coming to visit my architecture school. Replete with Brooks brothers button down shirt and braces he proclaimed that architecture was “autonomous” and in no way political. Architecture could only do what it could do. Schumacher’s position is not dissimilar but it is perhaps more dangerous because it is driven by the new technologies, with scant regard to the politics of the neoliberal frontier. The contradiction, of course is that Hadid’s early work seemed to claim a political position via the use and reference in it to the Russian Constructivists. It has morphed into something else now.

In contrast Aravena’s work speaks of the small architect. Aravena’s work clearly positions itself on the margins and in the cracks of cities. After all when everything is said and done we are all small architects trying to fill the gap between high architecture and ordinary lives.





Managing Creative Teams: 5 lessons from the architectural design studio

Architectural design studios exist in a highly complex industry sector with multiple stakeholders and numerous financial pressures. Architects must both educate and guide their clients through a highly complex and risky process. For the most part the property and construction industry is one of the most brutal industries that a firm can compete in. This is primarily because most property development and work in the sector is driven by the economics of price competition. Apart from architects, and perhaps interior designers, few other actors in the industry really care about design and design outcomes. Certainly not in the same way, or the same extent, that architects do. As a result the design studio, the team which creates the theories concepts and ideas driving a project, needs to be effectively nurtured and fostered. This team needs to be led in a way that fosters its capabilities to generate ideas but also to ensure that those ideas are robust. It’s no good leading a team in a way that prevents it from producing ideas or generating ideas that are easily diminished as soon as the cost cutters and value managers turn up.

 1. Be Diverse

Of course it goes without saying that gender and ethnic diversity is essential in any creative team. I like teams where everyone is different. Good leadership should be able to harness the difference’s between team members rather than turning difference into conflict. Clone teams are boring for those who work in them and I think clone like teams only ever aspire to mediocre results. Celebrating, fostering and supporting difference, enables a team to produce design knowledge that has the ability to produce a range of options. It also enables a team to critique a design from a multitude of perspectives.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest mistakes architecture students make is to form into groups and teams with their friends. They all live in the same area, or come form the same town or have the same skills. They don’t often realise that once they are in the real world they will work in teams full of strangers and people with diverse expertise and even age groups. One year I tried to change this and I selected the groups in my subject. I got the architects together with the landscape architects in order to do the assessment tasks. The idea was to try and simulate the kind of disciplinary exchanges that take place. The result was high degrees of conflict against me and within the groups. The architecture students resented not being with their friends. The next year I set up a whole lot of group formation exercises in order to facilitate students forming groups with complementary skills. There was less conflict and I thought it was working until I realised, despite my efforts, they had all got into their same old groups with their peer groups. After that I gave up and now my students self select their groups. The problem is that students then dot stay in these groups for the duration of the course poorly performing groups always perform poorly and better groups always do better.

My colleagues at the Parlour web site have written a lot about gender, diversity and equity and it is certainly worth looking at their site. Notions of diversity can of course make a difference to the outcome. A building I am familiar with ended up being mediocre, rather than great, because the culture of the office and the project team that produced it did not actively pursue diverse thinking.

The team itself needs to be diverse. Recruiting clones is fine if you want everyone to agree with you or produce nuances of the same idea. Worse still is a team where everyone has the same skill set or the same way of thinking. Diversity means having people in a team with different skills and ways of perceiving. In architectural teams, or any creative team for that matter, it is really important to have people who can thing in 3 Dimensions; who can think spatially.

2. Form a team culture 

The first 5 minutes of a team meeting are the most important. This is when the culture of the creative team is formed. In these crucial minutes do the team leaders suggest that the culture is collaborative? Do they espouse the highest conceptual and design aspirations for the project? Do they suggest that people in the team can make mistakes and take risks without recrimination? Do they suggest it is important for the team to have a sense of its won identity? Is difference and diversity in the team acknowledged and accepted? Will  contributions be acknowledged and praised? Or is it one of those teams where the slightest  misstep leads to censure and underlying and unspoken criticism.

3. Foster and tolerate ambiguity

The design process is highly ambigous. Often there are no right answers to a given scenario or problem. I think we have all heard or read about wicked problems. For architects, the design outcome is not exactly or precisely prescribed or understood at the beginning of the process. Nor can the design process be described as a logical sequence of precise actions (architectural thought is different to engineering). Moreover, sometimes the team, or some members of the team, might generate or pursue options that seem bizarre or unrealistic. All of the factors tend to mean that their is a high degree of ambiguity in the design decision making process.

