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  • July 24, 2020
    Image courtesy of dScout

    by Beth Carliner

    Research is a vital part of the architectural process, which allows design to be as effective and inclusive as possible. The AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee held a roundtable discussion on May 27, 2020 to explore some of the opportunities emerging within the practice of Remote Research Methods. The conversation, moderated by Fauzia Khanani, co-chair of AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee and Founding Principal of Studio For, featured Tanya de Hoog, Principal at Thornton Tomasetti, and Liz Vandermark, Director of Research at SmithGroup. Participants delved into research outcomes, thoughts on improving methods, and future implications of current findings.

    As the webinar opened, a poll was conducted and 45 percent of attendees stated that they have had to modify or tried new methods of research in the last three months. Since the emergence of COVID-19, research methods have gone remote and revealed both benefits and challenges.The discussion then began with an assessment of how both the methods for collecting data and the content itself has changed. In the past, research relied heavily on in-person conversations and site assessments. De Hoog and Vandermark remarked that, since COVID-19, some of the methods their firms had been reluctant to explore, especially those focused on technology, have now become essential. Drones, 360 cameras, and virtual and augmented reality are all methods that have been available in the past but have gained new utility; skepticism has all but vanished. De Hoog stressed that there is now a hyper-awareness of space and time and a focus on the importance of human interaction with regard to research. This has resulted in rich conversations about the importance for data to lead to new insights for design whereas, prior to COVID-19, research sometimes used to support pre-design assumptions. Meanwhile, Khanani provided insight into how the inability to make site visits has forced her to rely on clients or other site representatives to provide data about the physical state of projects, be it as-built measurements or construction progress. 


    Image courtesy of Center for Architecture


    On the other hand, our panelists recognized the shortcomings of relying on technology for remote research methods. While the digital environment seems ubiquitous, WiFi connections are inaccessible to many. Additionally, many are also saddled with poor connections or home environments that are not conducive to digital communications. Many seniors are also less adept at using technology, so their voices may not be heard. These digital divides could provide unreliable results.

    The ability to gather narrative-based data in addition to quantitative data from virtual outreach was another concern of the panelists. It is easy to get lost in the statistics and patterns revealed by the quantitative data that virtual data collection enables. Moreover, virtual data collection also requires less human interaction. This can inadvertently eliminate some important findings that arise organically from conversations. The lack of human interaction also affects our ability to read body language and visual cues that are key to fully understanding each other. Finally, people may be less candid in their responses when taking virtual surveys. However, the panelists also found that open-ended questions resulted in thoughtful and unexpected personal responses.


    Early observations from a COVID-19 perspective, Image courtesy of Liz Vandermark


    These issues and more brought into question the implications of our overwhelming use of technology. Optimistically, the panelists reflected on the equalizing effects of digital communication. Participants can join from wherever and whenever is most convenient for them. While certain voices seem to dominate in teams or large in-person groups, digital spaces can allow for other, more quiet voices to be heard. Speakers also noted that participation has also drastically increased in some types of engagement. Vandermark highlighted that data collection through a website allows for community engagement at multiple points of time and across a larger population set, while also allowing participants to be involved on their own terms. Data analysis is also facilitated by digital inputs, and there is greater potential for continued, real-time trends to influence a continuous design process. De Hoog remarked that our industry has been confronted with an opportunity to improve our digital literacy and increase the presence of research within the standard design process. 

    The panelists concluded by discussing positive or surprising findings that have emerged since implementing remote research methods. Vandermark noted how the crisis has revealed an innate desire for designers to help and share resources. These efforts are aided by digital communications, as we have seen through the 3D printing of PPE and the sharing of COVID-19 safety measures. De Hoog picked up on a similar communal desire to support change in this moment, noting that “people are really open and available to giving their time, especially where it relates to creating change in the world. Things can now move more quickly because people are available.” She brought the example of a mind map that she produced before COVID-19 when she was researching Skid Row in Los Angeles. This research took fifteen months and six flights. This is a stark difference from her research today, when she is able to capture some of these insights in only a few months. 


