An innovative graduate program in the University of Minnesota College of Design places students in Twin Cities architecture, engineering, and construction firms to conduct research on topics related to the future of the industry

By Regina M Flanagan

“In a period of profound social, technological, and environmental shifts, the built environment must respond to the changing conditions facing communities, organizations, and individuals in ways that enhance human experience and well-being, minimize costs, maximize efficiency, optimize resources, and enhance quality of life,” begins AIA National’s affirmation of the value of research.

Recognizing the role that research can play in addressing these needs, the University of Minnesota School of Architecture in 2013 initiated its Master of Science in Architecture with a concentration in Research Practices (MS-RP) under the leadership of founding director Renee Cheng, FAIA. The program matches graduate students with local architecture and construction firms and faculty advisors to conduct research on topics of mutual interest and benefit. It accelerates the path to architectural licensure for the students by integrating research with practice. The 10 firms in the Consortium for Research Practices (see sidebar below) pay a fee to participate.

Malini Srivastava, AIA, who became director of the MS-RP program in 2018, says the university’s role is helping students to “vision a gap”—that is, learn how to perceive missing knowledge, formulate questions, and conduct research. Coursework, which is also open to other MS in Architecture students, combines social-science and scientific research methods, especially quantitative methods, and translates them to architecture. Students interact with firm leaders and faculty experts, receive a bird’s-eye, big-picture view of the profession, and are given a meaningful voice at an early stage in their career. All these benefits are known to be strong predictors of future success for young designers.

In its first five years, the program has also focused squarely on promoting diversity in the profession by supporting women and people of color, who often face unique challenges on the way to reaching leadership roles in the field. In order to achieve these goals, says Srivastava, the program is working to create structures that diversify the content and scale of the research by bringing small and minority- and woman-owned practices into the consortium, and to establish connections beyond the Twin Cities.

Architecture MN spoke with research leaders at three consortium firms—Cuningham Group Architecture, BWBR, and DLR Group—and with recent MS-RP graduate Pratibha Chauhan about the focus and the impact of their research efforts.
Gender Bias in Healthcare Design
In 2007, BWBR’s Stefnee Trzpuc was pursuing a master’s degree in design with a focus on research while her mentor at the firm, Katherine Leonidas, was developing the vision for what would become BWBR’s Design Research and Knowledge Management Program. “The things we’re asked to design are increasingly complex, and our clients are more sophisticated,” says Trzpuc, now a principal at BWBR and director of the research program. “They ask us what’s new and what we’ve been studying. They often want to see data, and providing it becomes a way to strengthen relationships and also leverage our clients as thought leaders, which forms valuable partnerships.” In her research role, Trzpuc often remains in contact with the client long after the project ends.

Erin Kindell, BWBR’s current MS-RP intern, was paired with the firm because of a mutual interest in exploring how gender bias has influenced design standards for healthcare facilities. Intrigued by Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Trzpuc, Kindell, and faculty advisor Daniela Sandler are asking: “What if we applied a different lens? Would we get different outcomes?” The two are examining the processes and systems involved in the design of healthcare facilities, especially during predesign, when significant decisions are made.

Through its participation in the consortium, BWBR is also able to seek advice from university faculty who work on health and well-being research. Trzpuc says that partnering with these experts helps the firm better understand the biases embedded in traditional design approaches.

Cuningham Group Architecture
Innovations in Sensor Technology
As Cuningham Group Architecture’s chief knowledge officer, principal Adam Wilbrecht, AIA, gets his arms around data and information—all the embodied knowledge that adds value to the firm. That includes developing and managing Cuningham’s technology and intellectual-property assets. This past year, Wilbrecht cemented the firm’s Research Council by hiring recent MS-RP intern Dustin Schipper as a full-time researcher.

Cuningham Group’s research questions tend to be subjective or technological in nature, often with a wellness influence. Another MS-RP student, Chris Savage, combined the two interest areas for his project with Cuningham. Working with Wilbrecht and faculty advisors Andrea Johnson, AIA, and Lana Yarosh, Savage explored the implications of the rapidly expanding Internet of Things (IoT)—the digital, neural network of sensors embedded in objects and places—on the built environment. The research led to the invention of the Room Fitness Monitor, which synthesizes inputs from IoT sensors for temperature, light quality, sound intensity, and air quality to develop wellness recommendations for occupants.

“Our firm considered what we could leverage from a land-grant university, and for the sensor project, we commissioned the Department of Computer Science and Engineering to help write code for the sensor,” says Wilbrecht. “The sensor device and its software are currently in the patent stage. If we start realizing income from the patent, it will demonstrate that not everything [architects do] needs to be fee-based.”

