Insights from PHIL-AIA-DELPHIA: Take Risks and Innovate / by Sarah Callahan

Article by Daniel Thornton, AIA, CDT, LEED AP

Last weekend, thousands of architects and construction industry professionals descended on the City of Brotherly Love to share their common passion for architecture and imagine “What’s Next?”  Over the next three weeks, I’d like to share a few insights from my experiences at the AIA Convention in Philadelphia, exploring the future of the profession as it relates to Design Innovation, the Natural Context, and Developing Leadership.

AIA took a lot of criticism for the replacement of Kevin Spacey with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the first keynote speaker.  Even after her interview by Terry Gross (of NPR’s Fresh Air), many conventioneers questioned the applicability of the Seinfeld actress to the topic at hand. But between the colorful language and personal anecdotes, Julia delivered a subtle message for consideration: real risk taking is often an unconscious act based in optimism and passion for a goal.  It might beg forgiveness, but it does not ask permission.  It leaves town to pursue a dream without a word from friends and family.  It allows for improvisation and the opportunities of the moment.  Many times, true innovation is the result of not waiting for all the data and perfect conditions: it is the result of taking a chance on an instinct. 

And the industry sorely needs innovation. In the seminar “The Sustainable Building Artfully Considered”, the entire panel emphasized the urgency of addressing buildings’ environmental impact and acknowledged that the solution will likely require innovative methods combining passive techniques and new technology. They scolded architects for lazily relying on “what worked last time” while leaving the real innovation to product manufacturers.  One of the most common excuses stifling innovation is the fear of failure. With billions of dollars of client’s investment on the line and devastating litigation at risk, how can architects justify rolling the dice on an unproven design?  In short, they can’t.  But the panel pointed out that the flaw is not in failure per se, but in our approach to it. They were critical that, as a profession, we are not pursuing enough research and development as part of our everyday practice.  Almost every other industry designs in spirals: conceiving, prototyping, testing, analyzing, and then repeating the cycle to refine the product before release to market.  But architects often make only a single iteration; the conceived design is refined, documented, and built in its final form without prototyping or testing. The panel encouraged architects to experiment more, but to do it before the building is constructed.  Fail often. Fail fast. But fail first. This process will allow innovative features to be executed successfully.

Some architects are already incorporating this kind of experimentation into their design process, with great results.  In the seminar, Susie See (Meyers & Engineers) described her teams’ explorations in passive solar design and passive ventilation, underscoring the intense use of modelling and analytic software to prove out forms before construction.  By taking a best guess and then testing, refining, and re-testing, they have been able to design completely passive ventilation systems for buildings larger than three hundred thousand square feet - .  At the Syracuse Alumni reception, a classmate described his experiences working with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, in which they test-built, and re-built, a complex glazing connection. It is not a coincidence that Piano is famous both for his innovative construction ideas and his insistence on building mockups. Similarly, for eight years in a row, JCJ has teamed with Gideon Welles School to build award winning CANstructions – complex sculptures made primarily from canned food.  One of the keys to our reoccurring success is the test-build; before the official competition, we build the design as we would like it to be, test the new innovative aspects, troubleshoot, and refine the design.  And there is always something that we learn (and correct) in working with this process.

But all that R&D takes time and resources.  In an era of tight budgets and short deadlines, how can the profession afford to spend effort on process failures?  The same message echoed throughout the convention: we as architects must drive the change – by incorporating it into our office operations both within and outside project work, by budgeting for it in our annual projections, and by educating our clients about the value it brings. In his closing keynote, Rem Koolhaas observed that designing on behalf of a market driven economy, we often find ourselves beholden to individual ambitions at best and blind greed at worst.  He challenged the profession to demand more of our clients and ourselves - to step up to the social responsibilities that building embodies.  In his words, "The beauty of architecture is that it’s a leap of faith, but a very laborious leap of faith."

So what are you doing to innovate in your practice?  How is your firm approaching research?  Leave comments below! And look for us next week, when we’ll discuss how the Natural Context is shaping “What’s Next” for Architecture, including the exciting research Neri Oxman is leading at the MIT Media Lab, what’s new at the Expo, and Rem’s thoughts on Globalization.