Random Notes on Research: From Bigfoot to Einstein via Wiki

Upali Nanda, PhD, Associate AIA, EDAC, ACHE

Original post from Upali Nanda on LinkedIn.


Research is in. You can find no industry today that does not celebrate research and talk data and numbers. Unfortunately, it has also become a post-rationalization tool - using data and numbers to justify a decision and push forward a point of view. In a world where information abounds, and technology is rampant, you only need to google the right words to get an answer that satisfies you, and you can then cite. Nowhere is this penchant for wielding data with inherent bias more evident than in the ongoing election campaign. I almost cringe to be a researcher when I see "research" spouted as a series of poisonous darts to sway public opinion. A couple of years ago I had an interesting dialogue with colleague Jason Schroer on bias- that came about from his questions on reality TV show Finding Bigfoot- and how those who believe in Bigfoot, always landed up finding proof he existed: http://www.hksinc.com/insight/the-bigfoot-conundrum-a-practitioners-perspective-2/; Till date, in my mind, that conversation on dealing with bias is filed as the Bigfoot Conundrum.

If we go back to the basics, research is defined in the dictionary as "the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions". The focus is really on the "systematic", and on the choice of relevant materials and sources. This, in turn, depends on two key elements- the clarity of the research question, and the adoption of the appropriate method to seek the answer. We are seduced too quickly by numbers, especially when they are big and pretty, but stopping to think about the genesis of those numbers- where did they come from, what question did the research ask, and what method did they use to find the answer is key. And once we know that, knowing the bias, (or what we now call the bigfoot belief :), is imperative. That constant unfailing acknowledgment of bias (because you can never truly achieve lack of bias) is fundamental to good research.

And because bias exists, and is un-avoidable, we as a generation of information consumers, have to stop this blind belief in numbers. Not all good research is quantitative. Not all metrics are meaningful. And the presence of numbers is not proof. But "if" we want proof, we must understand clearly the notion of a hypothesis.

At the high tide of evidence-based design, there was a rush to prove how design improved outcomes. In itself this is a powerful idea- because design can, and does, improve outcomes. But it rarely does so in isolation of people, and process. In other words, in the context of architecture, determining how our built environments can "cause" improvement in key outcomes (satisfaction, safety, loyalty, productivity etc. etc.) is very, very tricky. Informed by many dinner table conversations by my in-house stats professor, I wrote this piece that followed the bias (read bigfoot) conversation, delving into how tricky this conversation could get, the importance of the "null" hypothesis, and why we must remember that correlations are not causality, and the purpose of research is to investigate, not prove. The outcome of good research could be the lack of proof. http://www.healthcaredesignmagazine.com/article/wrong-way-conduct-ebd-research?page=2. Again, it comes down to those three key elements, a good question (Q), a sound method (M), and acknowledgment, and minimization, of bias (B). But the most important of the three, in my opinion, is a good question. I love this quote by Einstein:

"If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution". THAT, there, is the key to good research. You have to spend enough time thinking about a problem, so you can devise the right research question. Without a good research question, all you will have is data & information, but not insight and knowledge.

We over-complicate research, and we over use the term. In the end this wiki definition of research is perhaps the one that aligns most with our design industry:

"Creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humans, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications."

All too often we use research to peddle ideas, sell opinions, and justify decisions, while what it really does (or should do) is provide us an opportunity to learn better, so we can DO better. Perhaps the best thing about being a researcher in practice, is the ability to witness that transition for learning to doing. And then learning from what was done, so we don't come full circle, but spiral forward towards meaningful change.

Erin Peavey Joins as Health and Wellness Visiting Scholar

We are excited to welcome Erin Peavey as a visiting scholar to CADRE/HKS, Inc. Trained as an architect and design researcher, she has spent her career bridging the gap between research and practice. Most recently with HOK in New York, she was a medical planner and senior researcher, working closely with clients on planning and design for a range of large and small scale projects.

During her time as visiting scholar, Erin will be focusing on well-being and health across market sectors. She is currently a research consultant for the Center for Health Design. Additionally, she is research chair and trustee of the Academy of Architecture for Health Foundation. Recently, she was recognized in Healthcare Design’s Best Under 40 by the Academy of Architecture for Health. With multiple awards for her work, Erin possesses not only professional knowledge, but also passion for bringing together diverse perspectives to advance design. She has published widely and is active in giving back to the healthcare design community as a speaker, mentor, teacher and board member. Erin is an advocate for the power of design in improving lives and is thrilled to be joining CADRE/HKS.


What is Biomimicry, and How Does it Differ from Biophilia?