It is the role of the team leader to know when to hold open and tolerate the ambiguity and risks of the generative design process and when to conclude various lines of flight. In other words there are times when ambiguity needs to be tolerated in order to pursue new lines of thought or ideas, that do not accord with a prevailing line, that just might be worthwhile. These ideas may not seem immediately instrumental or pragmatic. But they need to be pursued and their possibilities held open as strategic options or design options. A good design leader or architect will lead his team in a way that ensures there is a range of  different options being pursued and considered at any one moment in time. This should be done in a way that is systematic and considered. In contrast, the not so great design leader, creative  or architect will suddenly have a new idea out of the blue and make everyone change the design, or bits of the design, at a whim and usually at an inopportune time.

4. Increase the feedback speed 

Ever wondered what those thousands of interns do at the star architect firms. Well they often produce options and lots of them for any given scheme. I remember seeing thousands of options for the CCTV building in Shanghai at a OMA exhibition in Berlin. For those interested, Optioneering processes have been written about by my colleague Dr. Dominik Holzer and at CIFE at Stanford 

Option generation and then feedback in a team needs to be frank, honest and open. It needs to be delivered without conflict. Teams members need to understand there is no such thing as a dumb question; another common mistake of architecture students is to be afraid to ask dumb questions.  Communication needs to take place in an environment that is supportive. Team members should not feel that there are no wrong answers or a sense of criticism or censure.

Things will of course, and inevitably, do go wrong. the more open the channels of communication within the team the quicker ideas can be generated and problems solved as these ideas are defined. Open communication will also ensure that the connections and linkages needed between each step in the workflow are seamless rather than dysfunctional.

The quicker feedback can be incorporated into the design process and the greater the ability of the team to reiterate processes and provide recursive solutions the more robust the team is. Again one of the great mistakes architecture students make is to produce a design that has never gone through any iterations or its elements have never been explored in a recursive way.

5. Excellence in team leadership is critical

Team leadership is critical in the above mix. Studio leaders and the leaders of creative teams need to support difference, tolerate ambiguity, foster continuous feedback, build a team culture and do things quickly. Strong creative teams well led will produce great ideas. The best teams produce ideas that are well integrated with and closely matched to their project circumstances. As a result, great designs or campaigns are resilient to the travails and sniping of cost cutting, project risks and the mindless search for profits over the value of design.

All of the above are attributes arise out of and are taught in the best architectural design studios. To produce great graduates these attributes must be allowed to flourish in architecture schools.  In the university system, an emphasis on rigid policies and processes over fostering studio culture – or any kind of culture for that matter – loading up staff student ratios and cost cutting has eroded this culture.  I worry that the proponents who dream of a new higher education system, based around technology and virtual reality, are eroding what really counts because it cheaper or faster or better. At the moment I think that what really counts can only be taught face to face and that the architectural studio can teach us a lot about managing high performance in creative teams across many disciplines.

Architects and weird robots: Architects and Disruptive Innovation.

Disruptive Innovation has become a bit of a fashionable phrase to bandy about in polite conversation. As an idea it has its intellectual sources in the work of Schumpeter and of course the more recent work of Clayton Christensen whose classic book the Innovators Dilemma is a must read for all architects and even academics no matter what discipline they are from. Of course, Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction and Christensen’s work point to the economic horrors of late capitalism and the need for constant unsustainable growth. Be that as it may, understanding innovation theories, models and frameworks, is essential if  architects are to understand how technology can be managed both within and outside of the firm.

The Innovator’s Dilemma

As Christensen argues in the Innovators Dilemma firm’s are often adept at responding to evolutionary changes in their markets but they may not be capable at either initiating or managing market changes that are the result of what Christensen calls “disruptive innovation.”  Christensen defines “sustaining technologies” as innovations that make a product or service perform better in ways that customers in the market already value. In contrast “disruptive technologies create an entirely new market through the introduction of a new kind of product or service.” Christensen suggests that initially, at least, that these types of innovations may actually appear to be less effective in performance terms as judged by mainstream and traditional clients. As Christensen states “Disruptive innovations create an entirely new market through the introduction of a new kind of product or service”.

