Research by Design in Education and Practice

Author: Nathalie de Vries, TU Delft

Category: Keynote


Today the role of research inside the practice is gaining more and more importance; investigation and analysis are becoming fundamental in the search for inputs for our designs. Different aspects of the design process are changing rapidly nowadays, and a very important driver of this change is the Digital Construction Organization, which along with most of our tools, have now digital roots. Also, our built environments are increasingly provided with sensors and trackers.

With digital collaboration, the role of the architects, and all the other participants in the building process, is shifting, mostly because of the new ways of collaboration inside of what is often one unique model of the design. Also, there are many issues around the materialization of our designs, therefore, another important topic is to design with materials and methods of the future to achieve future-proof designs and constructions. Materials of the future could as well be materials of the past, we are just now reaching a point where we look much more carefully about re-using materials, but we also must source them and literally keep track of them, which is a whole new way of dealing with materials and buildings. We also look differently at the surfaces of our buildings, now becoming potential energy generators and co2 extractors, not only with solar panels on top of the roofs but also with complete facades, exploitation of wind, and use of passive solutions; this all transforms the way we look at the design and the way we build. Furthermore, our buildings, spaces. and their usage are potentially sources for behavioral data extraction, but it is not so clear yet if the extracted data will become open source or at least accessible for designers. In fact, with architecture also being a part of the real estate industry it is plausible to presume that the significance of data driven design including the economic value of the design will be growing to an extend that goes beyond its cultural perception. Shoshana Zuboff description of the risks of the surveillance capitalist society also includes the built environment.

Consequently, as designers we need to establish validations of qualities of designs that go beyond the merely required function of the building. It may well also start to include the ‘immeasurable’ aspects of design like cultural values.

One of the most important aspects of designing is, instead of how classic scientific research works, designers usually work towards a a predictable outcome, we want to reach certain goals with our designs, and we have a lot of different methods to get there, we try to investigate and frame this crucial phase of the process that leads to the desired outcome, in a sort of “outcome-driven architecture” way of designing. I refer here to how Kees Dorst describes this process in his publication ‘Notes On Design, How Creative Practice Works’. In other words, design is by default always result driven, and created by using ‘frames’.

In a way this is self-evident to how we designers always have been thinking about designing; the notion of the prototype is an interesting matter in that sense, the ability of architects to visualize and create possible futures in design is important, but also the entire process of thinking behind it.

Digital construction organisation, image by Subhash Kumar at

Figure 1: Digital construction organisation, image by Subhash Kumar at

How can we achieve excellent design quality when building processes become ever more determined by economical, ethical, technical, and legal regulations? How do we get a bit of control over the possible outcomes?

Architects of the 19th and 20th century tried to do it by thinking about types, styles and categories, moving towards a standardization of these, but nowadays mono functionality and singularity are no longer drivers of our designs, hybridity and multiplicity should become the main key drivers of the architecture and. the built environment. These topics are now at the center of research the Public Building design studio group at the Delft University of Technology, using research-driven design processes to investigate new types of public building solutions. Most public buildings nowadays combine at least two different functions and also should act as catalysts for urban quality. This applies also to buildings with much more limitations, like for example government office buildings. This is important for the city of the future, and buildings for the future, that have to deal with the growing demands of flexibility, density and sustainability, whilst at the same time should contribute to livable cities. We can start to imagine an introduction of more publicness in all buildings, that could invade not only government offices but introduce this notion to commercial architecture as well.

It’s a very interesting matter to think about; the identity of the buildings for the public and the state is an important item of research. Do we see buildings as entities, created through for example DBFMO (Design Build Finance Maintain Operate) processes that owners can easily write off and resell to the market, or do they get a special identity and purpose in the city and its context because they are made for the public? How do we validate qualities beyond the measurable items? What kind of design research frames can enhance the cultural and esthetical value of purely data driven design?

Rewoven, project MSc2 Inter-Action Public Building by students Clara Beckers, Marije de Ruijter and Yucheng Li

Figure 2: Rewoven, project MSc2 Inter-Action Public Building by students Clara Beckers, Marije de Ruijter and Yucheng Li

Public Building MSc2
studio Inter-Action

In this studio researched the renewal of a state government building how different workstyles, levels of accessibility and the public domain can interact in an existing building in the center in The Hague. The project was done in collaboration with the Atelier Rijksbouwmeester (Atelier of the State Architect), who is investigating the future of government real estate.

Website Sea2City design challenge, City of Vancouver
Website Sea2City design challenge, City of Vancouver

Figure 3: Website Sea2City design challenge, City of Vancouver

MVRDV / research-driven urban design projects: 3 examples

Sea2City design challenge

The Sea2City design challenge has to do with the sea level rising problem in the False Creek floodplain area in the city of Vancouver, Canada. The city’s government started to look at this challenge not only just as an engineering problem but also as a true design problem that has to be solved. Hence, after an international request to contribute to thinking about the future, it was proposed to different design teams to take this challenge.

