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