The S-Curve

Christensen’s original research was based on the technological history of the disk drive industry . This has given us a useful framework for considering how technologies evolve and this evolution is not necessarily predictable and this is why I am a technology skeptic (remember when VR studios were going to replace the face to face design studio).

The S-Curve model of technological evolution maps  product performance against time or engineering effort to effect this performance. In this model technologies follow a S-Curve pattern of improvement but there are often alternatives and other technologies that can be switched to as a technology matures and it becomes more difficult for it to achieve particular gains. This is true of most technologies but if we regard particular bundle of business processes or workflows as a technology then then the S-Curve model can be viewed in broader light.  In other words the S-Curve model may be applied to either technological components or a new technological architecture or platform or a nexus of organisational processes and technologies. I think that even cities can be regarded as and conceptualised as global technology.


The next big thing and things 

Arguably BIM allied digital fabrication is a disruptive technology that provides the possibility that new markets and services within the construction and property industry will emerge. These new markets might include a market for 3 dimensional modelling services directly connected to digital fabrication and industrialised construction methods. The parametric design and lean construction movements have forecast and predicted that disruptive technologies will change design and construction markets. Artificial Intelligence and robotics are also emerging technologies that some pundits also see as being disruptive in the foreseeable future. Certainly the emergence of coding as a competency in architectural practices is something that is now becoming increasingly necessary. This is evident for example when one looks at the business model of Design to Production  who intercede, using coding expertise, between architectural and fabrication and installation. One future scenario is that as a result of these changes design decisions and design knowledge creation will be made directly within at  the level of new digitised supply and construction chains.

The rise of new mobile applications may also have implications for how architects work on site and relate to clients. The implication of these forecast is that this will lead to architects, who have traditionally been upstream controlling and overlooking supply chains, no longer being needed at all. To what extent all of these technologies are disruptive and to what extent they might change the market, or the way architects practice is debatable.

As Christensen’s mapping of memory technology in the disk drive industry indicates industry innovation and competition is less predictable and more chaotic than one might suppose. The next big thing or disruption may not be the next big thing. Emerging technologies or innovations may overlap or intersect and not neccesarily follow each other in lockstep.


It may sound strange but when I look at the above diagram and the phenomena it represents I think: This is reason why it is more important to teach architecture students how to think about technology strategically rather than to teach them the technology itself. Very few architecture schools teach anything about the strategic management of IT. We can fill our architecture schools full of subjects that teach digital skills. All over the globe there is always someone on an accreditation or visiting panel who says the architecture school isn’t teaching the right things for employability or CAD monkey utility. But if that is the case, and thats all architects do,  we might as well all go home and forget about architecture as a social, cultural and political practice.

Architects and weird robots 

Some technologies and innovations will create new markets and it is in the nature of capitalism that old markets destroy old ones. Given this there are two schools of thought about the impact on architecture. Will architecture as a discipline survive and adapt to the continuing onslaught of new technologies or will it disappear as a domain of knowledge and a practice and be replaced by weird AI robots? Architects are already pretty weird. Certainly, for architects in Australia the emergence of the project managers in the 1980s with a different and associated set of skills and technologies could be regarded as a disruptive innovation. IN Project managers were able to “create an entirely new market through the introduction of a new kind of product or service.” I personally think that apps will help to create new markets for architectural services and change the way architects do their business.

Architects, both in firms and as a profession, need to scan the horizon in order to anticipate the emergence and impact of disruptive technologies within the design, property and construction industry. But overscanning the firm’s event horizon as new technologies emerge can also be a danger. Skepticism is required. Not all new technologies or innovations will be the next big thing. Architects need to distinguish between disruptive as well as sustaining, or incremental innovations or technologies.  Not all new technologies or innovations are going to be disruptive and not all incremental technologies and innovations are going to be effective. It could be year’s before the latest app, fabrication or manufacturing process or new super nanomaterial changes the market for architectural services. Similarly, the next big thing may only be the next incremental innovation rather than what its proponents and marketers claim it to be.

Given the artisanal and seemingly primitive nature of most construction processes it is all too easy to latch onto the next big technological thing and see it as being disruptive. The contrast between new technologies and the chaos of manual labour and the scatalogical nature of building sites is an easy one to be seduced by. Architects managing firms need to assess emerging technologies and decide if they either pose a potential threat to a firm’s competitive advantage or business model or if they should be part of the firms strategic infrastructure. This assessment is important if architectural firms are to decide if a new technology is simply evolutionary, in other words an incremental improvement, or in fact is disruptive. Such an assessment will also determine the kinds of alliances a firm might take up or pursue in order to remain competitive. Architects also need to understand how emerging and disruptive technologies are changing the markets and landscape in which there clients exist in.

