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Why Every Architectural Firm must have a Design Lab

Arch Kamata Gachanja is a Director at Lexicon + Ion, a full service architectural firm incorporating architecture, interior design, landscape architecture and urban strategies. He shares his insights on the role of research in architectural practice.

Why do you believe research is important in architectural practice?

Most commissions in architectural practice are quite siloed in nature by that I mean are largely stand alone, meaning that the client only looks at their immediate need and that is all the project team ends up addressing. There are also time constraints due to financial pressure that do not allow the client or the architect to spend sufficient time to fully explore the possible solutions beyond the immediate needs. For these reasons, I feel it would be critical to have a permanent Design Laboratory at every firm continuously seeking solutions and experimenting on solutions at a macro scale.

You mention that architects only seem to address the current client needs, what changes would you propose to this state of affairs?

I propose that we need both clients and architects to change their approach. No building or built environment project operates in a vacuum. It would enhance our built environments betterif every project was able to intentionally look into enhancing the larger context within which the development occurs. For this to happen, architect need more time and this would be served well by having a permanent Design Lab looking into urban scape issues and proposing solutions to be adopted by the authorities and by clients as well as they develop.

What other role do you see Design Lab’s playing?

Apart from seeking urban scale solutions, that end up not quite fitting into any specific project, Design Labs within architectural firms would also be critical in looking into innovative ideas to different architectural issues. For example, the affordable housing issue is one that might benefit greatly because each proposed project is tackled as a stand alone project, and delivery is required in a short time. This does not allow time for any research or experimentation to come up with new ways of organizing spaces, using new or existing materials, tackling macro planning issues around the developments, and many other aspects that go into actually delivering on affordable housing.

Do you see Design Lab’s becoming part of how architects contribute to a better society?

Absolutely! Beyond serving specific client briefs and project requirements, by having active Design Labs looking into emerging issues in our society and the built environment, architects can be part of solution generation from a practical point of view. Architects would come up with ideas, experiment with them, and push for implementation at both micro and macro scale or even at specific projects. As noted earlier, it is not usually possible to find time to carry out the research and development within the confines of specific projects. Design labs would keep the conversations, experimentation and ideas going long after particular projects are completed with a view to feeding this knowledge into future projects.

Where does Academia come into this?

Academia would be useful in grounding the research in a well thought out manner, but ultimately, we are looking to bridge the gap between theoretical solutions and practical needs to solve everyday challenges in the built environment. Academia would assist with research since a Design Lab must come up with a hypothesis, experiment with it, come up with a viable solution and test it within real life projects. This would be done both at a concept level and at a practical level where user feedback is required on new ideas that may have been implemented.

How do you see a Design Lab working practically in a running firm?

First, this is not new and large global firms such as Gensler and OMA have been doing it. They have the resources to do this due to their scale and financial muscle. One would say Kenyan firms may be to small to do this, but I beg to differ. We learn every day from projects we carry out and so what we may need to do is to keep on documenting and sharing. We also need to take some time to do post occupancy audits and user surveys to understand how our buildings are working post occupancy. There is plenty to be learned and shared already. To take this further, we can dedicate some time and resources to try out experimental models and concepts to problems we know exist. Right now the debate about the office and the home because of COVID-19 is a unique scenario requiring architectural insights to solve. Churches, restaurants and other public spaces, as people go back require to be studies on usage.

What would be your parting shot regarding Design Labs for Architectural firms?

I would say, the knowledge is there. We just need to formally seek it, package it and share it for the good of the wider community. This would make architecture relevant and the profession would be seen to be contributing to our progressive society

Arch Kamata Gachanja can be reached via email on Kamata@lexicondesigns.co.ke