Construction techniques have to become more sustainable and cost effective in the future. To fully exploit these goals in its research activities, the University of Stuttgart’s Integrative Computational Design and Construction for Architecture Center of Excellence (IntCDC) is using a novel interdisciplinary method known as socio-technical research integration.
Like few others, architecture is a discipline whose results remain visible to the public throughout many generations. It can foster a sense of identification or friction, but barely leaves anyone unmoved. With this in mind, the IntCDC, in which 120 scientists from the University of Stuttgart and the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems are collaborating in various research projects, is taking an interdisciplinary reflection approach. The objective of the “socio-technical integration research” project STIR) is to help make the building of the future ecologically, economically and socially sustainable, even during the research phase. The fact that friction also arises in the course of this is definitely desirable.
Luis Orozco, a doctoral student at the Institute for Computational Design and Construction (ICD), is currently working on novel approaches to timber construction with a view to being able to prefabricate multi-story buildings in a modular fashion. During his work over the past few months, the architect has not only met professional colleagues and researchers from computer science and engineering, but has also met with Deniz Hos of University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Social Sciences once a week. He and Orozco are looking into individual research stages in terms of their ethical, legal, social and even ecological consequences.
Knowledge transfer can be difficult.Luis Orozco
“Architecture and construction have a bearing on many different aspects of life as well as people,” Orozco says. Through the STIR process it is becoming possible to bring the view of the different perspectives and ramifications into focus, for example in terms of the concerns of workers within the construction industry.
During the STIR project, Hos and Orozco met up almost every week throughout a three-month period, during which time they talked about the assumptions upon which Orozco's research was based and existing connections to the major social challenges of today. The aim of such a process is to identify possible consequences of technological development - both desirable and undesirable - at an early stage and to compare them with societal expectations. Hos emphasizes the fact that socio-technical integration is not only an accompanying factor of the respective research but rather helps shape it. Social issues and concerns are therefore a component of scientific and technical endeavors right from the start. “Our assumption,” explains Prof. Cordula Kropp of the Chair of Sociology at the Institute of Social Sciences, whose main research focus is on risk and technology, “is that rather than being predetermined, here is room for decision-making in respect of technological developments at many points along the way.”
If we didn't clash, we wouldn’t be able to move forward, so friction is built in.Deniz Hos
However, she continues, this leeway is often only used unconsciously or with a view to achieving the most cost-effective outcome, as a result of which, opportunities for shaping future developments in a more sustainable and responsible manner are neglected. The discussion protocols developed as part of the STIR process, not only make such options evident, but also exploitable. Prof. Achim Menges of the ICD is also convinced of the benefits of this approach: “As far as the Cluster of Excellence is concerned,” he says, “raising awareness of the multiple aspects that need to be integrated is the most important thing .” STIR, he goes on to say, clarifies how broad or narrow the view of the individual researcher has been thus far and what other perspectives could be taken into account, which, according to Menges, “is a very valuable contribution.”
The view beyond science
Menges believes that the IntCDC Cluster of Excellence’s decision to adopt an approach based on interdisciplinary discussion protocols is a very good one: the cluster includes researchers working in everything from architectural history, materials science and civil engineering to robotics and the social sciences.
We ask a lot of critical questions, which the subjects try to answer.Prof. Cordula Kropp
On the one hand, he continues, the socio-scientific approach to socio-technical research integration could sensitize those concerned to the priorities of certain topics in specific phases. On the other, it may be possible to look beyond science and to recognize the consequences of research decisions that are otherwise taken without much thought. “One of our issues,” Luis Orozco explains, “has been that the subject matter is so complex that even within the same field of research, knowledge transfer from one working group to the next can be difficult.” He was able to test the transfer of knowledge within two groups of master students via STIR: “Our goal was to communicate the timber construction system we are developing in as simple a manner as possible to enable us to transfer the knowledge in the optimum way.”
Nevertheless, as Deniz Hos adds, a certain level of conflict is definitely desirable as part of the discussion process: “If we didn't clash, we wouldn’t be able to move forward, so friction is built in.” In the two projects in which Hos has been involved, he says, the level of communication was so good that he was able to ask pointed questions without being met with any personal resentment. “I was also able to actively follow up whilst still always feeling as if I was adding value in doing so.”
It’s about changing architecture, which involves more than just architects.Prof. Achim Menges
Friction, he goes on to explain by way of example, arose when it came to certain aspects, such as ethical issues or access to building materials, which did not have the highest priority from an expert perspective in terms of technical development. “The reason the IntCDC project seemed appropriate for us,” says Cordula Kropp, “was because it is such a radical, disruptive innovation that could fundamentally change traditional construction approaches.”
It's about changing architecture, which involves more than just architects,” Achim Menges agrees. In his opinion, everyone and everything, such as social science issues or historical reflection involved in the complex creation of buildings such as these should be taken into account. According to Menges, it is still too early to draw any final conclusions from the process, although he hopes that the STIR process will be used on an even broader scale within the Cluster of Excellence.
Text: Jens Eber