    Mindmap documenting the interconnected considerations captured for a Non-Profit addressing homelessness in Skid Row in L.A, Image courtesy of Tanya de Hoog


    Participants in the webinar were left with ideas of how the recent data collection and research methods may become more readily available in long term practice. Among them is the idea of the shared responsibility data collection between researchers, field representatives, and participants. There is also a newfound potential for the process to be more equitable by providing “an equal playing field” through technology from which participants can be heard. 



    Tanya de Hoog, CEng, FIStructE, MIEAust, Principal at Thornton Tomasetti

    Liz Vandermark, AIA, MSc, LEED AP, Principal & Director of Research at SmithGroup



    Fauzia Khanani, Assoc. AIA, Principal at Studio For


  • January 29, 2020

    by Brenna Luczyszyn

    On January 29, our friends on the AIANY Technology Committee and the AIANY Science and Research Facilities Committee presented a program on the ways demand for innovation is necessitating flexible and highly-technical environments in several different industries, Scaling Customization: New Frontiers of Flexibility for Innovative Environments. Then evening began with presentations by Melissa Marsh of PLASTARC, Andrea Lamberti of Rafael Vinoly Architecture, Aleksey Lukyanov-Cherny of SITU and Federico Negro of Canoa Supply, which were followed by a panel discussion. The panel was moderated by Nicholas Desbiens, Head of Digital Practice at KPF and Co-chair of the AIANY Technology Committee.

    Marsh kicked off the event with her presentation, “The Future of Data-Led Workplace Design.” She discussed measurement, highlighting the need for both big data (collected by systems) and little data (individual experiences) to find out what people want in a workplace. Big data includes records that a company may already have about building utilization, space-specific mobile device usage patterns, and data gathered from IoT, and surveys. Combined with little data from interviews, observations, and other qualitative methods generates much more valuable insight. Marsh shared that data is also showing that employees value using an environment that is sensorially great more than they value owning their own workspace. As a result of this focus on experience, people are increasingly connecting with individuals who share their interests and tastes.

    Lamberti then presented about trends in the design of science environments. She revealed how even a laboratory with standard elements can be designed with occupant satisfaction in mind, when she showed options for the floor plan at The Rockefeller University River Campus laboratory. The lab was being designed with a modern, open layout, but there are rules in a science lab for keeping food separate from experiments. The solution was a clear divider at the end of each write up desk, to create the concept of separation while still allowing the space to maintain the open aesthetic the scientists desired. Social spaces were included, where people could interact during breaks and meetings. 

    Lukyanov-Cherny, partner at SITU, then took the podium. Continuing with the theme of flexible and shared spaces, he spoke about the challenges of designing workspaces for clients like Google. He also discussed designing a multi-purpose space in the Brooklyn Public Library that could support dozens of uses and be changed over in under 10 minutes by one librarian. 

    Negro spoke about his company’s commitment to decarbonizing the built environment by providing a rental furniture option for small and medium businesses, so that they could design office spaces without waste. CANOA has found that the typical tenant spends only 3 years in a workspace, and furniture winds up in a landfill. Negro noted that his company is using data from the materials (wear and tear of furniture), to gauge and improve the customers’ experience.

    After the individual presentations, all four panelists came together under the moderation of Desbiens for questions from the audience, ranging from what architects can learn from social sciences, to the actual collection of data. Marsh pointed out that more incremental changes are happening more often, and we can measure anything by designing studies, and collecting data in a rigorous manner. Massive data collection is now the norm, but how that data is used to create better environments for people is a conversation that is just beginning to unfold. 

    Andrea Lamberti AIA LEED AP BD+C, Partner, Vinoly Architects
    Aleksey Lukyanov-Cherny, Partner, SITU
    Melissa Marsh, Founder & Executive Director, PLASTARC
    Federico Negro, Founder, Canoa Supply Co.

    Nicholas Desbiens AIA LEED AP, Head of Digital Practice at KPF, Co-chair of the AIANY Technology Committee

  • December 20, 2019
    Experts presented on the use of AI in design and architecture.

    Data is omnipresent. Our digital interactions throughout the day represent a wealth of information about our habits, preferences, interests, and activities. Our physical movements are captured by our phones and, increasingly, the buildings and cities where we work and live. 

    Considering the abundance of data, how do we curate and analyze it purposefully? 

