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August 19, 2015
by Bill Millard
Speakers of "Edge Collaborations: Creative Partnerships with Social Science" discussed how architects and social scientists can mutually gain from a closer relationship.Credit: Eve Dilworth Rosen
AIANY 2015 President Tomas Rossant, AIA, moderated the conversation.Credit: Eve Dilworth Rosen

When Roger Ulrich designed, executed, and published a controlled study of the view from hospital rooms as an independent variable in patients’ recovery from gallbladder surgery, he didn’t intend it as a slight to anyone’s grandmother. His 1984 report in Science linked a distinction in a common architectural feature – windows facing nature or facing a wall – to differences in both objective outcome metrics (time to recovery, painkiller doses) and subjective reports (nurses’ notes). Ulrich’s observation is widely acknowledged as a foundational paper in the rise of evidence-based design; it has also sparked an enduring debate over the value of science in backing up common-sense observations. “If we all asked our grandmothers if looking at trees through a window would lead to better health outcomes than looking at a concrete wall,” suggested panelist Scott Francisco, founder of consultancy Pilot Projects and an advocate of participatory, crowdsourced approaches to design, “we’d get the same kind of results.”

The discussions expanded on a think-tank/dinner-party topic proposed by AIANY President Tomas Rossant, AIA, as the latest installment in the Edge Dialogues series: what can architecture and social science mutually gain from a closer relationship? Viewpoints took shape along a rough continuum between psychologist Ann Devlin’s advocacy of orderly, replicable means of generating knowledge and Francisco’s more skeptical position. He views the marriage of architecture and scientific method more as “a problem of rhetoric,” often useful in persuading clients to support design strategies, but also capable of paralyzing a community, putting it in thrall to quantitative information that may never yield the desired clarity.

Likening social scientists to his favorite character in James Bond films – the gadgetmaster Q, supplier of advanced tools that repeatedly prove lifesaving when Agent 007 gets into tight spots – Rossant prodded the panelists to delineate how social-scientific collaboration might amplify architecture’s ability to achieve human aims. “For 2,000 years, we have nailed aspects of beauty and proportion and wonder as architects,” he observed. “More recently, we have leveraged the hard sciences. I now can model the thermal resistance of my envelope; I can guarantee its performance over time, and its return on investment. What I can’t do right now is guarantee the optimization of human capital.” The more knowledge is generated about variables like workers’ sick days and turnover, affordable-housing residents’ mental health, or students’ responses to the design features of schools (as when panelist Dina Sorenson, whose firm VMDO Architects specializes in school design for health overheard a child approving one concrete application: “This chair was made just for me!”), the more designs can optimize their performance. Yet research can be slow and expensive, and few developers reach readily into their pockets to support it.

Explaining various procedures and uses of the social sciences, including Ulrich’s famous window study, Devlin allowed that certain projects confirm what laypeople have known all along. “Bubbe psychology,” she noted, is a recognized term of art for wheel-reinventing research. She also pointed out that many design questions lack intuitive, grandmotherly answers and require sophisticated inferential statistical analysis. Relying on a careful definition of research as systematic methods designed to develop generalizable knowledge, Devlin described increasing levels of rigor, from descriptive studies (e.g., Herbert Gans’s account of Levittown), to quasi-experimental analyses, and, finally, the gold standard of controlled experiments. Investigations are most useful when they keep two questions directly in view, she said: “What do you want to know, and how sure do you want to be?”

Cases where research has catalyzed advances are far from rare; they sometimes even yield results measurable in financial terms. The Design Trust for Public Space has contributed to several odds-defying civic victories in recent years through its data-driven reports and charrettes. Along with the pedestrianization of Times Square, the Taxi of Tomorrow competition (soon to bear fruit when roomy, rider-friendly Nissan NV200 cabs become the city’s legal standard this September), and the Five Borough Farm urban-agriculture project, executive director Susan Chin, FAIA, Hon. ASLA, emphasized the High Line’s powerful effects on West Side revitalization. She recalled that the Trust’s feasibility study (1999-2002) helped convince many stakeholders that Friends of the High Line founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond were not crazy but visionary. She quoted former Chelsea Market owner Irwin Cohen reporting that High Line real estate was worth about $50/square-foot when he sold his property; the 10th Avenue/14th Street Mobil station site recently sold for $850/ square-foot.

The interdisciplinarity of architectural practice is inherent but not automatic; architects face multiple challenges in persuading clients that social-scientific collaborations are worthwhile. One is communicative: rather than relying on forbidding jargon, Chin advised being able to explain a project’s value to the lay press, and co-curator Melissa Marsh, Assoc. AIA, quoted think-tank participant Ingrid Erickson on the need to establish a “pidgin language” to translate between populations or disciplines. Money, inevitably, remains the simplest common language. About 82% of organizations’ aggregate costs, Francisco pointed out, involve their human resources rather than their facilities (real estate averages a mere 8% and technology 10%). Capital investments that help make people happier and more productive frequently pay off amply over the long run through indirect measures such as employee retention.

However, because “it’s easier to prove harm than good,” Marsh observed, risk-reducing investment in structural engineering is never a hard sell, while the behavioral benefits of design advances can be fuzzy. For the time being, an audience member commented, it is hard to rely on clients to pay for social science as a line item, though architects who bear these costs as overhead, like manufacturers’ R&D costs, are in a position to deliver great value. Sorensen’s firm, in fact, sets aside 1% of profits for research. Because small firms, as Rossant pointed out, usually face margins too tight to include research consultancy as a component of overhead, Chin suggested that the AIA might take it on as a general professional service. Co-curator Evie Klein envisioned the vast army of underemployed social-science Ph.D.s as a potential resource for the literature searches and post-occupancy reviews that developers rarely perform. Rossant raised the possibility of a new AIANY Chapter committee on interdisciplinary research, applicable at projects’ programming stage – a step even the proverbial bubbe might call a no-brainer.

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Oculus, IconThe Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.

Event: Edge Collaborations: Creative Partnership with Social Science
Location: Center for Architecture, 08.06.2015
Speakers: Susan Chin, FAIA, Hon. ASLA, Executive Director, Design Trust for Public Space; Ann Devlin, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Connecticut College; Scott Francisco, Founder and Director, Pilot Projects; Dina Sorenson, LEED AP BD+C, Associate, VMDO Architects; Evie Klein, doctoral candidate in environmental psychology at CUNY (co-curator); Melissa Marsh, Assoc. AIA, CEO, PLASTARC (co-curator): Tomas Rossant, AIA, 2015 AIANY President; Founding Design Partner, Ennead Architects (moderator)
Organizers: AIANY
Sponsors: Buro Happold, Ennead Architects, Perkins Eastman, WSP, and Sciame (patrons); Arup, FXFOWLE, and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (sponsors); Architecture Research Office, Capalino + Company, Cerami Associates, JFK&M Consulting Group, KPF, Langan, Murphy Burnham & Buttrick, Spacesmith, and Thornton Tomasetti (supporters)

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