Blueprint Innovation: Architects + Research\

Veronica Simpson looks in to why architectural practices are now investing in research. As part of the article, Veronica talks to Darryl Chen, our head of research, on why we set up the Thinktank and highlights a few of our recent research projects.

Richard Ogle, author of Smart World, is convinced that a sense of ongoing curiosity and engagement with the world around you is vital to creative practice. He argues that the 'reach and reciprocity' approach to learning - where you start with core knowledge, but constantly venture out to learn new things that you can integrate back into that knowledge base, in an iterative process of 'expansion and integration' - is what makes truly smart individuals, organisations and civilizations.

For some, research is a tool for differentiation as well as inspiration. Hawkins\Brown, a London-based practice with more than 150 staff, launched thinktank in the spring of 2014, to celebrate its 25th birthday. Headed by Darryl Chen, the thinktank team has recently expanded to three, taking on the architect and former LSE academic Michael Riebel - to help develop a research programme that could marry the pragmatics of real-life practice with the rigour of academic analysis.

One of the first thinktank projects was an examination of the kinds of housing emerging from current design guidelines. Says Chen: ‘We wondered if regulation does produce an aesthetic without even intending to.’ Using a survey produced by London’s forum for built environment professions - New London Architecture (NLA) - it published The Emperor’s New Housing, exploring how new models could disobey guidelines but offer real solutions to housing issues. Says Chen: ‘This research led to some really interesting conversations with clients.’ The findings pointed to four interesting new types of housing that might solve problems - including co-housing and shell & core residential - which are indeed growing in popularity. And this undoubtedly helped secure the practice a commission to develop and inform a brief for a commercial client looking to build residential developments within science campuses.

Hawkins\Brown has also partnered with the Centre for London thinktank, to explore the idea of mapping what it is that helps to create and sustain ‘innovation districts’ in London. And a Creative Ecology project looking at new kinds of workplace that encourage innovation and interaction has led to a collaboration with Buro Happold to develop a workplace tracking tool that can analyse building usage in order to clarify optimum spacings, flows and choreographies. Says Chen: ‘We didn’t set out to make money - at least not directly. We’re an overhead for the practice, but we always wanted to increase the design capability.’

Nonetheless, the thinktank’s existence has put the practice on the radar for new kinds of work, including a commission from the RIBA for the development of a digital briefing tool that can enable small and medium-sized practices to conduct a form of Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) - ‘It’s not a full POE but a simple, usable tool to catalyse discussions about outcomes,’ says Chen. This will be launching this summer.

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