Building a case for research
‘Architects have a habit of reinventing the wheel’ says Flora Samuel, Professor of Architecture at the University of Sheffield. ‘That’s often because they, and construction companies, are ambivalent about academic research – there’s often a deep lack of understanding of the potential of research amongst practitioners, and even a hostility to the very word “research”. So while universities are churning out studies on what makes for a well-built house, say, practising architects and house-builders are often studiously ignoring them.’
The built environment is perhaps the most visible aspect of the Creative Economy in the UK, and yet clearly all is not well within it. A new project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, aims to remedy this situation, by improving knowledge exchange between architects, academics and businesses in the home-building industry. ‘Home Improvements: improving quality and value in the provision of volume house building through architectural knowledge exchange’ involves a collaboration between Edinburgh and Kingston Universities and led by the University of Sheffield, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the housing industry (including construction company Taylor Wimpey), to improve the quality of new housing, by improving communication and knowledge exchange between academics, architects and volume house-builders.
First, the project has involved a survey of all RIBA-accredited practices, showing that there is, indeed, a problem here. ‘We had a hunch that research was being under-used in the construction sector,’ says Flora Samuel, ‘but now we’ve shown that this is indeed the case. What we have discovered is that the research culture of architectural practices and volume house-builders is extremely undeveloped.’
Some of the responsibility for this may lie with architecture schools in the UK, which could do much more to promote research. But whatever its cause, the disconnect between researchers and the building industry is a serious issue, as the need for research-based practice grows ever more acute, both in terms of improving the quality of the UK’s housing stock, and helping the smaller architectural practices, in particular, to win contracts. ‘I’ve been a client adviser watching architects pitching for work,’ says Flora Samuel, ‘and seeing them make an abysmal job of it, when they could so easily refer to current research to back-up their case.’
The Home Improvements project has also involved funding a number of projects, to provide concrete examples of how research can be embedded in building practice. One has involved the creation of an information-rich website, encouraging people to custom-build their own homes. Another examined the way in which home owners use allocated parking spaces on new build estates, revealing that small changes in design could greatly improve relationships between neighbours and make a better environment at the same time.
The Creative Economy Showcase event also saw an interactive session, exploring whether techniques borrowed from advertising could be used to ‘sell’ the idea of research to architectural practitioners. As Flora Samuel says, ‘architects are very visual people – it’s largely the image of knowledge exchange that needs to be improved.’ Britain’s homes will be the better for it, if the project succeeds.