Practice Innovation Lab tackles the future of architecture

Practice Innovation Lab - Ming Thompson, AIA

Ming Thompson, AIA, principal with Atelier Cho Thompson in San Francisco, writes out ideas for evolving architectural practice in the future.

Sixty architectural thought leaders looked ahead to strategize new models of practice

With so much of the world in flux, through changes to climate, technologies, and construction techniques, how will architects adapt ways of practicing to advance the profession? That was the question put to a group of 60 professionals—architects, designers, and practitioners from related fields—at the Practice Innovation Lab, held in mid-October and hosted by the Young Architects Forum.

Over the course of the program, attendees heard experiences and examples from innovators before forming smaller teams and brainstorming ideas to evolve architectural practice. Interspersed between these discussions, addresses on the topic of innovation demonstrated means of breaking new ground in fields such as interaction design and public interest design. The smaller teams later reconvened to pitch their proposals to each other before voting on the best practice models.

The Practice Innovation Lab crammed an intense level of consensus-building into a short timeframe, and was designed to get architects out from behind their desks to strategize rather than theorize. Organizers Evelyn Lee, AIA, and Milan Jordan, Assoc. AIA, and moderator Laura Weiss, Assoc. AIA, kicked off the event with a challenge to elevate and propel the profession through the development of new practice models that “make inspiration actionable,” according to Weiss. “[We’re] laying the framework to elevate the profession and move it forward,” she said. Lee called upon emerging professionals to be the vanguard of practice by “pushing boundaries to see values that we bring as architects to the broader community.”

Interaction designer James Patten, founder of Patten Studio, discussed the potential of buildings as interactive objects, especially when viewed through the lenses—or headsets—of augmented and virtual reality. From learning thermostats to occupancy sensors and other embedded technologies, buildings are becoming smarter on an ever-increasing scale, which will allow architects to collect and analyze data on post-occupancy use to develop buildings that better respond to their occupants’ needs.

“We’re at the beginning of a convergence of two fields,” Patten said. “Interaction design and architecture are moving toward becoming the same thing, [which brings] opportunity for interdisciplinary interaction and cooperation.” Patten also suggested that architecture might be headed toward spaces that could rearrange themselves.

Susan Chin, FAIA, executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, highlighted her organization’s work in the realm of public interest design, citing experience through projects such as New York’s Taxis of Tomorrow as well as its famed High Line. By scaling projects from pop-up to pilot to permanent, Design Trust has been able to adapt impactful solutions to fit community need while building groundswells of embedded support through sustained interaction.

Through Design Trust’s work, Chin emphasized the importance of community engagement in harnessing information to design a future that works. “You have to be connected with the community,” Chin said, by “building relationships and demonstrating how you’re improving people’s lives.”

The attendees of the Practice Innovation Lab, hosted by the Young Architects Forum in celebration of their 25th anniversary.

A panel that included Andrea Sreshta of LuminAID, Gregory Kearley, AIA, of Inscape Publico, and Kathryn Meairs, AIA, of The RED Office, exchanged views on human-centered design. Sreshta focused on listening to needs and developing appropriate responses. Kearley’s model for practice includes a for-profit and a non-profit arm. Meairs advocated for eliminating the client; her company bills itself as being the architect, the builder, the owner, and the contractor as a way of controlling the process to produce better architecture.

Collaboration is key

With keynote speakers also serving as project mentors along the way, teams were encouraged to drill down to a single big idea first before fleshing it out with more detailed actions. Elements of each panelist’s experience wove their way into proposals produced by the 10 teams. “The underlying goals around our business model related to having a greater impact,” said Teri Coates, AIA. “We wanted to be able to enable people to have a greater impact through aggregated community.” Fellow participant Julie Zhang agreed on the potential impact of banding architects together, and added “more collaboration with networks outside of architecture” would be equally as important.

The Practice Innovation Lab culminated in five-minute pitches from representatives of each of the 10 teams. The main themes to emerge from these pitches highlighted networks of smaller firms with varying models of funding (crowd-sourced and subscription-based) and emphasized data (collection and analysis), with one outlier team focused on growing architecture, as opposed to building it, through genetic modification.

“Imagine this as a launching pad to engage whoever you need to engage to test the validity of the idea.” - Laura Weiss, Assoc. AIA

One pitch suggested doing away with traditional fee-for-service models in favor of subscriptions to data analysis plans, where architects would embed sensors into buildings, and use data collected from these sensors to inform better, automated design processes. Another team’s proposed network would allow smaller firms to share resources and compete with larger, multinational firms through dedicated marketing staff. Through these proposals, the common thread of challenging traditional form of project timeline and delivery resonated.

Practitioners might not rush off to embark upon new professional journeys based on one conference alone. For some, like participant Beau Frail, AIA, the future of practice will involve finding scalable ways to connect with people: “People care about changing the practice and shifting its values to the ones we have,” he said.

With so much discussion of smaller practices banding together to form networks, that may be the most imminent outcome from the Practice Innovation Lab, as these architects bring home new ways of thinking about the profession and what lies ahead. “Imagine this as a launching pad to engage whoever you need to engage to test the validity of the idea,” Weiss said in closing. “And get inspired by what people tell you.”

Deane Madsen is a writer and architectural photographer based in Washington, DC. He is the founder of Brutalist DC and the former associate editor of design for Architect Magazine.

The Practice Innovation Lab, held in celebration of the Young Architect Forum’s 25th anniversary, served as a forward-looking initiative to define architecture practice models. The event took place on October 14 to 16, 2017 at startup incubator 1776 in Arlington, VA.

AIA will continue to share updates on what we learned at the Practice Innovation Lab and how these ideas will move forward. For more information, email emergingprofessionals@aia.org.

Image credits

Practice Innovation Lab - Ming Thompson, AIA

MediaXperience Film House

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