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School heads vote to embed building performance in architecture curricula

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The annual national Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture (SCHOSA) architectural education conference, held at the RIBA on 10 April, explored the timely theme of ‘Beyond Building Performance Evaluation’, writes Fionn Stevenson.

Nearly 150 academics, practitioners and students attended the all-day event, representing the majority of the 48 RIBA-validated schools and programmes of architecture in the UK. I proposed this theme for our annual conference due to the gap in architectural education in terms of how students are taught to evaluate actual building performance in all its aspects.

The event was preceded by a lively debate on the previous evening on the question of ‘How can we educate architects to evaluate their own work?’ Five speakers presented their views on building performance evaluation in relation to the five societal challenges of wellbeing, energy, food, transport and climate change. Anthony Trilsbach, from the Port of Dover, Europe’s busiest ferry port, highlighted the need for building design to anticipate changes 30 years ahead and allow for ‘moveable’ buildings to avoid future transport congestion. Bennetts Associates founder  Rab Bennetts challenged all architects to evaluate the performance of their own offices in order to bring the message home. On the following day, a mixture of international experts, educators and practitioners presented their thoughts on the complexity of evaluating building performance from a wide range of qualitative and quantitative viewpoints.

This is the first SCHOSA conference which has engaged in a holistic debate on building performance evaluation and moved beyond the usual rhetoric of monitoring and surveys. We need to recognise that building performance evaluation includes aesthetics and culture as well as building physics. We need to develop better methodologies for understanding what I callDonald Schön, the former Ford Professor of Urban Studies and Education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called ‘the Difficult Whole’ that makes architecture so interesting. As educators we also need to catch up with cutting-edge practice, where building performance evaluation is rapidly gaining ground.

In response to this call, Doug King from the Royal Academy of Engineering, pleaded for building physicists who develop simulation software to gain a greater understanding of the multiple contingencies of architecture, including construction and user issues. Currently, complex building systems are analysed by ‘utterly simplistic’ models that regulatory approaches demand for expediency. John Sampson from Urbed suggested the need to educate practitioners and students to be more critical about what they do and to question their own beliefs as a powerful way to ensure that performance is evaluated in a wider sense. And Henrik Schoenefeldt, a lecturer from The University of Kent School of Architecture, demonstrated how to translate evaluative knowledge into design through his recent collaboration with students, practitioners and researchers.

A recurring theme throughout the day was the need to develop more interdisciplinary collaboration within schools of architecture, with greater emphasis on both specialist routes and interdisciplinary programmes and projects. Elena Marco, Head of Architecture at the University of West England, described the significant challenges in doing this and the huge reward when it works.

The event finished with a plenary discussion on how best to embed building performance into architectural education and passed the following resolution:

  • This conference believes that integrating building performance evaluation within education is essential in order to fulfil our responsibility to society’
  • We must ewxploit the potential for collaboration between academia, research, users, disciplines and professional practice in expanding the evidence base for affordable, biodiverse rich, healthy, resource efficient building and urban design, supportive of communities’.

The resolution will be presented to the RIBA Education Committee as part of the RIBA’s Education Review. I urge you to support this initiative.

  • Fionn Stevenson is head of the University of Sheffield School of Architecture.
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