Speakers of "Hesitation and Constraints: Barriers to Social Research in Practice." Credit: Center for Architecture
Speakers of "Hesitation and Constraints: Barriers to Social Research in Practice." Credit: Center for Architecture

Social Sciences, Good for Your Bottom Line and Society

At the Center for Architecture by • 05/17

When social science research is characterized as the antidote to contemporary life’s afflictions, architects are justifiably wary. The practitioners who shared their insights at a recent AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee argued against compartmentalizing this field of study. Rather, their aim is to make the research more ubiquitous, a more substantive part of how we understand and shape the built environment. When we improve our understanding of society, the chances that social relationships will be “linked to place,” to quote moderator Margaret Newman of Arup, are also improved. “We are addressing a ‘better architecture’ topic,” said committee co-chair Melissa Marsh; social science is intrinsically connected to design excellence.

“Hesitation and Constraints: Barriers to Social Research in Practice” was part of an ongoing conversation about how to support occupant-centric architecture using social research. The panel highlighted key themes from a think tank meeting held at the Center for Architecture in March. (Marsh said that her committee is conducting its own brand of “crowdsourcing” to ensure that social science themes are demonstrative of a broad public debate.) The panel, which included Ethan Kent of Project for Public Spaces (PPS), Sydney Mainster, Sustainability Manager for The Durst Organization, and Debra Inwald of Works-in-Progress Associates (WPA), focused on the process of place-making using tools for engagement.

Consistent with the think tank meeting’s major theme of inclusion (“the community is the expert”), the effective use of social research in practice requires that architects consider and engage with occupants at each stage of the project’s lifecycle.

Kent described the evolution of his mindset from “project/discipline-driven” to “place-sensitive” and, ultimately, to “place-led” and “community-based.” His work with PPS, a nonprofit planning, design, and educational organization, builds on the approach of William Whyte, author of the influential book and film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Kent perceives the “natural order of spaces” not as fixed within a specific project phase or as the end-product of user analysis, but rather developed over time with occupant participation.

Mainster described a similar process of “affecting change and outcomes” through modification of space—but with the occupant, not the building, playing a central role. Worth noting, The Durst Organization, a pioneer in sustainable developments, has shifted its focus away from building accreditation and toward understanding “how people use space.” This constitutes a more holistic approach involving water/energy usage, occupant wellness, and the materials supply chain. The Durst Organization’s goal is to recognize and work with “market realities” but affect a “more perfect outcome,” said Mainster.

Kent concurred, asserting that a clear objective of using social research is to “build into the process the capacity” for occupants to implement change themselves as new challenges develop. According to Inwald, this necessitates acquiring deep knowledge of client “friction points,” risk aversion levels, staff interaction, and exactly “where in the process” occupants may be. Inwald’s company, WPA, provides owner’s representative services and focuses on nonprofit capital/construction projects. There’s an quality of “therapist” in the architect who genuinely wants to use social science in practice; place “changes who they are,” she said, “because you’ve given them a forum to talk about [their issues].”

To “know your client,” as Inwald described potentially the most potent aim of social research, is also about knowing the economies that drive and motivate behavior. A deeper read into “nostalgia for the small town’s downtown” business district may be about the underlying “economic model” of planning and design that focuses on social interaction, said Newman. She referenced author Thomas Friedman and the need to slow down the kinetic pace of contemporary life with architecture that permits individuals to shut out modern, often technologically-driven, “noise” in order to have more meaningful experiences. To reframe knowledge derived through social research in monetary terms, however, is to miss the point.

The panelists argued that social science possesses the tools to measure value but in human impact terms. “You can’t lead with design,” cautioned Kent, who described an occupant-centric process for evaluating space with the objective of creating valued “place.” The rising value of “place capital” is how he defined shared value and how Mainster described important short-term gains, starting with user interaction. By only focusing on the “hard, solid spaces,” she said, we can miss out on the measurable positive results of affecting people’s behavior.

The discussion also included ways to use the novel research approaches and innovative tools inherent in interdisciplinary alliances between social science and architecture. We are encouraged to listen, to observe, to allow sufficient time for the investigative work leading to an authentic understanding of how social relationships are linked to place. Recognize the “projects [that exist] within projects” at each development phase, advised Newman. Inwald added, “Go deep.”

Colette Taber is inspired by the architectural community where she got her start more than two decades ago as a business and technical writer. She writes about the design and professional services industry for her content writing company Word Munky.

Event: Hesitation and Constraints: Barriers to Social Research in Practice
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.24.17
Speakers: Margaret Newman, FAIA, Associate Principal, ARUP (moderator); Ethan Kent, Senior Vice President, Project for Public Spaces; Sydney Mainster, Sustainability Manager, The Durst Organization; Debra Inwald, AIA, Principal, Works-in-Progress
Organized by: AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee

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