Solid foundations: how to design & construct better buildings
Building design & construction industry professionals, academic researchers and government can learn a lot from each other – if they take a more collaborative approach
Christian Criado-Perez has been looking at why the building and construction industry is slow to take on board the work being done by researchers in relation to high-performance office buildings.
The news is not good for academics. Though they have important research findings to share, they are having trouble getting their message across.
“Pretty much, we’re just not part of the conversation,” says Criado-Perez, a PhD researcher in the school of management at UNSW Business School.
“Which is ironic because, as academics, we’re grumbling ‘why don’t they listen to us?’ But on the other hand, we put our research behind a paywall so it’s not surprising, and we’re publishing most of our work in academic journals which are not targeting the profession.”
Criado-Perez’s research has an equally stinging message for industry practitioners: they aren’t listening enough to the people using their buildings, they tend to rely on anecdotal feedback from colleagues, and when they do look at other forms of evidence about the efficiency of their buildings they often cherry-pick details that reinforce their existing views.
In a recently published paper, Beyond an ‘informed opinion’: evidence-based practice in the built environment, Criado-Perez and his Business School colleagues, along with Philip Oldfield from the UNSW School of Built Environment, looked at which factors influence the use of evidence-based practice in the construction industry.
Application of evidence-based practice
Evidence-based practice is a decision-making framework that builds on the best available evidence from multiple sources of research and practice, then critically applies it and assesses the outcomes.
The issue is an important one. An extra one billion people are expected to live and work in cities by 2050, requiring a doubling of build floor area, according to UN estimates, and office buildings are responsible for a big chunk of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.
Evidence-based practice emerged in the 1990s in medicine. More recently, the building sector began to realise that better-designed hospitals improved patient safety and returns on investment. Yet its potential goes beyond a medical context.
The techniques are being used in the built environment, but the message is slower getting through.
“I’m not sure whether we are selling it well enough; there are still some misconceptions which are common,” Criado-Perez points out.
“Some practitioners see evidence-based practice as a barrier to innovation, particularly some of those involved in the more artistic side of the industry, such as designers and architects,” he says.
“Evidence-based practice is not about being stifled by evidence; in fact, we found that evidence-based practice and innovation are associated with each other.”
According to the study, the industry tends to be risk-averse and feedback from colleagues regarding previous projects can be a big factor in determining how buildings get built. There is seldom a formal feedback process involving those using the building while academic research can be hard to find and access.
As one respondent in the study put it: “A lot of material is produced, research is produced, but it’s practically incomprehensible because it’s so dense.”
How can academia and industry collaborate?
The disconnect between academic research and practice highlights the need for closer collaboration.
There’s a very compelling argument to increase the efficiency of a building through evidence-based practice, Criado-Perez says.
“Fundamentally, it is about making better decisions and building in-house expertise in what works. What organisation wouldn’t want that?”
So, is the key to spreading the message about evidence-based practice and other research findings as simple as coming up with clearer messages and better ways of engaging with industry?
“Absolutely,” says Deo Prasad, a Scientia Professor and CEO of the Co-operative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living (CRC-LCL) at UNSW.
It turns out that’s already happening on two fronts.
The CRC-LCL commissioned Criado-Perez’s research project as part of a wider, four-year project, called Closing the Loop, that aims to connect senior decision-makers with the best available research evidence. The aim is to get the message across to those who commission, build and design buildings as well as those in government who draw up industry codes and standards.
Another way the centre is keeping industry informed is based on the world of medicine and is similar to the Cochrane Collaboration, an international database that offers medical professionals high-quality information to help make better health decisions.
Prasad says the built environment industry doesn’t have anything like it – but that’s about to change.
“We’re developing a platform called BuiltBetter that will look at the independence of the research, the good science and methodology and then say, ‘OK, what does this mean for better policy and practice?’,” he says.
“And we will develop good summaries through systematic reviews of literature around the world and present it on this platform so policy and practice people can access it in short write-ups and then look at detailed reports on other parts of the site.”
What does industry think?
The emphasis on industry and government is important for Brett Pollard, sustainability leader of international design practice HASSELL, who was the head of the industry steering committee for Criado-Perez’s study.
“It’s really more collaborative research with industry that will help improve industry’s understanding of how academia works,” say Pollard.
“If you look at the medical side of things, you’ve got hospitals right next door to universities and surgeons who are also conjoint professors. Therefore, there’s that constant cross-flow of information from one to the other.”
In effect, collaborating could assist academics to move out of their labs and help nudge industry practitioners out of their comfort zones.
“You have to build trust and understanding over time to create the right opportunity,” Pollard says.
“It’s not an easy thing to solve but I think just getting academia, industry, designers and clients working together on research that has a project outcome is a great way to go.”