“What is design research in architecture? This pressing question dominates discussions amongst leading academics and heads of administration in our architecture schools today. From building performance to novel material systems, to complex structures, to contemporary manufacturing, the practice of design research in architecture schools is extremely relevant to the future of our built environment and to the shaping of our academic institutions. . . .”
What is design research in architecture? This pressing question dominates discussions amongst leading academics and heads of administration in our architecture schools today. From building performance to novel material systems, to complex structures, to contemporary manufacturing, the practice of design research in architecture schools is extremely relevant to the future of our built environment and to the shaping of our academic institutions. For example, organic models such as those found in nature afford new modes for understanding issues of feedback, adaptation, growth, and self-assembly as they negotiate truly dynamic environments. A rigorous understanding and analysis of these types of models will allow architects to retool and reevaluate how we bridge these topics with relevant applications in architecture. This bridge demands research and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.
A few leading architectural researchers and designers have worked tirelessly, and frequently alone, to pave the way for next-generation research labs in academia. From procuring grants to managing funded research and publishing in scientific journals, the prospect of sustaining serious design research in schools is in peril unless new infrastructural and curricular models are put into place. Without systemic change, we risk losing the confidence of newly formed alliances with important federal funding agencies. This, in turn, will impact the future of architecture both in practice and in academia. In 2010, the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched an exciting program under their Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) umbrella for “Science in Energy and Environmental Design” (SEED). In the interest of crafting and conceptualizing new models for engineering and designing sustainable buildings, the NSF called for transdisciplinary, collaborative teams that included architects. 10 teams across the US were awarded $2,000,000 grants to conceptualize new models for dealing with the problem of sustainability in architecture. This award was a game changer for those architects fortunate enough to be part of an awarded team. To do truly serious design research it is impossible to simply fit it into old academic models; rather, it demands new models that touch everything from how funds are managed in schools to how students are involved and benefit from the research in their design educations. My research and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design from 2005–11, and now at Cornell University’s Department of Architecture provides one answer, but our work is far from over.
For the past seven years, I have engaged in work that sits at the forefront of a new direction for 21st-century architectural research practice—one that investigates the intersections of architecture and science, and applies insights and theories from biology and computation to the design of material structures. What follows is a description of my largest research project, in collaboration with a number of scientists and designers.
Since the official public launch of our NSF project, titled “Energy Minimization via Multi-Scalar Architectures: From Cell Contractility to Sensing Materials to Adaptive Building Skins,”in the fall of 2010, I (Co-Principle Investigator) along with Andrew Lucia (Senior Personnel) have led a team of practicing architects, graduate-level architecture students, and researchers in the investigation of biologically informed design through the visualization of complex data sets, digital fabrication, and the production of experimental material systems for prototype speculations of adaptive building skins, designated “eSkin,” at the macro building scale. The full team, led by Dr. Shu Yang (Principal Investigator), is actively engaged in rigorous scientific research at the core of ecological building materials and design. We are exploring materiality from nano to macro scales based upon understanding of nonlinear, dynamic human cell behaviors on geometrically defined substrates. The insights as to how cells can modify their immediate microenvironment with minimal energy and maximal effect have led to initial prototypes that incorporate biomimetic design and the engineering of highly aesthetic passive materials, as well as sensors and imagers, which will eventually be integrated into responsive building skins at the architectural scale.
Our architectural research with the scientific team operates within a multiyear and multiphase research plan. Currently, the project is broken down into three phases: first, the production of catalogs of visualization and simulation tools that are then used to discover new behaviors in geometry and matter; second, an exploration of the material and ecological potentials of these tools through the production of experimental structures and material systems; and third, the generation of scientifically based, design-oriented applications in contemporary architecture practice for adaptive building skins.
Our project represents a unique avant-garde model for sustainable design via the fusion of the architectural design studio with laboratory-based scientific research. In turn, this benefits a diverse range of scientific applications and technologies, including the construction of energy efficient and aesthetic building skins or materials. The synergistic, bottom-up approach across diverse disciplines—including biology, materials science and engineering, electrical and systems engineering, and architecture—brings about a new paradigm to construct intelligent and sustainable building skins that engage users at an aesthetic level with minimal energy consumption. Our emphasis rests heavily upon the study of natural and artificial ecology and design, especially in observing how cells interacting with predesigned geometric patterns alter these patterns to generate new surface effects.
We posit that sustainable building practice should not simply be a technical endeavor, but one that also includes the transformation of existing built fabric into sustainable models that inspire both positive sociocultural change and innovation in science, technology, and the material arts. Importantly, we hope that our interdisciplinary work will help redefine design research in our respective institutions, in the context of fluctuating research and teaching models in scientific and architectural paradigms. All of this points to the dire need for new research models in the context of pressing topics in each of our fields concerning key social, environmental, and technological issues that ultimately impact architectural design and the built environment.
While the eSkin project provides a unique model for engaging design research in academia, its success depends entirely upon the tireless and creative efforts of its contributors, who skillfully and carefully fit it within a framework that is simply not sustainable. From the graduate architecture students, who add hours of research on top of their already demanding studios, to the Principle Investigator, who splices research in alongside a full-time teaching and administrative load, the answer is clear: we need a new model. While we should argue over the answer as to what design research is, we may certainly agree that it straddles the messy line between architecture and science, a projective conflation of the unknown and the known—and hasn’t that always been the case? Let’s give it some room to breathe and fester. I have a few suggestions: cross-appointments for faculty in architecture and alternate disciplines; postprofessional programs that are about engaging cutting-edge research, not the latest trends in software; and reduced teaching loads for those leading funded research, allowing them to engage with students in a different type of architectural and academic environment.