    In December, the AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee hosted AI and Sensemaking: Human-Centered Design in the Age of Abundant Data, where experts from the worlds of design, technology, data science, and organizational sociology examined this question. Organizations are turning to AI for the “sensemaking” that helps us understand the significance of the data.  The speakers—Daniel Pittman, partner for strategy and innovation at TAD; Will Shapiro, cofounder and CEO of Topos Inc.; Andreas Hoffbauer, founder and director of Atelier Kultur; Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC and senior managing director of occupant experience at Savills; and moderator Nitzan Hermon, founder and consultant at Future-of.Agency—reflected on AI and architecture through case studies, current projects, and potential scenarios.  


    Daniel Pittman showed how TAD, which specializes in the integration of architecture and technology, is exploring AI’s relevance for user experience, data analysis, and messaging. To illustrate how AI could provide new perspectives on complex information, he described a generative content project that relies on AI to create a real-time depiction of financial markets using boids; the room-height, multi-wall installation is both an aesthetic statement and a means of providing insight into market data. 

    The firm is exploring other arenas where AI could foster insight or greater simplicity in settings ranging from corporate offices to medical facilities. Referencing the firm’s work to integrate AI into different projects, Pittman considered the implications of natural language interfaces and authentication; of process automation, in which intelligent systems help clients operate more efficiently and gain insights from their technology networks; and of the firm’s efforts to create “frictionless environments” in which technology enables seamless experiences in workspaces. 

    There is a disjunction between rhetoric and the reality of AI; his firm’s purpose is to distinguish between the two. Beyond that, the firm has three roles in this arena: it helps clients best prepare for what lies ahead; determines what are legitimate, pragmatic steps forward for AI; and provides insight about how clients should be thinking about AI and why it’s relevant to their people and customers. 


    Throughout his consulting work, Will Shapiro has taken powerful data analysis tools to, as he described it, “understand place holistically.” Topos relies on AI to discover the dynamics of people and urban environments that can be meaningful for governments, planners, and businesses. As a demonstration of the potential for discovery, he discussed his firm’s “Five Boroughs for the 21st Century,” an effort that used AI to cluster New York City regions not by geography, but by data. Using an AI technique called “k-means clustering,” he analyzed publicly available urban data to identify 17 key dimensions that define the city. The correlations that emerge—between nightlife and dollar-pizza eateries, or between a neighborhood’s pizza topping options and residents’ median household incomes—reveal surprising parallels and a basis for creating the new mappings. 

    AI creates the possibility for us to understand cities in a more granular, temporal way in the face of rapid shifts in urban life and dynamics. This analysis could be powerful in determining how cities are designed and zoned—in conceiving the way we organize elements and neighborhoods of the urban environment. AI, Shapiro said, would “allow people to use data to make those decisions, instead of intuition or arbitrary standards.” 


    Melissa Marsh highlighted the use of data in defining and improving design, placing a strong emphasis on curating information that is truly relevant to the design endeavor. Her firm PLASTARC focuses on strategic design for workplace performance and innovation, and she noted that buildings now gather a plethora of data, yes—but this data often says nothing about behavior, which is the key factor in human-centered design. “What makes data in buildings relevant is people’s actions and interactions,” she observed. With that in mind, practical applications of data in architecture must focus on human dynamics.

    Case Study:
    To highlight PLASTARC’s data-sifting approach, Marsh spoke about a consulting project to examine why a newly completed office was often 50% empty. By amassing data points about physical space characteristics, resources, and social drivers, the firm revealed the intersection between and the characteristics of places and the choice to occupy them. The firm relied on the assessment to improve the design of the spaces, using a combination of social, technological, and physical interventions—a mode of assessment that is ripe for AI. 

    Just because buildings are becoming “smarter” doesn’t necessarily mean that we are bringing greater intelligence to architectural design. In order to create more meaningful analyses, we need more time to gather data from pre- and post-occupancy periods. 

    AI is pushing us to conceive how analytic insights might apply to future projects, but “our first responsibility is to look at what we’ve already built before we focus on what the next buildings will be.” 


