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December 15, 2016
by April Greene
Speakers and organizers of “I Love this Place! Exceptional Design Driven through Social Research”

On 12.05.16, the AIANY Social Science and Research Committee held its seventh public program, the last of this year, at the Center for Architecture: “I Love this Place! Exceptional Design Driven by Social Research.” Co-chair Melissa Marsh, Assoc. AIA, explained that she and Evie Klein, Assoc. AIA, positioned the committee under the “Design Excellence” umbrella at AIANY because a social science perspective is critical for great architecture.

Guy Geier, FAIA, FIIDA, LEED AP, managing partner at FXFOWLE Architects, explained that much of his firm’s work begins with observing the experiences of building users – both occupants and visitors. He gave three examples of workplace projects undertaken by FXFOWLE in which the client was seeking a cultural shift by moving away from its cellular workspace. In each case, the firm implemented specific design changes, such as glass walls, open stairways, and inviting common areas, that democratized the workspace, encouraged “moments of accidental genius,” and allowed for a freer flow of information between departments, thus increasing overall effectiveness. “We achieved these satisfactory solutions as a result of taking sufficient time to observe and analyze the problems before designing,” Geier said.

Carlo Bailey, a design researcher at the co-working space provider WeWork, described how his company appeals to a wide range of individuals and small businesses – currently over 80,000 members worldwide – with flexible workspaces and “mashup of coffee shop, home, and office aesthetic” that reflect today’s changing work-life relationship. Bailey explained how the company uses a variety of methods to analyze “member feedback” about what works in its spaces and what doesn’t, including nudges to give feedback through the WeWork app and a prototype app that tracks phone booth usage. “We are entering a new user-centric and evidenced-based era of architectural design,” he said.

Paul McConnell, design director at Intersection, a technology and media company focused on urban experience, described the company’s work on new tech platforms such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s “On the Go” kiosks and LinkNYC terminals that offer free public Wi-Fi. He explained that Intersection employs a suite of user-focused methods – from observation to “interceptions” – to make sure their products are safe, useful, and reliable. “Some companies are shy about putting their prototypes in the public’s hands because they’re afraid of scrutiny,” McConnell said. “We want to know all the flaws! We want to design for everyone.”

Marsh then led a Q&A that began with: “What do you consider evidence of success in your work, beside economic valuation?” Geier replied that among his metrics was a positive answer to these questions when posed to his redesign clients: “Do you like this space better than your old one, and do you feel more productive here?” In the case of WeWork, Bailey cited imitation, and added, “as we are a vertically integrated company, we can evaluate the success of our designs through feedback from the community teams that run our spaces.”

An audience member asked how architects and designers can encourage “quantitative people” to pay attention to qualitative data. McConnell answered that qualitative information can scare clients because it’s not black-and-white, so it’s designers’ obligation to educate them about its value. Geier further remarked that “it’s become the easy way out for designers to give clients a survey, rake in the data, then make decisions from it. But I think a lot of important information lies between the lines; you don’t always get it from straightforward questioning.”

Another attendee asked how architects should balance encouraging human interactions with efficiency and privacy. The panel agreed that the ideal is a mix of environments tailored to each client. “Our transit system, for instance, does not need any more people running into each other!” McConnell said. “But in a museum, you might want to build in some spaces for accidental, inspirational contact.”

In closing, Marsh asked Geier to say a few words, given his upcoming AIANY presidency in 2018, about the intersection of the architectural community of practice and the critical need to bring social science into our work. He said that we live in a very competitive world, where firms must vie for jobs, and therefore tend to keep information close to the vest. “But we could use this information to greater mutual benefit,” he said. “Let’s think about how social data could be collected and put into a format shareable with everyone. I think AIA can help facilitate that. We have a truly great opportunity before us.”

Event: I Love this Place! Exceptional Design Driven through Social Research
Location: Center for Architecture, 12.05.16
Speakers: Carlo Bailey, Design Researcher, WeWork; Guy Geier, FAIA, FIIDA, LEED AP, Managing Partner, FXFOWLE; Paul McConnell, Design Director, Intersection; Melissa Marsh, Assoc. AIA, Co-chair, AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee
Organized by: AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee

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