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Book review: Evidence-based design for multiple building types

Evidence-based Design for Multiple Building Types
D Kirk Hamilton and David H Watkins
John Wiley and Sons, 2008
Price: £50.00 / €62.50 / US$75.00

Evidence-based Design for Multiple Building Types starts out by making a clear statement of its bias and point of view. Architects are losing market share to a plethora of other specialists in the building industry, particularly to professionals who have a better understanding of users’ needs and client requirements.

A demonstrated competence in acquiring and using scientific evidence to apply to design decisions is a way to rectify this imbalance and have better luck winning projects from competitors.

Basing their definition of evidence-based design (EBD) on the identification and evolution of evidence-based medicine, the authors refer at least twice to the proposed (now newly in place) certification programme available to train architects in carrying out EBD.

The book recommends that interested practitioners read more, and become familiar with and learn to refer to, academic and scientific articles to broaden their knowledge base about what research results are out there.

In order to bolster its case, the book presents a range of recent architectural projects in different specialised areas – healthcare, learning environments, the workplace (citing a series of studies published by Knoll furniture systems), as well as lab design (ably illustrated by projects from one of the authors’ own architectural firm), retail and “places for assembly and performance”.

To their credit, the authors also include chapters on historical preservation and, on another scale, urban design projects. In each case, a short overview of what is known about designing in the field is provided. However, the format does not allow sufficient data or detail for these sections to qualify as ‘evidence’ in any sense of the word.

The brief project descriptions include photos, as well as summary texts which provide an overview of the requirements that were communicated to the architects. Unfortunately, these do not extend beyond simple summaries of either the project goals or sustainability requirements or energy-conservation objectives – and they invariably end with statements such as “the project has been very successful” or “the clients are very pleased”.

Not that there is anything wrong with presenting interesting projects and summarising their achievements. Architectural journals do it all the time. But for the novice looking for instruction on how to follow the authors’ advice and make his or her practice more competitive by adopting an EBD approach to design, there is little to go on.

What is the ‘evidence’ used in each project, how was it acquired and how was it used? How is a design professional to assess whether results from a furniture manufacturer’s five case studies qualify as evidence or not? More importantly, what were the outcome measures for success or for achieving each project’s stated goals? How were these outcomes defined and what measures were implemented to collect and analyse data? As the authors state in Chapter 3, the key to good research is knowing how to frame the question.

The book fills these gaps in part by providing extensive discussion in Part 3 of how to carry out EBD and of the skills needed to become an effective researcher.

The authors use this opportunity to list current failings in architectural education, indicating what adjustments need to be made to provide graduating architects with more relevant skills to today’s world.

Unfortunately, to become a good researcher requires more than simply becoming a designer who does research. The book is not clear on how implementing EBD differs from conventional information-gathering that is carried out at the start of every design project. It also neglects to mention the costs associated with loading a conventionally-financed building project with field research studies. And it is not clear how investing considerable time and resources to acquire the skills the authors recommend will provide architects with their long-sought competitive edge.

To achieve its goals, this book needed to address the real EBD challenge for a design professional – that is, intelligent and innovative ways of applying the results of scientific research to design decisions in the real-world context of projects with time, budget and political constraints.

Jacqueline C Vischer is a professor and former director of the interior design programme at the University of Montreal

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