Research in Practice

March 7, 2011 · by Debajyoti Pati, Ph.D.

The nonprofit R&D entity launched by HKS positions the firm as a leader while providing the entire industry with a knowledge resource that can be tapped without restriction.

In early 2010, HKS Architects launched the nonprofit research and development entity Center for Advanced Design Research & Evaluation (CADRE). That constituted, perhaps, the first instance of an architectural firm supporting the formation of a standalone R&D entity. What could be the motivation?

It would be erroneous to assert that research was non-existent in architectural practice before CADRE. Research studies of varying types have been and are being conducted in professional practice settings, more prominently by smaller boutique firms. The launch of CADRE represents two fundamental deviations from the traditional research model in architectural practice. First, the institution of a full-time research section in architectural practice is a new development. CADRE, in essence, spun off from the research activities in the clinical solutions and research group at HKS. In-house research with full-time staff was initiated at HKS in 2005. Since then, some other large firms specializing in health care design have also taken the initiative of hiring full-time researchers and supporting in-house research. This trend is different from the traditional research models in boutique firms in that those research activities were (and are) not channeled through a full-time, dedicated research department or group. CADRE represents a formal commitment of a firm to support research activities.

The second area of difference is in the scope of research. Traditional firm-based research studies focused primarily and heavily on “formal” (as in “form”) research, which — with the support of technological advances — created numerous masterpieces of architectural productions. Newer materials, parametric modeling, digital fabrications, and innovative structural solutions have provided novel research avenues and unprecedented solutions to design problems. The scope and focus of such research were primarily in the domain of building systems and subsystems. The initial period of the sustainability movement provided additional metrics and hence additional lines of research inquiry in the domain of building systems, thereby integrating multiple domains of research inquiries such as building systems, materials, and energy efficiency.

A different class of building research was also prevalent in the latter half of the 20th century. Such studies focused on occupant comfort and endeavored to identify ranges of environmental parameters that provide comfortable environments in different use contexts and settings.

The brand of research studies that started off within the context of health care design (which  many refer to evidence-based design research, although an industry-wide consensus on the terminology is pending) represents a different, albeit not mutually exclusive, line of inquiry. The primary focus in these research studies is the organizational outcomes of interest and key business drivers. The fundamental interest in these studies is to identify the nature and magnitude of influence the design of the physical environment has on areas critical to the performance of the client organization — the hospital. Since physical design interacts meaningfully with people and processes, the framework of the studies extends beyond building systems to include processes and operational culture as factors of interest and consequence — more specifically and importantly, finance, operations, information systems, and human resources.

It should not be construed that by focusing on organizational outcomes of interest design research has purged the traditional areas of research focus (form, material, comfort, and so forth). Rather, instead of situating form and materials within the realm of building systems, the endeavor is to examine and discover relationships between architectural form/materials and key outcomes of interest to client organizations. In essence, creative design solutions are no longer limited to producing pleasant environments. Aesthetics has become a function — in contrast to the traditional concept of aesthetics and function as separate domains of design decision-making. Use of novel forms and materials are, in this context, closely linked to process outcomes and business drivers in a predictable manner. In this scenario, forms and materials (among other domains of design decisions) play an instrumental role in targeting organizational objectives through physical design. The important concept here is predictability, hence the need for scientific research.

Lately, the sustainability movement has also been expanding beyond building systems and developing hypotheses and frameworks that target people, processes, and culture. Pursuit in this line of inquiry, in fact, started off in the domain of workplace research. While workplace research witnessed some degree of success in terms of industry impact, it had its own challenges, including difficulty in precisely defining and measuring outcome variables of interest. Work on a factory assembly line is simple to define, quantify, and measure compared to the challenge of defining quality and quantity of work and productivity and then identifying physical environment correlates in knowledge worker workplaces.

Health care, on the other hand, offered the ideal setting to examine associations between physical design and organizational outcomes. Data in health care are generated, collected, and coded as part of the standard operational protocol. Definitions of and measures for outcome variables exist. There is a growing body of strong evidence generated by clinical and design research as well as those in numerous other fields that study space. Although research funds in the area of health care design continue to be scarce, there is a phenomenal level of interest in saving lives and promoting health in a predictable manner through the design of the physical environment.

Other building sectors in which data are collected as part of the operational protocol are equally amenable to this brand of research and are increasingly showing interest, including education and criminal justice, according to CADRE President Tom Harvey.

Redefining Relationships

Targeting strategic goals of organizations through physical design creates a different relationship with clients. Traditionally, the client-architect relationship constituted one of purchaser-vendor. The conventional research focus on occupant comfort and efficient building systems was certainly important and still is. However, such knowledge is meaningful only to a limited group of facility managers and other stakeholders associated with facility and portfolio maintenance and management. When the targeted areas of impact of the physical design coincides with the targeted performance outcomes of the organization that a facility houses, the situation creates a different nature and level of engagement with organizational stakeholders. It transforms the client-designer relationship from one of purchaser-vendor to one characterized by an engaged partnership in which both the client organization stakeholders and the consultants identify solutions together in a rational manner based on the best available evidence.