    When Andreas Hoffbauer visits an organization’s offices, people will frequently remark to him, “Look how collaborative we are.” Yet for Hoffbauer, an organizational sociologist who helps businesses foster innovation, there is often a disconnect between the way people aspire for a space to perform and how it actually performs. His role is to consider why these workplaces aren’t fulfilling their purpose and to help the organization address the problem. 

    Hoffbauer’s analysis has revealed the limitation of relying on data—because the under-performing workplaces were often designed using analytic insights. Yet the data and the AI analyses, Hoffbauer has found, have some invalid assumptions. Among them:

    • Workplace interactions are dematerialized to a limited set of variables that do not capture the full range of employee behavior and work culture.
    • The analyses assume, often incorrectly, that past practices are a valid basis for predicting future practices and thus designing new workspaces.
    • Most importantly, the analytical models and data ignore the behaviors, practices, norms, and social contexts that allow certain kinds of work to happen. 

    Buildings designed around current practices and current user data will not necessarily perform in the long-term as our behaviors and workplace culture change. Instead, organizations and designers have to consider how behaviors, practices, and norms fit with where an organization expects or aspires to be in the future. In this effort, sociologists can help in determining what behaviors would predominate. As an example of such a collaboration, Hoffbauer pointed to the library Snøhetta designed for Ryerson University in Toronto, “a library without books” that cultivates collaboration, conversation, and interaction, the activities anticipated to characterize the campus athenaeum of the future.


    Guardrails: The Ethics of AI

    A recurring theme throughout the discussion focused on the ethical dimension of AI as it related to architecture.  The panelists noted several potential issues:

    • AI can provide insight, but it can also perpetuate biases and self-indulgent creative loops; the result—spaces that are stagnant and employees who are disconnected or alienated.
    • Over time, analyses derived from building data can become stale because, when the information set does not change, it perpetuates a certain view of the world.
    • Organizations and governments have begun to use AI to uniquely identify individuals, creating the possibility for nefarious ends, as seen in China’s use of AI to identify Uighurs, among other initiatives.
    • Research into AI’s application for detecting emotions through physiological measures, facial expressions, and body movement could lead to enforced conformity and retribution for straying from the norm, in both organizations and societies at large.

    Designers and technologists need to consider how they can introduce a contrarian view into the data-gathering mechanism and analysis—a view that questions the assumptions built into the data and analytics.

    In using AI technology—whether natural language systems or facial recognition algorithms—it is the responsibility of design and technology firms to consider the potential impact on social norms, privacy, and other ethical considerations, and present these issues to the client. 


    Data Curation 

    In considering how to curate information that would be most meaningful for a particular project, Hermon noted that he prefers to “work with deep context as opposed to wide data.” He investigates the content that would have the greatest relevance, based on the organization’s questions or goals, rather than accumulating a wide range of data that doesn’t apply to those aims. 

    On a similar note, Marsh noted, “We need to be faster at figuring out what is impactful and not impactful and have better hypotheses going in so we’re being more thoughtful before we go into the data, or we could be just boiling the ocean.”


    The Future of AI

    Among the beneficial impact of AI, Hoffbauer noted that it could play a role in “trying to make spaces that people like to work in, spaces that make a positive impact in people’s lives.” Marsh suggested that AI could contribute to the paradigm of thinking of buildings as “living organisms that we’re always learning from and adjusting to over time.” 

    The panelists agreed that the integration of AI and architecture is still in its infancy, and, as such, we haven’t yet identified appropriate measures of success and progress; we haven’t identified the rules and objectives in this field. “We have work to do as a profession or industry about what is progress and what does good look like,” Marsh said. “Once we are able to identify what identifies success or performance within that context or environment, then we could get to better architecture and have a possibility of using computation to make a better architecture.”


  • November 22, 2019
    Attendees and panelists exchanged ideas for improving the design of polling places.

    Ben Kallos, NYC Council Member, 5th District
    Doug Kellner, Co-Chair, New York State Board of Elections
    Maggie Ollove, Service Designer and Civic Researcher, Center for Civic Design
    Eric Spencer, Development Director, Ennead Architects; Democratic District Leader, 73rd District Part C

    Fauzia Khanani, AIA Associate; Principal, Studio Fо̄r

    Summary by Carin Barbanel

    How welcoming are the spaces in which we vote? Can we find our way through them efficiently? Welcoming physical sites encourage citizens to participate in our democracy, yet designers and architects aren’t usually asked to consider that usage when envisioning a common area. Fauzia Khanani, AIA Associate and Principal of Studio Fо̄r, moderated a panel of prestigious experts who summarized the history of voting in New York and innovations that are improving voter participation. Attendees were then invited attendees to imagine improvements to voting methodologies that New York’s Board of Elections (BOE) may be able to implement.

