Architect David Watkins: 'A moral responsibility to use research in design'

David H. Watkins, FAIA, is chairman of the board and founding principal of WHR Architects, Inc., a 30-year-old design firm with offices in Houston, Dallas, and Lake Como, N.J. He is the author, with former WHR partner D. Kirk Hamilton, FAIA, FACHA, of Evidence-Based Design for Multiple Building Types (Wiley, 2009). Watkins earned a BArch from the University of Texas at Austin and has served on the advisory boards of the architecture schools at both his alma mater and Rice University. He has been a director of the National Architectural Accrediting Board since 2005.

BD+C: In your book, you state that “the architect has a moral responsibility to use research data in the design process.” Why a “moral responsibility”?

David H. Watkins: Our responsibility for protecting the well-being of building occupants should involve more than protecting them against fire and structural collapse. Today, there is an ever-increasing body of research on the relationship between buildings and human behavior. As design-related knowledge expands and becomes more definitive, it carries with it an inherent “moral obligation” to apply it.

BD+C: You define evidence-based design (EBD) as “a process for conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence from research and practice in making critical decisions, together with an informed client, about the design” of projects. Do you think clients care?

DHW: Apathy on the part of clients is not, in my view, the greatest hurdle. The absence of an accepted architectural practice model that utilizes research is a much bigger problem. The absence of using performance metrics even on our own work is a fairly good indication of how far we have to go.

BD+C: In that context, why aren't more AEC firms doing post-occupancy evaluations?

DHW: There is no tradition in architectural practice for POEs. Not long ago, we had a client express shock that we wanted to perform a post-occupancy evaluation on a building we had completed for them a couple of years earlier. They had never heard of an architect voluntarily returning to one of their buildings to evaluate how well it was performing. We learn from doing. POEs should be a normal part of the delivery of every project.

BD+C: Are manufacturers leading the way in research?

DHW: Steelcase, Knoll, Herman Miller, and other furniture manufacturers have long been involved in workplace research and more recently in healthcare furnishings research. Floor coverings manufacturers are also active in research related to infection control, safety, etc. As valuable as these studies are, I think they are too easily criticized as being suspect or self-serving. Possibly that accounts for their more limited circulation.

BD+C: Are online resources contributing to EBD?

DHW: The AIA's Soloso ( and especially the ASID's InformeDesign ( are excellent early attempts to make information more accessible and easier to share. The big challenge is developing useful methodologies for characterizing the quality of the data. Peer-reviewed research, as in medicine, is the gold standard. Architecture has no such tradition.

BD+C: You state that “those who take the lead in scholarly research, EBD, and publication of results may achieve an economic advantage.” Is this occurring?

DHW: We are certainly seeing EBD increasingly mentioned as a requirement in RFPs. We have also noted an increase in clients demanding more evidence to support design decisions.

BD+C: Is this a good time for firms to do more research on their projects?

DHW: Unfortunately, with fewer projects being chased by more and more firms, there will be the inevitable pressure to tighten our belts.

BD+C: You advocate moving the profession “toward the design of buildings … that respond to human needs” and facilitate human performance and productivity. Please explain.

DHW: Too often architects think of buildings as “beautiful objects,” not as places for human interaction. It isn't surprising that we see wonderful photographs of architectural masterpieces that have no people in them.

BD+C: Last November, the Gates Foundation reported that their experiment in making high schools smaller did not necessarily improve student performance. Is that an example of EBD at work?

DHW: As Bill Gates said, “The schools that made dramatic gains in achievement did the changes in design and also emphasized changes inside the classroom.” And Melinda Gates added, “Evidence gives you an argument for action. When you have it, you know what works and what doesn't. When you don't have it, you have no path to improvement.”

I wish we had had that quote when we wrote our book. It seems to very succinctly sum up what we are trying to achieve.


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