Lighting a Fire for Innovation

LS3P’s Ignite Team, an internal knowledge team dedicated to innovation, was formed in August of 2019. This group of individuals seeks opportunities for innovation in projects, processes, and the industry; we are committed to investigating problems with a goal of providing positive solutions for our communities.  We know that a focus on innovation will help us all stay connected not only with our clients, but also our wider community as we seek to be good stewards of our talents and skills as architects. In our first year and a half together, we have explored new processes, strengthened relationships with our academic partners through studio sponsorships at local universities, and spearheaded a firmwide pro bono initiative which led to over a dozen local and international design collaborations in its first year.

The Ignite Team meets monthly via Zoom, but our April 2021 virtual retreat was our first opportunity as a group to spend a few hours listening, learning, and ideating in collaboration with leaders in the field of architectural research. Our keynote speakers were Billie Faircloth, FAIA, partner and research director at KieranTimberlake; Blair Satterfield, Chair/Assoc. Professor at the University of British Columbia and co-founder of HouMinn Practice; and Marc Swackhamer, Chair/Professor at the University of Colorado Denver and co-founder of HouMinn Practice. Setting aside this dedicated time to engage with some of the most engaged thinkers and leaders in our field helped us to uncover and prioritize new avenues for potential exploration.

Our retreat began with “Zoom room” discussions to unite us around some core ideas. We asked, “In the context of architectural practice, how do you define research? What kinds of conversations are we having around research, individually or as a firm? What are the barriers to research?” Answers were as varied as our participants, but common threads included the idea that research goes above and beyond project work to answer a central question, to the benefit of a client, a process, the industry, or the community; the need to foster a research culture that encourages inquiry on every project; and the need to be creative in allocating resources- both time and financing- to support this important work.

Billie Faircloth shared KieranTimberlake’s research model with the group, and explained how the firm’s research culture evolved systematically over many years based on the strategic plan. 10% of KiernanTimberlake’s staff is dedicated solely to research, but everyone in the firm is intimately engaged in the culture of inquiry. Researchers are also deliberately transdisciplinary, hailing from backgrounds as varied as physics, sculpture, and ecology. Research is central to the firm’s process of architecture, and every project is subjected to the process of inquiry and explanation. Maintaining this commitment to research culture requires a blend of funding strategies, from internal to grant-based to billable to partnership-oriented; however, the payoff in innovation is well worth the investment. According to Billie, this type of research increases  the agency of the architect and the value of architecture. Innovation occurs in the “gaps” in a design, and these avenues for exploration can yield unforeseen benefits for projects, clients, and the industry.

Blair Satterfield and Marc Swackhamer approached the topic of architectural research through their experience with HOUMINN, the design collaborative they founded to foster inquiry and exploration. They identified the elements required for research to flourish, such as ideation on where research might take them for any given project, brainstorming sessions, unscripted time, and the important work of “play.” They emphasized that the process of building connections take time, but is integral to building momentum and achieving buy-in from partners. Furthermore, it is often critical for architects to relinquish control over the outcome of the work, and to shift mindsets from “we do it all” to “we are participants in a larger group.” In this paradigm, the community gets to shape and inform the end results in sometimes surprising ways. Blair and Marc also talked about positive disruption and the idea of “benevolent contagion” – as architects and researchers, how can we contaminate the process in a good way? How can we distribute positive, widespread impacts?

Billie asked the group whether research is most limited by culture, tools, or funding. Though all factors are important, she emphasized that doing the work to establish and maintain a culture of research is the most critical element for success, and the foundation of an architectural research program. As part of this culture, she underscored that failure should not only be normal, but also welcome. Not every research project yields the expected results, but that’s an integral part of the process. Some roads ultimately lead nowhere, but others lead to productive discoveries with unexpected benefits.

The team spent a few heads-down minutes brainstorming the “global challenges and wicked problems” we might address through research efforts, and existing resources in the form of “strengths, assets, and interests.” There was no shortage of challenges; in a few minutes we came up with dozens of issues to address, many under the umbrellas of equity and access, sustainability and resilience, healthy communities, and industry processes. Fortunately, the team identified a commensurate number of strengths which will become important tools in the process- relationships, firm culture, community ties, regional opportunities, scale (small enough to address local issues and big enough to rise to challenges), momentum, broad expertise, technology and knowledge resources, and openness to change.

The last step of the retreat was to engage in discussion as to how to begin pairing needs, assets, and ideas to begin generating topics for research and exploration. In the nine southeastern cities where LS3P is rooted, our issues and opportunities include coastal resilience, affordable housing, healthcare access, mass timber innovation, and equity and inclusion across every project type. These overarching issues – and others – lend themselves to research opportunities and partnerships across a wide range of scales as we advance the process of inquiry.

Our time together, inspired by Billie, Blair, and Marc, was a powerful reminder that we as architects have a unique set of skills in problem solving and design thinking that positions us to serve as researchers and innovators. In thinking proactively about how to answer the big questions we face in our communities, our projects and our industry, we are empowered to proposed new solutions, and we are excited to get to work.

About Katherine

Katherine Peele serves as LS3P’s Chief Practice Officer. Katherine joined the firm (then Boney Architects) in 1988 after she graduated summa cum laude from North Carolina State University’s School of Design with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. She was the valedictorian of her class at the School of Design.

In her 32 years with the firm, she has managed over $1 billion worth of construction, with projects ranging from educational to workplace and community focuses. Her current role as Chief Practice Officer includes oversight of design excellence and quality, growth of practice expertise, and innovation.

Katherine served as the 2000 President of AIA North Carolina and in 2017 and currently serves as President of the North Carolina Board of Architecture. She was elevated to AIA Fellowship in 2003 in recognition of her extensive expertise and commitment to educational facility design.  She also serves as President for the Leaders Council of NC State University College of Design.  In 2019, she was awarded the Gold Medal by AIA North Carolina, the highest honor for a NC architect.

About Dean

Dean Rains brings over 23 years of expertise in commercial and public projects. An Associate Principal, project manager, and architect, Dean is highly skilled at coordinating the requirements of the various user groups and regulatory agencies and aligning them with the client’s requirements and design vision to deliver a successful project. He brings significant experience in the design of diverse civic projects including cultural, library, and human services facilities in addition to his broad portfolio of commercial work.

Dean is an active member of the professional community and is currently serving on the City of Raleigh Planning Commission. He has also served three terms on the City of Raleigh Appearance Commission, the AIA Triangle Programs Committee, and as a juror for the City of Raleigh Environmental Awards and Sir Walter Raleigh Awards.