Architects need to debate how emerging technologies will effect their traditional markets of creating and selling design knowledge. These debates need to go beyond simplistic arguments about the employability of recent graduates and what they need to learn. How might market and industry structures change and what kind of technologies will the architectural firm of the future contain? I don’t really know the answer to these questions but I do know that Architects, architectural researchers and architectural educators need to be skeptical about the next big thing.

6 Ways to Generate Research Knowledge in an Architectural Practice.


Recently I bumped into a friend who is a director in an small architectural practice he told me that R&D was the practices highest priority. Many architects say this and numerous architectural websites and brochures are full of statements about how research is valued and prioritised. My friends firm is different. They have an advisory board, are involved in numerous architecture schools, one of the directors appears to be constantly gathering new knowledge across the broad domains of urbanism, design and innovation. Interestingly, the practice is one that is actively involved in seeking funding and commercialising at least one of its ideas. The firm is a good example of a firm that is able to do research and then push that down the pathways of innovation and commercialisation. A number of international architects, Australian architects and even academics have been able to go down this path. But I fear this is the exception and that many architectural firms are not effective or face numerous barriers (lack of time being the principal one) in the way that the approach the research and development question.

My point here is not to question what research is, or how it might be strictly defined, or how architectural or design research contributes to knowledge. That is the subject of another blog (if not a PhD thesis). But my friend got me thinking about the question of how should architectural firms, particularly small ones, organise themselves in order to do research?

1. Have a research strategy.

Research involves developing knowledge or expertise in a particular area. For the reason it makes sense that an architectural practice would focus their research efforts in a way that aligns with their business strategy. If the firm seeks to develop a competitive advantage in health, or facade design, or sustainable design or some aspect of urban design then its research efforts should align with this.

Whilst it is important, it may not be effective to pursue research that is simply about implementing new technologies in the office or figuring out what the next bit of funky software the firm should buy (see no. 2 below). Sometimes the line between these activities and strategic research is blurred. One office I worked for, in the earlier days of CAD, did spend a lot of time researching and understanding the expressive possibilities of CAD design and architectural representation. As CAD developed this gave them a large competitive advantage. Clearly the knowledge and research gained, as CAD systems themselves developed, had strategic benefit to the firm. In any case, I would always push for a line of research in the office that is at least aligned with the its current strategies or with its intention to develop new areas of expertise.

2. Pursue radical innovation rather than incidental research.

Whilst research efforts in an office should create knowledge which adds to the firms competitive advantage. This should not always be the case. Of course, I am not sure that simply being technically proficient or doing research that improves a firm’s current efficiencies and capabilities.It is a balancing act between conducting research to improve current capabilities versus working on seemingly new and radical innovations. Getting the balance right is important but sometimes research needs to be wacky. Research is about trial and error and indeed about making mistakes. That is in part what research is about. Buckminster Fuller is a pretty good example of this.

But research in a architecture should not simply be seen as simply materials research. Research is not simply about finding out about new materials for your latest job and then filing the information into a folder for later reference. Unless, of course you think that the knowledge you gain from the material research process can be used elsewhere. But, I think that is what all architects think: They all think the extra research or knowledge they gain on one project can be used on another. But I am a little skeptical about this. Especially, if the firm does not have a research strategy or its projects are highly customised and different each time.

Sometimes you really have to undertake research that is risky or may not have an obvious or immediate benefit.

3. Create networks that help you to gain knowledge.

As my friend has done in his practice Architectural firms who prioritise research build an ecosystem of mentors, advisers and experts that they can interact with to debate and test new ideas. Almost all startup companies will  have advisory boards that advise them through the pitfalls and hazards of commercialising an idea and then growing. So why not architects.Networking of course isn’t neccessarily always  about trying to find new jobs. It can also be about gaining knowledge of what is going on across the domains of knowledge where you practice. At least one person in any practice needs scan the horizon for new ideas or the latest research developments.

