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Savvy practices will benefit through academic partnerships

Hattie Hartman
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Last week’s SCHOSA conference highlighted the vast amount of research funding available to those who partner with universities or industry, says Hattie Hartman

Beyond Building Performance, last week’s SCHOSA (Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture)conference at the RIBA, was heartening on numerous fronts.

First, it was held in the Florence Hall – with windows. The welcome presence of daylight and views outside alleviated the usual conference fatigue syndrome and was an apt metaphor for the day’s central message: the mutual benefits of more joined-up thinking between the profession and academia, particularly when it comes to research.

Second, massive European funding is available through the Horizon 2020 programme – upwards of €800 billion – for practices that have the savvy and wherewithal to partner with a university and/or industry. Sheffield head and conference chair Fionn Stevenson observed that ‘we need to wake up to the fact that the nature of government-funded research has fundamentally changed. Blue-sky research is out; now it’s all about industry impact through partnerships, workshops and secondments.’

This is great news for architects, many of whom undertake research within the scope of a design project. Recent work led by Sheffield professor Flora Samuel collates university research in the UK and Ireland’s 48 schools of architecture so we now know what’s out there and where it can be accessed. Samuel says that, according to a recent RIBA poll, 43 per cent of practices consider themselves to be carrying out research. A soon-to-be-released study authored by Sarah Wigglesworth with four other Sheffield professors, defines architectural research practice and identifies ways to communicate to practitioners that the academic door is open to collaboration.

Building performance evaluation (BPE) is one such vehicle for collaboration and for engaging students. Numerous post-graduate programmes – including UCL, Sheffield, the AA, Oxford Brookes – involve students in BPE, but the question posed repeatedly at SCHOSA was: should this find a place in the undergraduate curriculum?

Third, BPE was effectively unpicked and stripped of jargon by, among others, Stevenson, Peter Clegg of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and engineer Doug King. Stevenson focused on the role of sensory perception in understanding building performance and how students can experience this, while Andy Ford of South Bank University stressed the importance of students being able ‘to connect the number they read on a meter with how they feel in a space’. Highlighting how much his practice has learned from monitoring its own offices, Rab Bennetts urged universities to start at home by involving students in monitoring the architecture faculty and other buildings on campus.

Speaking on behalf of Architype, which has a 30-year track record in BPE, associate director Ben Humphries clarified some basics: while figures of £50K are often cited for full-blown monitoring, £10-£12K and a six-week residency period after handover can debug most problems. This needs to be planned for at the outset of a project.

Fourth, in a refreshing move, the SCHOSA conference programme pushed the BPE discussion beyond the usual energy monitoring and occupant satisfaction surveys to include topics such as designing for health by University of the West of England’s Elena Marco and productive landscapes (pictured) by Andre Viljoen of Brighton.

Finally, the evidence-based approach inherent in BPE creates a learning loop that can give architects a competitive edge. That is why SCHOSA is pushing to insert this area into the RIBA’s Education Review, to be discussed with schools in upcoming regional consultation. This is something we should all support.  You can read Fionn Stevenson’s pick of the highlights of the SCHOSA conference here.

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