Expanding Boundaries & Negotiating Transitions

Expanding Boundaries & Negotiating Transitions

RESEARCH PATHWAY: personal reflections on a career in research

Raymond J. Cole (University of British Columbia) offers a candid reflection on his 50-plus-year career from earlier technically framed research on 'green' building and building environmental performance to more expansive later research that positioned buildings within larger socio-ecological systems. Lessons and insights are offered regarding the relationship between research and practice and the potential benefits gained from building bridges across disciplines.

Career paths often have unanticipated starting points, take a number of unexpected twists and turns, and invariably finish with reflection on one’s past activities, some with satisfaction and others with regret. I first engaged environmental issues as they relate to buildings during my final year as a civil engineering undergraduate student in 1969 — a time when the curriculum was crammed with technical courses and a single, and a very much token, social science course. However, given the permission to undertake a joint project with a senior architecture student that examined technical and social issues in high- and low-rise residential buildings, I was exposed to issues and questions qualitatively different from those raised in engineering. A future career path emerged — to find the vehicle to set environmental issues within the field of architecture rather than in engineering. Other than this, opportunities typically presented themselves more by happenchance than being consciously sought, and there was never a grand research plan. It is not easy to pinpoint how research interests emerge but, for me, venturing outside academic areas that I was most familiar with or felt comfortable within had increasing influence.

Shifting disciplines or attempting to build bridges between them is always difficult but often brings considerable rewards. A year working in the Environmental Division at the Building Research Station (now Building Research Establishment, BRE) became a transition from civil engineering to pursuing a PhD in architectural science. Following the 1968 Ronan Point disaster — a partial structural collapse of a residential tower block due to a gas explosion that killed four people and injured 17 — many similarly constructed apartments were vacated, often just four years after construction. These dwellings also suffered severe condensation and mould growth and my assigned task involved tracking the movement of heat and moisture through one of them to better understand the causes. Ronan Point highlighted broader social and political implications of flawed design and construction e.g. human health impacts, disruption of people’s lives and widespread lack of public confidence. However, an even greater impact on my later work was Gerald Foley’s warning of the profound future socio-economic implications of poor environmental standards that became increasingly evident in the realities of ‘fuel poor’ households (Foley, 1976).

Following his appointment as Professor of Architectural Science at the Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff, Patrick O’Sullivan invited me as his first PhD student, and with whom I stayed for three more years as a faculty member. He remained the single most powerful influence in my academic career—instilling a need to frame research on reading trends rather than entrenching it only in current issues and preoccupations. While gaining an understanding of the content of specific research papers delivered at conferences or published in journals, he always emphasized that it was equally important to try and read where they were collectively pointing, and to situate one’s research at that forefront. But the time in Cardiff was also personally conflicting. My work, like much other architectural science research at that time, focussed on specific building performance issues and was undertaken with little reference to significant unfolding social changes. Situating myself between narrow, technically framed research and the larger social and environmental questions that were being raised, was uncomfortable and difficult to resolve. Indeed, if and how the ideas and ambitions embedded in alternative, counter-culture publications find their way into mainstream thinking emerged as a personal interest.

Moving to the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) School of Architecture and remaining there for the following 40 years provided a qualitatively different teaching and research context. All the students had undergraduate degrees from a wide range of academic disciplines prior to entry — the sciences, engineering, or the arts — and an average age of early to mid-twenties. Teaching would require becoming more aware and adept at framing and presenting scientific concepts and environmental ideas to those with widely different technical competences, although, over time, it would be me that became less technical in constructing ideas rather than the other way around.

