AD Interviews: Kieran Timberlake

Stewart Middle School, Sidwell Friends School © Halkin Photography LLC

Interview conducted, condensed + edited by Sarah Wesseler

What do research and development mean in today’s design field? To learn more about architectural R&D, I turned to KieranTimberlake, a Philadelphia-based firm that has earned wide acclaim for its innovative work in arenas such as prefabrication and sustainable design. Partner Stephen Kieran and research director Billie Faircloth spoke with me about the history and practice of the firm’s in-house research team.

Can you walk me through the history of your research department?

SK: In hindsight it goes back to the origins of the firm 25 years ago. James Timberlake and I came out of the practice of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Quite different in many regards from the direction we wanted to head in, which was decidedly not postmodern. We made a decision to focus on the exact opposite of that, really—on the relationships between structures, systems, materials and performance—from the outset. Although we didn’t think of it this way at the time, it almost forced us into research agendas in order to explore the relationships between all those things. One thing, though, that that office did do for us was instill a belief in the value of researching and writing as part of our practice.

Around 2000 we turned all of our teaching enterprises at Penn into design research laboratories instead of design studios, and out of that we then formulated an agenda for the Latrobe Prize, which we won. And out of that we in turn used the money to hire some full-time research staff. When that money ran out, we liked what it had done to the culture of the firm so much that we kept going with it, and we’ve been going with it ever since. Billie joined us a year ago and her charge is to ramp it up even further.

Can you describe specifically how the firm culture changed with the addition of the research staff?

Stewart Middle School, Sidwell Friends School, interior © Peter Aaron/Esto

SK: We finally started to realize what was happening to us five years ago in the context of a strategic planning exercise. We really articulated research as the core enterprise that drives the production of the firm. That was an enlightening moment for us. If you ask most firms to diagram what drives them I think you’d find it would be not proactive but rather responsive: what drives them is the work they get. And when we put the research core here—well, part of what we do as researchers is related to questions we need to solve for work that we have to do. It turns the nature of the question around in some ways when you pose it in terms of a research inquiry. It provides a certain amount of rigor to it that is extendable beyond singular circumstance. It’s not good enough to put it out there—you have to then monitor what you’ve done and measure its success and speculate on what you’ve learned from it.

It cycled for us into a process that also, ironically, became our quality control process. We’re ISO (International Organization for Standardization)-certified, one of a relative minority of firms in the US. And we didn’t think about this at the time, frankly—that the performative requirements of an ISO system exactly parallel research. It’s a simple mantra of not just planning and doing things but monitoring and learning from them that is the requirement of our quality control processes. And that’s not something we invented. They’re used in lots of other industries, and rarely in architecture.

The interesting thing is, while you don’t think about all these steps at the time, the culture and ethos of the firm has kind of drawn us into this topic from a variety of different angles that have all coalesced in a way where our quality control and our research are not a different thing anymore. They’re one and the same. And so is our design.

Stewart Middle School, Sidwell Friends School, constructed wetland © Albert Vecerka/Esto

And how does that work on the process end in terms of specific projects that you’re working on? Does it significantly change things in terms of the time frame you operate on, or budgetary requirements?

SK: It affects everything, including who we get to work for. We go into an interview—we just went to one earlier this week—where we ask a lot of questions and present a lot of research about a problem. But the client group wanted to know the answers to the questions we were trying to pose. And they were frustrated with us and we were frustrated with them, so we’re probably not going to get to work for them. And that’s probably a good thing, because we’re not a good match.

Your website says that you have four staff members and three percent of your gross revenue devoted to research. Has that been consistent since the department was founded?

SK: I wouldn’t say it’s been consistent—it depends on what is going on. We’ve done some searches that have not concluded yet for other positions that we are seeking expertise in; prototyping is one, and another is basically environmental modeling. So we’re seeking to build that group over time. It’s probably going to be slower in this particular economy than we would like, but the objective is to build a full-time core of expertises that are quite particular, and then in addition to turn all the architects in the firm slowly but surely into able researchers in their own right so they can use this core group as a resource for projects at the same time that this core group is also working on non-project-related, more speculative developments.

Billie, you’re an architect, but another researcher in the department has a degree in environmental management. Was there a conscious choice to include non-architects?

Stewart Middle School, Sidwell Friends School, Trickle Filter Diagram © Kieran Timberlake

BF: It was a conscious choice. The design process can be seen as a kind of research process. The scientific process has other methodologies associated with it. What’s interesting to me is that design problems generally require both. So, having multiple kinds of researchers, you get to really look at a problem to decide what kind of process is appropriate to apply to that question.

What is a typical day like for you, Billie?

BF: Yesterday I started articulating a research proposal; I went through upwards of two brainstorming sessions for separate projects; I reviewed another proposal for another project. My day can be jumping from project to project to project, looking at questions that are being asked, methodologies that are being proposed—really how teams are designing their inquiry, designing their design problem.

SK: In addition to that, there are ongoing product development ventures that are not project-related, and those have a variety of streams of work associated with them. One is certainly funding, it involves grant writing, and others involve designing research agendas, designing commercialization strategies, finding collaborators. Also there’s time spent on publications, writing up research.

Is there a specific project that your department has had a strong impact on, in terms of allowing the project to do things that it otherwise couldn’t have done?

Yale University Sculpture Building © Peter Aaron/Esto

BF: I think that the projects that mostly target the cycle of plan/do/monitor/learn that stand out to me the most are the Yale Sculpture Building and Sidwell Friends School, and also Sage Bowers (also at Yale). We’re at a stage right now of really monitoring the performance of these projects.

SK: Yes, the Sidwell project was interesting. A professor of science at Yale wanted to use that building as part of a research agenda. They had a proposition basically about biophilia, about human affiliation with the natural world, that was built into the Sidwell Friends project during design. We had an existing middle school that he was able to go into and measure, through a variety of quantitative means, human performance of students and teachers. We worked with him on a variety of agendas that related to the affiliations between humans and the natural world that became many of the agendas for the building. The constructed wetland is a good example—something the kids walk through all day long coming and going to and from school. They’re in the process now of going back and beginning a multiyear phase of measurements of human performance now that the building is done. That is a comprehensive example of a project, I think, in which we were able to design a building in a way to build in physical form and carry out a program that would then become a basis for an experiment to test, to see if there actually is any relationship there.

What groups in the field today are doing the most exciting research work—academics, small firms, big firms, others?

BF: You realize, of course, that academia would claim the research process as theirs. But that’s not true, because industry equally claims the research process, because they are obviously attempting to commercialize whatever is made through R&D, whether it’s in-house or related to academia.

We inherit, without realizing it, a lot of the results of someone else’s research to do what we do. A specifications manual is full of those kinds of results. For architecture, whether you’re an academic or a professional, understanding a process for research is contested, and, I would say, very fertile ground. I think the latest edition of the graphic standards actually includes a chapter on how to conduct architectural research, and it’s written by Tom Fisher, I believe, who is the dean at Minnesota. But that only begins to indicate that there is very little road practice established in architecture schools—and I’m talking about architecture schools, not building science—for how to conduct research.

I think the people that have the ground on it right now, honestly, is industry, who’s establishing products and protocols for implementing items into buildings. That’s where the research is being done.

SK: Yes, I would second that, but I have a slightly different twist on it. I think it’s too much of a generalization to ask the question where does it reside. I think there are people doing really intriguing work in all three realms, but you will not find it generally well done and applicable across the board in any one of the realms. You’ll find a few architecture practices that are pushing. You’ll find some academics doing it but the vast majority not. In industry you’ll find more of it, but you’ll find some industries that are content to do what they’ve been doing and invest relatively little in R&D, and other sectors who invest huge amounts and are really at the leading edge.

Curtainwall detail © KieranTimberlake

It’s very different from, by way of example, the pharmaceutical industry, where, by definition, this is what they have to do or they don’t exist. The pharmaceutical industry all does research. They have to, or they have no product stream and they’re gone. That degree of urgency does not yet exist in the industry side of architecture and design.

About this author
Cite: Sarah Wesseler. "AD Interviews: Kieran Timberlake" 19 Aug 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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