Adeleh Nejati, PhD, Assoc. AIA, EDAC

“Biomimicry 2016: The Road to Resiliency” was a half-day conference that took place in California on March 11th of this year.  Arranged by Verdical Group, a firm of LEED consultants based in Los Angeles, the conference was a series of TED-style presentations and panel discussions that brought together thought leaders in the field of biomimicry, those who grew up in nature, and those who look into the nature for solutions to challenging issues they are facing in design. Presenters showcased biomimetic and biophilic research and design in many forms, ranging in scale from the design of products to the design of buildings, cities, and urban infrastructures. The full conference recording is currently available on Verdical Group's YouTube channel.

In its literal definition, “bio+mimicry” refers to the imitation of life or the living world around us. The Biomimicry Institute, an America non-profit organization located in Montana, further defines biomimicry as “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” In contrast, “bio+philia” is defined as the love of life and the living world around us. Theorists who specialize in biophilia argue that human beings have an innate inclination to associate with other non-human living systems, often referred to in shorthand as “nature.”

Biomimetic designs directly use patterns and systems found in nature, while biophilic designs aim to connect human beings to the natural world. In the face of design challenges, biomimicry argues that nature has already found suitable solutions and that the process of investigation, understanding, and application of the right solution will benefit a design.

Examples of biomimicry can be found in Qualcomm’s display technologies that mimic the structure of a butterfly’s wings; the Shinkansen network of high-speed trains in Japan, whose rail cars borrow their geometry from kingfisher divers; and a multitude of green buildings geometrically and functionally inspired by termite mounds. Click here for more examples of biomimetic design.


While many biomimetic systems translate flows and geometries found in nature into human-built and human-serving environments, biophilic designs that aim to physically and emotionally connect human occupants with other living and natural systems often utilize contemporary construction methods, materials and technologies. Examples of biophilic design include Paley Park in New York City, which utilizes flowing water and vertical greenery to serve as a retreat from bustling city life; the Windhover Contemplative Center at Stanford University, which employs sleek lines and materials with painted and sculptural art to provide refuge from the stress of competitive university life; and E. Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which provides a conditioned contemplative space that feels open and airy due to material choices of glass and wood and project siting in a heavily wooded area.


For more information on the history, implementation, and benefits of biophilic design, a great resource is Terrapin Bright Green’s report 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design. The report defines different patterns of biophilic design in detail and supports each pattern by providing empirical studies on stress reduction; cognitive performance; and human emotion, mood, and preference. The full report is available for download without fee or other access control. 

Research Says: the Right Way to Hook Readers

Upali Nanda, PhD, Associate AIA, EDAC, ACHE

As a researcher it is heartening to see how often we see the word research in the media today. "Research says"... has become the hook to getting people's attention, and then earning their trust. And most would say that it's a worthy hook- better than "I think" or "in my opinion", or even, occasionally, "in my experience". Yet, I wonder if there is a certain honesty in just saying "in my opinion". In showing oneself to be a human instrument who has assimilated the available knowledge and transformed it to something actionable. I worry more that "research says" can become a smokescreen, a justification tool, not the medium for improving and assimilating the available knowledge that makes us better at what we do. And that worry stems from the fact that we hear more and more about research as a means to garner proof, and convince masses, not as an ethic to make us better.

Wiki cites the Frascati Manual with this definition "Research comprises "creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge of man, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications".

Fundamentally, research is about knowledge, the creation and curation of knowledge. In the world of design it could be increasing our stock of knowledge on the urban fabric, climate and site conditions, building materials and systems, or user experience and operations. The increase in this stock of knowledge must result in devising new applications in design. But all too often research initiatives are stand alone initiatives that expand the body of knowledge but struggle in the "applicability"- perhaps because during design, path -breaking research on a single element is difficult to put in the context of all the other elements that a design team must simultaneously consider . For a building to come together each aspect (from structures to interior finishes to product selection) works in concert with intricate interdependencies. Not so in research. Good, robust research is often extremely narrow in focus, allowing a deep and precise investigation. The results of that investigation reveal an outcome- but our challenge as researchers in "practice" is to assess how effectiveness on one outcome impacts all other interconnected outcomes. There is a distance between a research finding and design application. And that can only be bridged if research findings are put to test on a project, and run through the ringer of complex decision making and continuous testing and retesting of solutions.

Example- "research says" exposure to daylight reduces stress- but what impact does daylight have on thermal gain? Without sustainability research and user experience research coming together we cannot know an answer to this question. The complexity of architecture cannot afford a siloed approach, regardless of how stellar each silo may be.

Besides, here's the thing- research does not "say" anything. We make decisions based on the research that reveals certain relationships or demonstrates a certain effectiveness (or lack thereof). So when we use "research says", we need to have an equal awareness of what research does not say... and use that as the basis of new investigations. Because if we use “research says” to justify, rather than proactively, creatively, and continuously, apply, we do both design and research a disservice.