Getting the questions right

A sabbatical leave enabled spending the 1983–84 academic-year at the University of Cambridge’s Martin Centre and almost the entire year in the university's main library. Starting with the first Transactions of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1836, I set a daily task of scanning for coverage of environmental issues in subsequent issues together with other related architecture/building journals, as they emerged, year-by-year, until 1984. The unfolding of major societal events captured chronologically in the articles and editorials — general strikes, economic recessions, environmental crises, World Wars I and II, together with boom-times and changing political leadership — was remarkably revealing in how they directly and indirectly affected building practices. Moreover, the adage that ideas are regurgitated throughout history became vivid when reviewing the justifications of new design strategies, those used to critique and condemn them, and those subsequently used in support of their later reappearance or repetition. Perhaps most compelling was the emergence and dominance of certain authors who championed specific environmental issues, the longevity of their ideas, and the public discussions with those holding contrary views. Architecture’s allegiance to art and science, the tensions between architects/architecture and engineers/engineering, and how previous or existing knowledge and experience came to be regarded as insufficient or redundant, also came into focus during this somewhat indulgent study. As architectural design became a progressively complicated activity, 'specialists' became increasingly responsible for generating new information, and this came in abundance. This, for me, posed questions regarding if, how and when one’s own research contributions would fit into such a history.

I drafted a paper that charted the various mechanisms that had been created to assist British architects in coping with the increased volume of technical information and products of research over the previous 150 years. Ian Cooper, who had also been a graduate student in Cardiff commented on the draft: “isn’t the issue of ‘information’ symptomatic of changing attitudes towards ‘science’?” That is, the focus should not be on the detail — the ‘facts’ — but the structure of thought that underlay them. The thrust of this question has remained a valuable litmus test for me to challenge if research was seeking answers to the right question. This became more difficult given the overwhelming increase in the production of information, number of papers and the number of journals disseminating it. Moreover, understanding the broader context of research became hugely important but equally more difficult, particularly regarding the nature and speed of change in the building-related professions, transformation of the built environment, and the social and political forces that influence them.

A culture of assessment

Hosting workshops with a small number of invited leading researchers, professionals and government agencies proved valuable for bridging across disciplines, gaining a more comprehensive view of emerging environmental issues, and discovering trends that could possibly help shape research directions. John Doggart’s presentation of BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) at the European Forum on Buildings and Environment, Vancouver in 1991, for example, was the catalyst for my Environmental Research Group participation in building environmental assessment. The International Research Workshop on Buildings and the Environment at Cambridge University in 1992 brought differences in North American and European research and professional approaches into sharp contrast, and the Linking and Prioritizing Environmental Criteria workshop in Toronto, 1995 expanded the invitation to a wider range of disciplines to better understand possible interconnections of performance issues within assessment tools.

Research priorities and agendas change over time. In the late-1980s/early-1990s, the notion of ‘green’ building emerged and with it generated a host of questions regarding what this meant in both theory and practice, what guidance was available to the professions, how could clients be encouraged to demand them, and how could exemplary green buildings be acknowledged and celebrated. We created the Building Environmental Performance Assessment Criteria (BEPAC) in 1993 — the first building environmental assessment tool in Canada. But like many other inventive assessment tools developed in universities later, it lacked the organisational structure to support widespread implementation. However, I felt content that it had offered an alternative approach to BREEAM at that time and had prompted broader discussions about scope, structure, metrics, and weighting of criteria.

Some of BEPAC’s ideas were incorporated in the Green Building Challenge (GBC) — a process which started in 1996 with Nils Larsson. This international collaborative effort had the ambition to develop a generic building environmental assessment tool from which participating countries could selectively draw ideas to either incorporate into or modify their own tools. A subsequent series of conferences initially hosted international comparisons in the environmental performance of buildings and provided a catalyst for discussion in many of the participating countries. Later the conferences uniquely provided an international forum that helped develop a critical mass of researchers to share ideas — a process that Larsson has successfully continued to manage through the International Initiative for a Sustainable Built Environment (iiSBE).

A 'culture of assessment' had emerged by the late-1990s that spread and sustained interest in the development and application of building environmental assessment methods world-wide. Participating in early discussions of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) in the US and later developing adaptations of a version for Canada, revealed the difficulty of setting performance goals in voluntary systems that were environmentally credible, sufficiently demanding and yet considered attainable in practice. Here, perhaps unsurprisingly, the inclusion of many products of research were invariably tempered or compromised by a host of cost and practical considerations, industry pushback and political pressure. An important lesson here was being much more cognisant of the various pathways by which products of research find their way into application by practitioners and/or other stakeholders.

