Melissa Marsh, Plastarc
Eve Klein, City University of New York
Since its founding in 2016, the Social Science and Architecture Committee at the AIANY chapter has brought together professionals and students from architecture and social science fields to discuss best practices and facilitate public programs. These meetings, workshops, think-tank dinners and panel discussions offer a place and time to exchange ideas related to social science and architecture collaborations, environmental design research, and other topics.
This program examined points at which the disciplines have intersected in the past, changes in this relationship over time, and exploration of future possibilities. The committee will continue to serve as a forum for thought leaders in architecture, anthropology, psychology, health care, hospitality, and real estate who are looking to understand how these fields can respond to design challenges of the future.
Since its founding in early 2016, the Social Science and Architecture Committee of the American Institute of Architects New York chapter (AIANY), has worked to broaden perspectives and expand resources at the intersection of social science and architecture. The committee brings together professionals and students these fields to facilitate programs for the community throughout the year. Meetings, workshops, think tank dinners, and panel discussions offer venues in which to exchange ideas related to the human experience of the built environment, from case studies of past collaborations to environmental design research. The committee’s events have welcomed thought leaders in architecture, anthropology, psychology, healthcare, hospitality, and real estate who seek to understand how design can respond to current and future challenges. For example, at the annual program, “Social Science and Architecture Primer”, experts discussed the relevance of past knowledge and practices to current-day environmental design research. Another program, “Exploring the Past and Defining the Future,” examined the history of social science and architecture collaborations: where they have intersected, changes in their relationship over time, and possible future developments.
In 2018, the committee received a Committee Excellence Grant from AIANY to document this growing body of knowledge and make it available to the broader public. This has led to the development of a new resource that is part of the AIANY website. Currently under development, it is built to connect active practitioners in design, research and academia to a wealth of tools, information and thought leadership. Developed in response to the needs of this multifaceted community, this new website collects existing scholarly literature, expert views on key themes, case studies, a timeline of key points in the history of environmental design, guidance on evidence-based methods, a speakers bureau and examples of best practices. It makes use of visually appealing graphics in order to make this conversation accessible to a wide audience. The website is intended to be forward-looking and continuously updated, bridging the gap between knowledge creation and application.
The creation of this resource is especially relevant to EDRA because the Social Science and Architecture Committee’s work has both drawn from and served a community of scholar/practitioners who seek to learn from the past in order to shape the future. Making these materials available to the public provides a platform to engage in a global conversation that connects people, projects and networks in real time, while also enabling others to create similar communities on a local scale.
The committee’s work centers on four themes at the intersection of these disciplines:
Integrating Social Research and Design Practice
While social science has a long history of delivering insights into the way people and groups function, those findings have not always been integrated into design practice. This is to our collective detriment, as the spaces we spend our time in have a large influence on the nature of our experience—whether we are at work, at play, or at home. Failure to consider the full range of human needs and goals has often led to environments that do not adequately support comfort, wellness, collaboration, or performance.
The Social Science and Architecture Committee aims to remedy this disconnect by facilitating the development of stronger links between architecture and other fields of expertise that can inform better design. This includes providing opportunities for architects to expand their knowledge in social research through lectures, panels, case studies, and more. We also advocate for an increase in social science course work in architectural education programs, to ensure that future designers begin their careers with the human experience in mind.
Some of the questions we explore:
Why is it important to integrate social scienceresearch into design practice? What is the benefit of doing so?
If this research is yielding performance benefits, why wouldn’t/shouldn’t a practitioner keep that information private? Why share?
In what ways are architecture educators currently succeeding in integrating social research? In what ways are they failing to do so, and why does that matter?
Are there kinds ofsocial research or practices that present ethical challenges? Are there some things we should not do?
How has environmental psychology been integrated into architectural practice to date?
What are the trends in the kinds ofresearch scientists have been using, or sectors of the economy that have been more or less open to using this approach?
Methods: Social Science in Action
Insights from social science can be employed at multiple points throughout a designproject, to a wide variety of ends. Pre-design analysis, post-occupancy refits, and everything in between stand to gain from a greater understanding of what people want and need from their spaces. While there is a growing body of knowledge for designers to draw from, there is a gap between the researchfindings and our collective ability to incorporate those findings into design. This is true at both a projectscale and at an industry scale.