    Doug Kellner has been working in the election space for decades and currently sits as Co-Chair of the New York State Board of Elections. He discussed how voting has evolved in New York. Ben Kallos, New York City Council Member, connected this legacy to current unfair incumbent advantages. Maggie Ollove, civic researcher and designer at the Center for Civic Design, illustrated how improved ballot designs impact electoral outcomes. Eric Spencer, Director at Ennead Architects and a Democratic District Leader in Manhattan, connected these themes and posited ideas for our future.

    Kellner began with an overview of the history of voting in New York, which began in colonial times. Absentee ballots were created to enable soldiers serving in the Civil War to vote, ensuring Lincoln’s reelection. By the turn of the century, the US government was printing ballots, implicitly limiting the field of candidates. Voting machines and confidential ballots improved access and the rolls were expanded. Nonwhite voters and, finally, women gained the franchise a century ago. The voting machines with the handles that many of us remember from childhood were introduced in the 1950s. Only recently did New York move to scanned paper ballots and electronic poll books, and early voting was just introduced for the first time this year.

    Kellner went on to give some background on how elections are administered now. Election Districts (EDs) are geographic divisions designed to include a similar number of voters. These are further split into Assembly Districts (ADs). One question that was posed: Do voters really need to vote in their ED/AD now that we have electronic poll books? So far, the answer is yes. Even if voter rolls are portable, crowd control is still a real concern; imagine the mayhem of NYC residents wanting to vote in midtown on election day! The ED/AD system is also necessary to maintain the secrecy of votes and provide a proper audit trail. Further, online voting is not a viable option as there is no way to ensure an election will not be compromised.

    NYC Council Member Ben Kallos discussed downsides of the Election District system. An incumbent legislator can select a polling place amid bevies of supporters or put several ADs in one site to create long waits that can dissuade others. More often, difficulties in distributing poll sites are usually logistical, not nefarious. There are not sufficient public spaces for every New Yorker to vote without friction. During presidential elections that friction is substantial. Electronic poll books and early voting help but we can do more. Kallos asked participants to encourage co-op and condo boards to invite the BOE into large ground floor lobbies of their buildings.

    Maggie Ollove spoke about the design of ballots themselves. She reminded us of the problematic ballot that resulted in 2000’s Bush vs. Gore nightmare scenario. She then showed us examples of better ballots, but explained that BOE officials who create ballots are not designers. They are, however, eager for instruction. Suggestions such as using 12 point sans serif fonts and page designs are generally welcomed. Ollove closed by sharing successful ideas from other districts such as drop-off ballot acceptance. 

    Eric Spencer spoke to the current political climate, reassuring the audience that our era is not the most contentious in our country’s history. Even as social media’s fractious nature exacerbates our awareness of divisions, community spaces can combat disharmony. Voting by mail is convenient, but creating a festive atmosphere a lá the City Streets program could return an element of community spirit to the voting process. Additive, adaptive solutions might include putting tents in parks and including other civic outreach in these spaces.

    Fauzia Khanani segued to the closing activity, in which attendees broke into small groups for conversations about voting as a spatial act. The panelists each joined a group of attendees to suggest solutions. Some ideas included thoughtful signage coupled and better placement of voting equipment to increase throughput, allowing voters to hand off completed vote by mail ballots in subway stations and other public spaces, placing mobile polling trucks in public plazas.

    One idea of note for those who design buildings: include polling usage in the original design specs for buildings that are likely to be used as such. Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause, suggested architects and designers read the report produced by The Presidential Commission on Election Administration. It contains industry-tested solutions that can be incorporated into polling site plans.

    This was an energizing and inspiring evening. Voting gives the people who inspire us the power to act on our behalf, so it was fitting to focus on how design can support and inspire people to participate in the process of self-government.

    Please join us for future events.

  • September 19, 2019
    A packed house listens to presenters discussing the design of learning environments

    by Kate Ganim

    The education landscape is changing quickly. New technologies and pedagogies, converging disciplines, high costs, preparation for not-yet-existent careers: it’s undeniable that education at all levels is evolving. Students now have a broader range of non-traditional paths available to them, and their needs and experiences vary more than ever. A range of professionals across disciplines are taking steps to make education more inclusive and accessible to historically under-represented populations, working to improve anything from racial or cultural diversity to neuro-diversity. Architecture has a responsibility to evolve its practice in order to support and anticipate these changes in education.

    Historically, only a small segment of architects have collaborated with research-based disciplines or made substantial use of post-occupancy evaluations (POEs) to improve learning spaces. There are many precedents showcasing successful use of data and a multi-disciplinary approach to educational design, along with the positive impact that it can have on student experience and learning outcomes. Unfortunately, this approach is far from the norm despite the evidence that it makes the student experience more equitable and engaging.

    There are several obstacles facing architects who are interested in a research-based approach. There is rarely a budget available for this type of data collection and analysis, and it can be easily deprioritized or skipped despite its demonstrated success. Thus, the architect can expect to need to educate their client on its indispensability. Also, there is little perceived incentive to invest in the “student experience” since public funding for schools is driven primarily by student test scores (especially for public schools). No broadly accepted evaluation standards exist for POEs or educational space research; as a result, 90% of the architects who use this type of research develop their own surveys and methods in-house. There is no commonly accepted platform on which to share these methods or findings publicly, so many undertaking this work are duplicating or re-creating similar tools and approaches.

    On August 7, 2019, AIANY Social Science and Architecture, AIANY Architecture for Education, and AIA National CAE Research Task Force held an event titled: “Learning About Schools: Where Do Design and Research Fit In?” Design and consulting professionals shared their perspectives and approaches around integrating user and client-driven research into the design of educational spaces. It was facilitated by Evie Klein, Co-founder, User Design Information Group, Graduate Center, CUNY, and Michael A. Nieminen, FAIA, Partner, Kliment Halsband Architects. The featured guest speakers were Elliot Felix, Founder of brightspot; Dina Sorensen, Assoc. AIA, Senior Associate, former K-12 Education Leader at DLR Group; and Daniel Baumann, Lead Designer at Henning Larsen. While each of the speakers had their own unique approach, there were common themes throughout:

    • Talk to stakeholders. There are many stakeholders in an educational space. Work with a diverse group of stakeholders that is representative of the community. Take time to understand who they are, what they care about, and what they need. Don’t rely on administrators to tell you what students need: talk to students directly. Treat them like the cultural and community experts that they are. Students can also help to interpret and offer insights on other data that is collected.
    • Take a multi-modal approach. There are a number of ways to collect useful data to gain insights. Qualitative research can include stakeholder interviews or workshops. Quantitative research can include different sensors and heat-mapping techniques, or coding stakeholder interviews. Use multiple types of data to paint a clearer and more robust picture.
    • Integrate feedback throughout the process. Pre- and post-occupancy evaluations are great, but don’t go deep enough. Bring your stakeholders through the process with you. Get their input early and often to ensure that your design direction is aligned with and supportive of their needs and culture.

    The mindset should be exploratory, open-minded, and “bottom-up,” leading with curiosity in order to uncover insights or innovative approaches. Alternatively, a “top-down” approach is at risk of seeking evidence to confirm existing assumptions and beliefs.

    While architects are not solely responsible for the student experience and engagement, they are in a powerful position to impact students and the future of education. An incredible opportunity lies in cross-disciplinary collaboration with experts in fields like neuroscience, environmental and developmental psychology, and data science, to integrate their insights into physical space.

    The uniqueness of each school community plays a significant role. Each has its own “cultural needs.” The goal is not to create the “best learning space,” but rather to create the learning space that is the best fit for that community. Alignment between the physical space and the people who use it is paramount.

    Please consider joining these additional conversations about the intersections of social science and design:

    Kate Ganim is a designer and entrepreneur with a background in architecture. She built KIDmob and LMNOP Design in San Francisco before moving to Brooklyn in early 2019.


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