A good example of creating a research network is Google. The Google platform is an ecosystem that includes consumers, software innovators, content providers and advertisers. It is a permeable system where outsiders can also become collaborators. Hence, it is not simply a matter of trucking in people or experts to help you solve a problem. It is about creating an network or ecosystem of collaborators who can help a firm to create new knowledge and to also understand what is happening within architectural and urban discourse. 

4. Use your staff to create research knowledge.

Another dilemma for architects is how to organise a firm to do research. In the old days all wisdom in the office came from the Master. The so-called Master was not unlike Gary Cooper in the Fountainhead movie. He (sadly, always a he) was usually the architectural designer who by force of ego, class background, cachet of education, or through experience and perseverance. When I worked for  a “Master” in the 1980s as a young architecture student I could do nothing right and you can imagine what this did for my confidence as a designer. He was a good architect and in later years proved to be a designer of international note. But, he was also never wrong and always insistently right. Contending with the Master’s wisdom was really not a great career move. It was a little bit like being in a cult. Master’s love acolytes and they of course like acolytes who agree with them. The worst thing a firm can do is to create team’s in its own image rather than diverse teams which I would argue are they key to creativity.

Hence, it is best to strive to create distributed research knowledge within and across the firm. More research is done in a practice where everyone contributes to it. Although, we may not want to emulate Google, it is still a good example to think about in this respect. Of course architectural firms aren’t as large as Google; nor are they filled with Ivy League software engineers who get time off each work to do research. But allowing and organising your staff to do research has a number of intangible benefits. Firstly, it gives employees a reason for being and staying in the firm in between mindless CAD “monkey” work. It obviously helps a firm build a portfolio of research interests and streams that may or may not develop, and thirdly by using your staff or other team members you can quickly increase the firms knowledge base. Directors, managers and team leaders in firms need to cut employees slack to do the research and create the new ideas. Ownership of new conceptual ideas or design processes more often than not is, and should be, shared. It never really resides in the mind of one person no matter how much symbolic capital they may have as a master. As they say at Pixar: “A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organisational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.”

This might be why my favourite model of Knowledge Management or  is based on the Japanese management theoretician Nonaka whose work points the importance of  knowledge as a vital source of competitive advantage, there is little understanding of how organisations actually create and manage knowledge dynamically.” Nonaka and his colleagues understand that knowledge creation in an architectural firm, or any firm for that matter, is a collaborative and iterative process. 

5. Collaborate with academics.

Bring academics into your firm’s research ecosystem.The problem is academics are often time poor and hemmed in by teaching commitments and an overly regulated bureaucracy. On the other hand not all academics understand the dynamics of practice or business protocols. Most academics in architecture schools love to do research. They also like to talk about it. Because of this it is a good idea to contact and foster the participation of academic researchers (like me!) into a practice’s work. Invite them in as critics. Invite them to the firm’s christmas party. Allow them to participate in planning workshops or esquisses. This will help the academics understand the pressures and time frames of the practice. It will also get them thinking about what you do as a firm and what you can do better. Before you know it you will become part of some usefull collaborative research projects.

6. Teach a studio.

One good way to conduct research and create new knowledge is to teach a studio at an architecture school. I don’t think this is simply a matter of choosing a project with a site and a brief and then getting the students to do it. Studios should not be seen as teaching the students to simply solve specific and simplistic design problems. This is too much of a crank the handle approach to design studio teaching. I believe all studios, particular at a post graduate level should involve the so called “wicked problems”. Research knowledge generated from the studio should be more speculative and less technical. It should aim to solve a difficult problem or be focused on a project that exists in a problematic context.

I would suggest that integrated studios are better. By this I mean studios that integrate different domains of knowledge or disciplines such as landscape architecture, planning or urban design. Or they may integrate different theoretical or cultural domains of knowledge for example the studio may be focused on a particular stakeholder group or sub-culture.

For research in a studio context to be effective it must also have a political dimension. Why? Because, new design knowledge generated from a studio should ideally question an existing situation or status quo. But not everyone would agree with this. Running a studio with an overly technical focus, for example a studio focused on the students exploring the limits and expressive capabilities of a particular software package, may not necessarily be contributing new design knowledge to the architectural domain. In setting up a political dimension or element to a studio the knowledge created can then help the studio leaders to position and locate themselves in relation to various political or policy debates as they emerge in urban discourse. This enables a firm that teaches to gain an advantage over its competitors by actively being a part of an ongoing public and policy debate. A firm may then be able to anticipate and participate in the projects that these policy debates engender and spin off.