It Takes a Tech Lab: The Essential Role of Building Technology Research

From our Ideas+Buildings Blog

For as long as buildings have been designed, their designers—architects or master builders—have had to keep up with the latest building technology. Historically, this wasn’t too hard. Although technology changed from century to century, it didn’t change all that much in any single architect’s lifetime. Building technology research was often a trial-by-error affair. Take the gothic cathedral: with each one, master builders experimented with higher vaulted roofs, increasingly slender piers, and more extensive fields of stained glass. Sometimes the experiments failed and the structures collapsed, but the master builders learned from these mistakes. In the 17th century, Galileo introduced the earliest elements of scientific research into building technology with his book Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences, introducing new ideas about strength of building material.

Times have changed. Since the Industrial Revolution and the advent of economically produced steel and float glass, building technology has advanced at an exponential rate. Most research into new technologies has followed three paths:  the development of new products by manufacturers; the testing of those products by laboratories; and the incubation of new technologies by universities. For the most part, architects stay out of the research business, or at least they used to. There have been exceptions—Paulo Solari’s efforts at Arcosanti, for example—but they generally had little effect on the overall practice of architecture.

But in the 21st century, some architectural firms have understood the value of architects performing research on building technology. In 2008, Perkins+Will realized that in order to design high-performance buildings, an in-house research center was needed. Thus was born the Perkins+Will Building Technology Laboratory, or Tech Lab for short. The Lab was conceived as a research center dedicated to investigating new technologies that contribute to high-performance buildings, to finding applications for those technologies in the firm’s designs, and to contributing to the knowledge base of the architectural profession.

You won’t find test tubes or mysterious electrical gadgets at Tech Lab. Physical research remains the province of universities and manufacturers. Tech Lab uses computers to generate virtual scenarios and to test innovative ideas. As Tech Lab has evolved, it has focused on five primary activities:

  1. Working with our design teams to develop innovative approaches to building systems and façade designs and to find low-energy ways of creating comfortable spaces for building occupants.
  2. Collaborating with universities and research centers (e.g., the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Argonne National Laboratory) and pushing knowledge of building systems to higher levels.
  3. Documenting the firm’s research efforts in the Tech Lab Annual Reports and the  semi-annual Perkins+Will Research Journal.
  4. Contributing research papers to prestigious, peer-reviewed academic journals.
  5. Participating in well-established research conferences, where relationships with nationally recognized researchers can be made.

Under the leadership of the Director of Research, Ajla Aksamija, Ph.D., Tech Lab has been highly successful. Each year, as many as fifty project teams work with Tech Lab. The Research Journal is recognized by many universities and industry researchers as being the model for architect-generated research publications. Through Tech Lab, Perkins+Will is an industry sponsor of UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment, a research center focused on finding low-energy and low-cost ways to provide human comfort in buildings.

Who benefits from Tech Lab? Our projects and their teams, clients, and occupants are the clearest immediate beneficiaries. Tech Lab’s research can strongly influence the designs of our projects, resulting in buildings that are energy-efficient and technically advanced, while also providing their occupants with pleasant environments to work or live in.

But the influence extends beyond our built work. The Perkins+Will Research Journal and the Tech Lab Annual Reports are freely available to the public. In April, Dr. Aksamija’s book, Sustainable Facades: Design Methods for High-Performance Building Envelopes, was published (available here) offering everyone a chance to learn from our findings.  Her research on high-performance facades was recently shared to an audience of 600 at the 2013 AIA National Convention.

The imperative for this work is real: Buildings consume enormous amounts of energy, and architects must find ways of designing them to be as energy-efficient as possible. Taking the business-as-usual approach and doing what has always been done  is no longer acceptable. Architectural research centers such as Tech Lab are essential to give architects the new knowledge required to meet the needs of the 21st century. 

See this post in its original context: