The first of two articles in which W. Mike Martin draws on his book Design Informed: Driving Innovation with Evidence-Based Design, co-authored with Gordon H. Chong, FAIA, and Robert Brandt.
Architecture is grounded in ideas, visions, and a passion for making environments that inspire our senses. This article is about taking that starting point—a formal concept or a statement about the spatial, geometric, and aesthetic context for inhabitation—and expanding the agenda by bringing evidence to the forefront.
The 2002 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University psychologist, has studied the concept of expert intuition for decades. He defines expert intuition as the ability to deal swiftly and decisively with difficult circumstances—making a quick chess move, responding to an emergency medical condition, or in our case understanding the complex spatial relationships and configurations of human inhabitation. Many times, under such conditions, the person is not even consciously aware of the decision process that determines the outcome.
This is an exciting time in our profession. New technologies and materials, concern for human performance and experience, and critical agendas like sustainability, energy conservation, globalization, work productivity, healing, and learning are providing important challenges. These challenges are in fact opportunities to refine, expand, and improve our abilities to make places for human experience and add services for our clients.
In this context, understanding the relationship between expert intuition and evidence-based design can be transformative. Such an understanding honors our values and traditions as architects while expanding our capacity to deliver not only inspirational buildings, but ones that increase building performance, enhance human experience, and contribute to making a more sustainable planet. The following set of questions seeks to present the challenges and opportunities in this transformative agenda.
What is Evidence?
During a 2008 interview on National Public Radio, New York Times political commentator David Brooks referred to some of the people being considered as running mates by then President-Elect Barack Obama as being “evidence-based.” This characteristic, according to Brooks, “created potential bridges between Obama and people with sometimes divergent opinions—disciplined consideration of the facts (evidence) would enable them to make reasoned decisions.”
By contrast, when design is cast as an act of expert intuitive creativity, uniquely owned by the designer, it sets a context of ambiguity and uncertainty. Many architects shroud their decisions under a cloak of mystery, inaccessible to their clients, who are expected to approve these decisions through acts of faith. The notion that there is a need to make transparent the basis on which design decisions are made is unsettling to many designers, as it challenges their expert intuition.
Yet every design decision, no matter how small or large, how simple or complex, is grounded in some form of evidence. There is a continuum of evidence found in experience; evidence drawn from expert intuition; evidence grounded in rigorous processes of inquiry; and a mixture of other sources of knowing. The evidence is all around us, but we, as designers, have difficulty acknowledging its importance, it power, its potential for innovation. And we have difficulty making it transparent to others.
This misunderstanding of what practitioners actually do and how they use evidence has generated widespread misunderstanding of the design process and has diminished the perceived value of architects and architecture to society. The public may be enamored by a structural tour de force or a landmark design that captures their spirit, but when they put on their client hat, they know they are responsible for delivering value to their organization, institution, or family. Rarely will the hospital, school, commercial organization, or family judge a building on the basis of aesthetics alone. Rather, it will be judged on its contribution to organizational or individual goals. The fundamental question is, “Do the performance outcomes provide a good return on the resources invested?”
Why Are We Fearful of Evidence?
Most designers, when asked if they use evidence in their design process, will answer, “Of course.” But if you probe a bit deeper, you find concerns about the underlying concept of evidence. There is a belief that evidence binds the designer to a purely rational process of decision-making, limiting the freedom to be creative—to employ expert intuition. Or evidence may expose professional secrets that guide their work and may provide some type of competitive advantage. Much of the reason for this situation comes from our educational and professional training, in which we learn that creativity is supreme and must be protected at any cost.
Another major concern is related to our cultural understanding of the meaning of evidence. Evidence is a legal term, associated with judicial proceedings. That evidence is either true or false, right or wrong. It is about establishing certainty grounded in facts. Yet design challenges typically do not have a right or wrong response; some responses are merely better or more appropriate than others. This creates room for misunderstanding of how best to judge the outcomes of design action.
Designers and clients believe that students learn, patients heal, office workers produce better in certain types of environments; that, in fact, the physical environment can influence human performance and wellbeing. And there is mounting evidence that we can influence organizational performance through design. Yet rarely is this evidence used to ensure those outcomes. Why do we continue to fall back on a model of designing that relies on expert intuition and experience rather than one that melds expert intuition with defensible and transparent evidence?
Precedents for Evidence-Based Design
Evidence is not new to architects. Throughout history, vernacular building forms have used prototypes to ensure a level of predictability about functional effectiveness. Similarly, structural systems have utilized precedent to predictably improve construction stability.
Codes and standards, a basic set of tools of architecture, are validated by systematic testing and past performance evaluations. ASTM was founded in 1898 to address public railway safety through standards that would decrease rail breakage. The organization claims that the consensus standards it issues are the work of its 30,000 members. What better example of collecting experience and applying it to future decision-making?
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) provides widely accepted guidance for design decisions through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. LEED is an evidence-based tool intended to verify that a building project will be environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy. Certification through LEED requires a systematic application of performance guidelines that reflect the experience of professionals as well as standards of professional organizations.
ASTM and USGBC are but two of many organizations that seek and use evidence to predictably improve design outcomes. Certainly, both have widespread endorsement by designers. It seems that the use of evidence is well accepted when it relates to building performance as measured by physical testing and building science.
There’s less precedent for the widespread use of evidence to anticipate human performance, but it is there. The Environmental Research and Design Association (EDRA) and others have a long history of seeking linkages between design and behavior. The roots of architectural programming, now a core practice within architecture, can be traced to behavioral design and the application of social science methods to design questions—from which the analysis of user needs evolved into a design strategy. Even so, only a subset of architects uses evidence from the social sciences to make design decisions.
The Need for Confident Closure
In the design world, we tend to focus on artifacts—the building or interior environment that results from the design process. We struggle to define what is an “evidence-based” hospital or school, seeking highly predictive guidelines that can be directly applied to our work and ensure desired outcomes. We struggle to define an evidence-based product.
Perhaps we might look instead toward an evidence-based process. When making design decisions about complex functional and technological environments, we need a more transparent basis for the client and design team to understand and assess choices collaboratively and to reach confident closure. This no longer is just a desire, but has become a requirement on many projects.
In our day-to-day work with our clients, architects and other designers talk about our work in terms of transforming the lives of the people who inhabit the created environments. Too often, however, we lack the evidence to communicate how this is accomplished. Expert intuition suggests that certain design actions will yield a desired response. Do we, however, really know? Do we have the evidence to give confidence to our client? In many case we don’t.
Unlike Barack Obama’s potential teammates in David Brooks’s commentary, architects pervasively lack sufficient evidence about the impacts of design and their decision making process to enable critical assessment by other who participate in that process. Our clients seek to understand how design choices will affect their organizational performance, but we lack the transparent evidence needed for meaningful, critical dialogue. The myth of architecture as a mysterious act of creativity separates the designer from the client. The architect’s expert intuition may inspire, but it cannot by itself create trust.
Evidence Across the Discipline
In recent years, a number of design professionals have embraced the notion of evidence-based design practice, as a model for rigorously seeking or conducting research to predict how well specific design proposals will support desired performance outcomes or, conversely, cause harm. Our profession has tried to learn from similar movements in other professions—medicine, education, engineering—and we’ve explored the relevance of lessons from those fields for the practice of architecture. We’ve challenged both the quality of non-scientific evidence and the applicability of scientific method.
Despite differences of opinion within the profession about the role of evidence and its associated methods, we’ve reached a point of considerable consensus that evidence is a core component of the design process. The health of our profession, measured by the perceived and delivered value of our services, depends on our embracing our clients’ mandates, to provide physical environments that support organizational performance objectives. In this world, the impacts of design on the people who use the environments and the performance of building systems must be anticipated and represented, so that performance outcomes are documented. We must demonstrate in a transparent manner how these performance outcomes are facilitated, so that the proposed design outcomes justify the resources expended.
Many proponents of evidenced-based practice agree that we need to look beyond our individual practices and share what we learn across the profession, just as we have traditionally worked together to create and document technical data in codes and standards that provide performance standards for determining appropriate action. Much can be learned from program analysis, client web surveys, and other techniques that are project-specific, but evidence-based practice must ground itself in broader, deeper data, possible only in a system that enables us to draw evidence from sources beyond the individual project, one that creates an open infrastructure for evidence accessible to everyone involved in the design process.
To be continued . . .
Robert Brandt, Gordon H. Chong, and W. Mike Martin’s Design Informed: Driving Innovation with Evidence-Based Design (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2010) is available here.