An example will perhaps better articulate the distinction drawn above. Research on building energy efficiency has significantly contributed to our knowledge about designing more ecologically responsible buildings. Knowledge from such research draws greater attraction in building sectors in which energy consumption is a major item in the operating budget, such as data centers. There are other building types that are at the top of the energy consumption ladder, including food industry and health care. However, the cost of operating a hospital building (the physical plant), for instance, is relatively insignificant compared to the total cost of operations. Therefore, reducing energy consumption, while a noble goal and an important area of contribution by a consulting team, may not coincide with the key objective areas of the important stakeholder groups. Energy efficiency in hospitals, whether driven by sustainability principles or by building procurement process optimization (such as in the use of BIM platforms), is perhaps better appreciated by the facility managers than the other important stakeholder groups. Hypothetically, however, if the domain of energy consumption (integral to ventilation system design) is approached as a strategy to reduce airborne infections or improve clinical staff alertness (from air quality issues), then such strategies directly dovetail with the key interest areas of hospital clients. The appreciation of the value addition through design research or evidence-based design in such a context percolates deeper into the organizational labyrinth rather than being considered peripheral to the functions accommodated in a designed space. This expanded framework can include examination of novel materials, forms, and techniques (the fundamental interest of design professionals) toward the ultimate goal of improving patient, staff, and process outcomes.

Designers who are adopting this framework have the opportunity to develop a stronger client-  consultant relationship. The expectation goes beyond responding to the space needs of client organizations to include examination of the key processes that contribute to organizational growth and the bottom line. It offers the potential to develop a long-term relationship from which both parties benefit over time, according to HKS Architects President and CEO Ralph Hawkins.

Consumer Versus Producers

 

In this context, consulting firms of all scales can successfully reconfigure their internal processes to integrate knowledge from research in design decision-making. There are, of course, significant challenges in affecting this culture shift, which the industry is still experimenting with. Design curriculums are traditionally not structured to incorporate research literature in pedagogy. As a result, there is a learning curve in reaching the status of expert consumers of research publications.

Despite the challenges, firms are also venturing into the role of producers of research, as exemplified in CADRE. Assuming the role of research producer offers several additional advantages. Translational research in health care (clinical research) developed for the purpose of reducing the gap between knowledge generation in research facilities and knowledge consumption/application in clinical settings. Instituting a research group in a professional setting to conduct applied research studies is analogous to the role of translational research in medicine. It entails quicker identification of important design questions and faster implementation of research studies, thereby reducing the gap between knowledge generation and application. Indeed, quick-turnaround studies offer the benefit of just-in-time knowledge, notes Harvey.

Developing a research agenda and conducting in-house research offer additional advantages. Since research studies are typically based on theoretical frameworks, they enable mapping of knowledge and solutions between different contexts and domains. As a firm continues scientific examination of different associations between the physical design and people/processes, the potential applicability of findings in other contexts and building sectors grows in clarity. Of course, all studies need not be (and cannot be) conducted by a single firm. Collating findings from other published research work along with one’s own knowledge base developed through research creates a holistic framework that pervades any specific building type or setting. Such knowledge combined with rich professional experience opens up the avenues to expand into other building sectors and settings that a firm might not have considered in the past. Such knowledge also serves as a distinguishing factor for the firm.

Being a producer of research has other advantages too. As the researchers in the HKS clinical solutions and research group have found out, there are numerous processes before, during, and after design and construction in which design firms are typically not involved, but the quality of conducting such processes as well as their outcomes have a decisive impact on operational performance in a new facility. In many instances, such processes are conducted in-house by client organizations, whereas professional involvement may result in considerable benefit. Research studies conducted in collaboration with client organizations help reveal these extraneous factors that influence operational performance in new facilities. Discovering such areas provides the opportunity for creating new services or identifying consulting groups that can benefit client organizations.

Finally, being a producer of research adds to a firm’s image. Society legitimately perceives research as a significant value addition to a desired service. That is one reason why, for instance, there is a willingness to pay a premium to educate in a research university and an attraction to getting medical treatment in an academic medical center. Embracing research as a way of life and of practice provides that value advantage both to the members of a firm and to the client organization. It helps redefine the firm identity — the value a firm portrays to the client community and the public at large and how people perceive a firm when they think of it.

Why CADRE?

A fundamental question is whether situating research and development activities in an independent, nonprofit entity has any associated advantages. After all, research and development activities can be conducted within a firm. Conducting R&D within firms may also provide tax advantages if such activities satisfy the rules of the IRS.

The formation of CADRE was driven by other considerations. Situating R&D activities and knowledge resources in a neutral (nonprofit) outfit makes it easier on all (HKS professionals and the larger community of design professionals and clients) to take best advantage of such resources and create partnership in the pursuit of knowledge without the limitations imposed by professional competition and rivalry. Increasingly, scientific research will be conducted by interdisciplinary groups of experts.

The traditional single-principal investigator (PI) research model is gradually giving way to multiple-PI models from multiple institutions. Federal research grant agencies are gearing up to accept application involving multiple PIs. The creation of a collaborative, interdisciplinary group of experts optimizes the potential of developing a robust study protocol as well as having all the concerned domain expertise represented, thereby improving the quality and applicability of study findings.

According to Hawkins, all other advantages remain in existence. CADRE will continue to serve as a knowledge resource for HKS, which the industry and profession can also tap into without restrictions or reservations. It is a responsibility of large firms such as HKS, which have the ability and resources to generate knowledge, to do so for the entire profession. CADRE is the manifestation of that commitment and responsibility.



Debajyoti Pati, Ph.D., is executive director of CADRE. He has more than 22 years of international experience in architectural practice, research, and education in the United States, Canada, and India. Pati was voted among the top 25 influential people in health care design in 2009 and 2010. He received the Best International Research Project award by the International Academy for Design & Health, Stockholm, in 2009 and 2010. He holds a Ph.D. in architecture from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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