The previsions show that the sea level is going to rise so considerably, that in the future part of the city will become flooded; even now, in certain conditions, smaller parts of the city are already being flooded.

It is a delicate matter we now have to deal with. During the 90s there has been a lot of promotion for building on waterfronts, and now we are starting to see the downsides of that.

MVRDV office, together with local firms, and Dutch engineering firms, are working as a team on this project, exploring approaches that besides the strictly technical problems respond also to social equity, economic and ecological challenges; an approach, as we can see, that applies not only in buildings but also in urban design.

This approach takes also into consideration expanding the toolbox of coastal flood management for the projects to come, and the increase of public awareness of climate change and sea-level rise problems.

Local community and governments, stakeholders and regulators are therefore partners involved in the design process. A special place in the project is taken by learning from knowledge and getting input from the First Nations.

The concept designs that will result from this challenge won’t be built immediately, but will be used as prototypes, and will help to inform the next steps of designs in this framework.

This is a fitting example of how research can be done through the design process, providing knowledge and prototypes to lay the foundation for future projects.

SolarScape for Municipality of Rotterdam by MVRDV Next

Figure 4: SolarScape for Municipality of Rotterdam by MVRDV Next


SolarScape is a tool that MVRDV’s in-house research and development group “MVRDV NEXT” developed; it is part of a larger series of parameter-based tools called “scapes” that the office is using to think about the densification of cities and analyze many different aspects, to find ways to accommodate more people inside cities pleasantly and harmoniously.

In-depth, SolarScape focuses on the sunlight parameter, developing a computational model of the city that visualizes the behavior of sunlight. This specific tool helps to identify the best solutions for obtaining the maximization of sunlight exposure, considering mutual distancing, orientation and height of the buildings, but also environmental variables such as the number of hours of sun exposure during the day, what time of the year it’s been measured, the built environment in the context of the analysis area, etc.

To visualize the best scenario, the tool extrudes the developable plots up to a maximum height and divides them into a 3D grid, analyzing the impact on surrounding sunspots for each of the 3D cells and removing those that would harm their surroundings. Since the process is automated, it is possible to scale it up to the entire city; without the shadow cells, what is left is a volumetric boundary of a development opportunity towards a city without shadow.

These digital tools can help design and test policies to make cities denser and more pleasant to live in at the same time. In this particular case, we can appreciate how the process of research helps to design a tool to make multiple design proposals in turn.

Collect and Connect by HASSELL+ TEAM (Hassel/MVRDV/Deltares/Goudappel-Coffeng, Concept for San Francisco Bay Area ‘Resilience by design’

Figure 5: Collect and Connect by HASSELL+ TEAM (Hassel/MVRDV/Deltares/Goudappel-Coffeng, Concept for San Francisco Bay Area ‘Resilience by design’

Resilient by Design

The bay area of San Francisco is suffering from different kinds of water-related climate change issues, and it’s dealing with a lot of crisis possibilities: the decrease of water during storms from uphill downwards, lack of water in other periods, the bay level sea rise, fires, and the danger of occasional earthquakes.

In this scenario, one of the many challenges is to think on a very large scale in a context where state regulations concerning flooding and water management are absent, and it’s instead dealt in a more local scale. As of today, even in a country with such problems, closing off a bay with a dam is not a real option anymore. Instead, an appropriate alternative to that is working closely together with local communities on solving the issues by collecting data and preferences through an app and identifying opportunities sites for creating safe spots. The extra task was to use the public investments also to enhance the local quality of life, especially for communities living in these areas that are also suffering from the high ground princes and cost of living.

All these matters together brought to a speculative proposal that starts looking at the whole network, improving the infrastructural system, making connections through local communities with special points where one could go up or downhill in case of emergency, depending on the nature of the issue. These points are a combination of connectors and collectors, to improve both the actual water system and the public transport connections for people living in the area. At the same points emergency hubs can be created where people can gather and use as safe places where is possible to escape in a crisis situation via water instead of via the too vulnerable road system.

Part of the approach is also to involve the local communities by creating a catalog and talking about their needs and necessities and what functions they would like to have at these special points in the bay area.

In conclusion, as we can see many things can come together during the design process, crisis management, local governments, engagement of local communities, and so forth, all being part of a more productive and inclusive approach. The project was made with a team from Hassel, Deltares, Goudappel Coffeng and local firms.

Dokk1, Aarhus, Denmark (library, municipal office, exhibition room, station– 2015 arch. Schmidt Hammer Lassen, photos: Adam Mørk

Figure 6: Dokk1, Aarhus, Denmark (library, municipal office, exhibition room, station– 2015 arch. Schmidt Hammer Lassen, photos: Adam Mørk


A proper summary of this way of thinking is the concept of multiplicity, which is also the main conceptual framing of the Public Building group and its design studios at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, Delft University of Technology. We need to think in a much more multifaceted way about the productive ability of our designs, but we still need a lot of research to better understand how this should work and how it can even become part of the standards that future architects will have to learn or to improve the toolbox of current architects firms to handle the very complex era we are living in, making sure that we enhance the quality of the built environment.