'Architecture is an essentially crossdisciplinary activity, and as such what constitutes architectural research is not as clear-cut as in many other disciplines and practices. Architecture as an academic discipline in the UK is also relatively recent, especially in its principal form of professional training.
'These factors, together with little mapping of the nature of such research across institutions, have arguably led to the uneven development of architectural research in the UK, relatively lower levels of research funding channelled in its direction, and a weakening of the role of UK architectural research in practice, both nationally and internationally.' The above statement from a forthcoming conference* is borne out by the recent CABE publication The Real Budget for Research, which identifies a slowly increasing body of work exploring the added value of the built environment to the economy and society, noting that performance and value are not based exclusively on construction-industry costs, methods and processes, but also on the relationships between any place and its users, stakeholders and local conditions.
The spectrum of research on the built environment ranges from construction, with a focus on building materials, technologies and components, supply-chain management and applied IT, to a cluster focusing on creative and social aspects of the built environment, design methods, processes and problem solving.
What is less well understood is the nature and scope of research that is under way in universities and in practices, and how these overlap or can be integrated to the benefit of improving quality in the built environment.
This is important not only to improve shared understanding of research agendas, but to make more effective use of existing funding, while strengthening the case for new funding.
As part of this process, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) has supported a research project initiated by Edinburgh College of Art and Heriot-Watt University into defining the nature of architectural research across the nation's schools of architecture, with a separate study focusing on the six schools in Scotland.
This study is now forming the basis of a further programme on understanding the nature of research, or, perhaps more appropriately, innovation within practice, which the RIAS is leading.
Since Robert Matthews established of the Housing Research Unit at Edinburgh University in the 1960s, in which several leading architects dramatically affected housing policy and design, Scotland has developed a strong base for architectural research. Scotland has not only six of the 36 UK-wide RIBA/ ARB-recognised schools of architecture and a supportive and involved professional institute, but also a government policy on architecture that has established an Architecture Policy Unit - which this year will host the European Forum on Architecture Policies - and is instrumental in creating a new 'Architecture and Design Scotland', which, like CABE, its equivalent in England, has an agenda of cultivating and promoting architectural research as part of its remit.
Education collaboration This broad base for architecture research has not, however, been well reflected in the last academic research assessment exercise. Two recent studies (Jenkins, Forsyth & Smith 2004) have identified the potential for more collaborative, as opposed to predominantly competitive, activity in research across the Scottish schools, together with other UK institutions.
This is seen as a means to improve the Scottish competitive edge in an increasingly international context for knowledge development and dissemination, as well as providing a national focus for developing research in specific policy-related areas.
The above studies have stressed that promoting the breadth of scope, depth of quality and consolidation over time of architectural research in Scotland requires an overview of research at a national level, as well as more opportunity for interchange between researchers and coordination in development of research skills. This form of collaboration is also seen as a means to establish a stronger base for cross-disciplinary activity in architecture with associated areas of research; for example, with creative and performing arts, digital media and cultural studies.
However, this overview activity cannot be provided by those institutions alone, as they inevitably specialise and to a certain extent compete in specific research activities.
Therefore, some form of institutional structure at a national level is necessary to promote collaboration in research and research dissemination, as well as other research development such as training, and providing a more focused and accessible research resource for the government, the architectural profession, the construction industry and communities.
What it says on the tin To this end, Edinburgh College of Art and Heriot-Watt have applied for, and been awarded, a Scottish Higher Education Funding Council strategic research development grant for a Scottish Matrix for Architectural Research and Knowledge (Scot-MARK). This is a one-year feasibility study for an institutional structure to promote excellence in research in architecture and investigate the basis for a collaboration in, and improvements to, research capacity.
Part of the activities of Scot-MARK will be - with other Edinburgh-based institutions - to host a national conference on architecture research across the UK in Edinburgh towards the end of 2005.
In addition to these recent initiatives, RIAS has been defining the concept of exchange and coordination of knowledge in the profession as a fundamental activity of the incorporation. Similarly, the changes under way in architectural education, with schools looking into changing structures and R&D agendas, suggest it is timely that we all embrace the wider objectives of improving architecture and the built environment in Scotland and beyond.
The RIAS has thus created a research and development board, which has been operating for the past year or so. This comprises members of its education and practice boards, academic research representatives from the six schools of architecture in Scotland - more often than not including the heads of school - and a number of practitioners interested in the promotion and documentation of research.
Concurrently, several practitioners are developing expert knowledge bases in such areas as conservation, materials development and sustainability.
If we include design as research, based on rigour and critical peer review, several practices could be said to be at the forefront of practice-based research in the UK. Some of this may involve academics and be compatible with their work, but it runs largely on independent tracks. The Centre for the Built Environment, a collaboration between the Lighthouse, Scotland's National Centre for Architecture and Design and Glasgow's three universities, is one such focus.
These initiatives to consolidate commonality of purpose and exchange of ideas are aimed at focusing resources and increasing research dissemination, but are also of importance in leveraging funds and enhancing impacts, which is leading to support across many institutions, including government. An example of this is the recent award to the RIAS of seed-corn funding from the Scottish Executive's Architecture Policy Unit, for disseminating current research strategies on architecture in Scotland to a wider audience, to encourage wider feedback, which will initiate further dialogue.
Gordon Murray is president of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.
Contact: gordonm@m-d-a. demon. co. uk