Work with the Athena Institute during the 1990s enabled us to undertake research that built upon pioneering Australian and New Zealand studies and to examine the embodied energy of alternative structural materials and lifecycle energy use. This demonstrated that the significance of both initial embodied energy and that recurring through replacements and repairs over a building’s life, depended not only on its energy efficiency but also whether it a had long or short lifetime (Cole and Kernan, 1996). However, there was little interest by the building industry at that time because embodied energy was relatively small compared to operational energy. Moreover, the analysis required to quantify embodied energy was considered too prohibitive to enable its inclusion as a performance criterion in assessment tools. Twenty-plus years later, climate change mitigation has positioned a building’s embodied energy/carbon as a valuable research undertaking. Moreover, robust Life Cycle Assessment tools now more easily enable its inclusion into major building environmental assessments methods. This re-emergence reinforces the idea that if the products of research are to have wider impact, they must relate to a societal priority, building industry stakeholders need to be receptive, and they must have relatively simple means to accommodate findings in their decision-making.

Expanding agendas

Over the decades, my research interests became less technically framed and expanded from the performance of individual buildings to positioning them as elements within larger systems and later to regenerative approaches to understand the ways that buildings, infrastructure, and other interventions could add social and ecological value to neighbourhoods (Cooper, 2018). Engaging the transition from green building to regenerative approaches posed new opportunities and challenges for re-positioning research. First, it would necessarily have to be set within an overarching shift from a mechanistic, reductive scientific paradigm to one governed by living systems and wholistic thinking. In so doing, this raised a host of questions such as: what constituted ‘success’ when a building was set within a larger system; how would one ‘measure’ it; and how should one deal with inherent uncertainty in outcomes? Second, the planning, regulatory and financial institutions that govern practice have established and often outmoded ways of operating that, along with constraining legal codes and regulations, do not change easily or quickly. Moreover, since net-zero carbon approaches were emerging as a dominant priority for the building industry, how would one convince stakeholders to see the potential and positive return and invest the necessary time and effort in the more expansive ambitions of regenerative development and design? As such, this research was positioned between current dominant green priorities/practices and emerging regenerative approaches, focusing on recasting existing knowledge and strategies to illustrate and reinforce that they were complementary requisites and to identify points of transformative intervention within existing processes.


In addition to understanding the context in which one’s research is situated, having a clearer picture of the intended audience seems more important than ever. Here, on reflection, three things stand out among the many that I regret. First, not attempting to find ways of reframing environmental arguments in terms that are meaningful to climate change deniers or those not fully convinced by the need for urgency. Second, not investing more time and effort in understanding the space between people’s belief in the importance of environmental issues and the actions they can take within their own realm of responsibility and the capabilities they possess. Third, almost every audience I have had the opportunity to address — student or professional — has been pro-environmental. Although uncomfortable, it would have been valuable to have engaged those less receptive to these ideas to understand the strength of their environmental, scientific, and economic arguments and claims.

Entering domains of knowledge beyond those one is formally trained in introduced me to new epistemologies and opportunities to see similarities and differences in engaging environmental issues and enabling me to leverage the value of a ‘beginner’s mind’. However, it also brought the risk of naivety in their interpretation and presentation; criticisms I was willing to accept in order to help bridge knowledge and practice domains. Moreover, although my research path was not set within the same sense of urgency that now exists, I always thought that demonstrating the merits of making leaps in building environmental performance, rather than increments, was a worthwhile undertaking — if not, why bother? In addition to meeting traditional norms of academic rigour, it now seems that the value of building-related research will, in part, be measured in terms of its ability to accelerate change. Here, understanding both the inertias in the domains of the various stakeholders associated with both the production and inhabitation of the built environment, and the points to intervene more effectively in their processes, could prove increasingly necessary in framing future research.


Cole, R.J. & Kernan, P., (1996) Life-Cycle Energy Use in Office Buildings, Buildings and Environment 31(4), 307-317.

Cooper. I.  (2018) The socialization of building science: the emblematic journey of R. J. Cole. Building Research & Information, 46(5), 463-468.

Foley, G. (1976) Insulated savings. Architectural Design, 8, 502–503.

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