DLR Group
Integrated Delivery of High-Performing Projects
Bonnie Sanborn became head of DLR Group’s Research and Development Studio in the firm’s Chicago office this past summer. She has a background in archaeology, studying material culture and the relationship between humans and their environment in prehistory. Now, as an environmental psychologist and social scientist, she addresses relationships between people, architecture, and place. The recently restructured program that Sanborn leads tackles research with human subjects for specific types of projects; design technology; and data and analytics across sectors and practice areas.
MS-RP students Amy Ennen, Matt Tierney, and Chloe Sackett all worked with DLR Group, Mortenson Construction, and faculty advisor Renee Cheng on a multiyear research project focusing on integrated project delivery—an approach to project delivery that aims to integrate all aspects of design, fabrication, and construction for optimal results—and supply chain. “Research elevates our work, no matter the sector or discipline,” says Sanborn. “Treating applied research as rigorously as possible, with protocols and the focused collection of actionable data, allows firms with an integrated practice to deliver smarter, higher-performing projects to their clients and local communities.”
The final report synthesized findings on the connections between a project team’s continuity and working relationships and its productivity. It highlighted, for example, the fact that project knowledge can be lost when work is handed off to consultants, and that turnover on a team can adversely affect project delivery. “The findings drew our attention to the importance of documentation and hand-off procedures,” says Sanborn. “We changed the way we document project goals and added technology and tools to our practice to help with these potential issues.”

Pratibha Chauhan
MS-RP Internship and Beyond
Pratibha Chauhan pursued MS-RP and Master in Architecture degrees concurrently. Her project with HGA’s Amy Douma, AIA, and Jim Moore, AIA, in tandem with faculty advisors Renee Cheng, Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA, and Jacob Mans, AIA, examined the sharing economy’s impact on the profession and what the business models of Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and Facebook, and the existence of the gig economy, mean for architecture. Chauhan looked at eight of HGA’s project types and produced a matrix showing whether specific projects had the potential to be a part of the sharing economy, or if they resonated with a particular type of sharing economy (the peer-to-peer economy, for example, or the crowd economy), and how architects could broaden and improve their services to better align their unique skills with new economic trends. The project earned her the prestigious King Student Medal from the Architectural Research Centers Consortium.

After graduation, Chauhan was hired by Perkins and Will, where she is exploring predesign strategies for workplace projects that include taking an in-depth look at users through data collection, job shadowing, and interviews. Chauhan credits the MS-RP program for opening up her mind to alternative positions in architecture, and she emphasizes that today’s research will have an enormous impact on how future buildings are designed, to the benefit of their occupants.

Long-Term Program Benefits
MS-RP students are able to produce rigorous results because they have access to university expertise and large data sets available within the consortium firms, and the firms often allow the students to share their projects with each other for comparisons. “Being a part of the knowledge-management community, uncovering and capturing both tacit and explicit knowledge, and sharing the results so they can be actionable—that benefits all the firms in the consortium,” says Wilbrecht. Are there limits to sharing research among firms that often compete with one another? “How to make the research actionable is what each firm does individually,” Wilbrecht answers. “Capitalizing on research has intrinsic value, and year after year, it builds new value propositions.

“Research abilities are skills you don’t usually see in an architecture graduate,” he adds. “The skills students gain through the research-methodology coursework and bring to our firm transforms our approaches to solving problems.”

Sanborn concurs. “Today’s students will all need to employ research in their future careers,” she says. “There will be no more silos. Architects and designers will have to be savvy about working with other professions.”


What research areas need more critical inquiry? Looking forward, the MS-RP program participants anticipate exploring questions like these:
·   Reactive/responsive design, or what’s often called neuromorphic design. We’re able to quantify a lot about the way a person feels in real time. We care about neurodiversity along the entire spectrum, and accessibility for people in all bodies and identities. Having a building respond to a person in some way and acknowledge their current emotional state and their personhood could be a validating and positive experience.
·   The world as we know it is changing with the climate. As we experience more significant and catastrophic weather events, how will cities, communities, and buildings adapt to the changing needs? As areas absorb climate refugees, are we planning for future densities and demands on resources, and what is the role of our buildings in meeting those needs?
·   What is the next value that architecture can bring? The first was post-occupancy evaluation, to discover operational efficiencies. We need to push past evidence-based design into innovation with processes and materials.


Ten Minnesota firms currently participate in the MS-RP program:

·   BWBR
·   Cuningham Group Architecture
·   DLR Group
·   HGA
·   Meyer Borgman Johnson
·   Mortenson Construction
·   MSR Design
·   Perkins and Will
·   RSP Architects
·   SALA Architects