We aim to fill that gap by providing a forum for discussion of this research and its design implications. We examine methods such as inclusive or participatory design and cross-sectional study, as well as quantitative and qualitative analysis. We also see a need to continue to build shared knowledge through tracking or documenting the human impacts of various forms and materials. It is our goal to improve the big picture, advocating for ways to implement these methods more systematically, creating new standards, and devising next generation models to anticipate design performance.
Some of the questions we try to explore:
How can designers come up with a strategic approach to incorporate social science, rather than cherry-picking individual findings or methods?
How do social sciencemethods enable better pre-design work? What kinds of insights do they generate?
Who is leading the way in developing and implementing these methods?
How can designers and researchers develop shared methodologies and access to data sets through mutually agreed protocol?
Communication and Information
A key challenge in any collaboration is developing strong communication. Architecture and social science have not historically shared a lexicon or means of representing information. As a result, practitioners in these fields have created a sort of pidgin language to allow them to work together—communication is possible, but more difficult than it could be. This dynamic is also present in data and visualization. Architects might have a predisposition to consume things visually, whereas social scientists may find more meaning in text or statistics. Architectsmay be well versed in standards, but not in the cultural context from which those standards emerged.
Yet, there is also a natural overlap between these fields: human behavior is profoundly shaped by the spaces people inhabit, and occupants also adapt spaces to suit their needs. We foster discussions of research and the meaning of form in order to build the shared understanding necessary for successful collaboration. We advocate for an expanded definition of the architecture profession that provides new avenues for collaboration and addresses questions of advocacy and inclusion through design. We seek new ways to measure experience and strengthen the understanding of the relationship between spaces and behavior.
Some of the questions we try to explore:
With which disciplines should architects seek to communicate? Why?
How canconversations aboutdesign become more inclusive of a wide range of needs?
How can the human experience of a space be centered in conversations about its design?
How can data and information be represented in a way that speaks to both designers and researchers?
Science and Design
Part of the challenge inherent in increasing collaboration between these fields is that science and design are fundamentally different in their approach to the world. On one hand, science is concerned with the immutable (natural laws and principles of behavior), while the goal of design is to synthesize factors across disciplines to create something greater than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, science and design are in fact complementary; each is used to improve the other. Scientific inquiry is a creative process and design relies on patterns in the natural world and in social spheres. Roger Martin, former dean of The Rotman School of Management, spoke about this intersection when introducing Rotman on Design: “In the end, design is about shaping a particular context for the better, rather than taking it is as it is. Success today arises not from emulating others, but by evolving unique models, products and experiences — in short, creative solutions.” Exploring this dynamic yields fruitful conversations about both science and design.
Some of the questions we try to explore:
What environment or conditions led to a particularexperimental result or finding? Does that still hold true in different circumstances?
How can researchers use the design of spaces to explore new frontiers in social science?
What experimental methods can designers utilize to improve the spaces they create?
How can designers and social scientists collaborate on research?
Because architecture influences so much of human behavior, efforts to develop the symbiosis between it and social science can take many shapes. By sharing resources related to these themes on the committee’s AIANY webpage, we encourage the community to expand beyond the NY local chapter. Specifically, we encourage groups in other localities to form communities of discourse on the topics of Social Science and Architecture. Going forward, the committee intends to continue its programming while also expanding upon its work in a few additional areas.
An important part of this work is to foster community between all of the participants in a building project. While architects are some of the most visible contributors to the design of a space, they are part of a larger ecosystem. Their work—and the experience of a space—is influenced by the choices of many others, such as engineers who develop new building materials, developers who choose what and how to build, researchers who select areas of study, governmental agencies and leaders who set and enforce policy, and members of the press who shape public opinion. Much of the experience is also shaped by the landlords, operators, and occupants themselves. One key goal of the Social Science and Architecture Committee is to continue to bring more of these contributors into the conversation.
It is also important to recognize excellence in collaboration between social science and architecture. Awards can help practitioners to tell success stories, and they also serve an important role in increasing the appetite for cross-disciplinary cooperation. As it becomes apparent that engaging social scientists in the design process is good for occupants and practitioners, more of each will naturally choose to do so.
EDRA is a fitting venue in which to discuss the work of the Social Science and Architecture Committee, as they assemble like-minded communities of practice. This session provided an opportunity to solicit new ideas and to generate conversation between practitioners. At a time when data-gathering capabilities within the built environment are rapidly evolving, this community is vital to increasing awareness of the impact of architecture on human performance and wellness. The symbiotic relationship between architecture and social science will continue to grow.