RESEARCH PATHWAY: personal reflections on a career in research
Thomas Lützkendorf (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) considers his research focus on environmental performance assessment: life cycle analysis of buildings – a significant topic in the climate emergency. Maintaining focus, depth, long-term commitment and continuity in research are vital ingredients. In addition, an accompanying responsibility is to translate scientific findings into accessible advice, guidance and practices for end-users.
After studying civil engineering, which I completed in 1981 at what is now the Bauhaus University in Weimar, I became a research assistant. The beginning of my own scientific development coincided with the end of the second oil crisis (1979 - 80), which was still having an impact. The question increasingly being asked was: how much energy (oil equivalent) is actually spent on what? My supervisor suggested this topic and recognised the potential it contained. Together with another young colleague, we were assigned the opportunity to record, evaluate and influence the design recommendations for the amount of operational and embodied energy used over the life cycle of buildings. This had been a rediscovered and emerging topic in the 1970s.I did not suspect this topic would continue through my entire professional life. Over 40 years it went through several waves of increasing and decreasing interest and is now very topical again due to an emphasis on greenhouse gas emissions and the growing scarcity of natural resources/primary materials.
In retrospect, the choice of a research topic at an early stage in one’s career is often a mixture of active search, chance, suggestions from outside, the zeitgeist and other elements. I certainly benefitted from the direction and encouragement provided by my supervisor and network of colleagues.
My PhD on a life cycle approach to energy in buildings was successfully defended in early 1985. The work was done jointly with my colleague at the time, which is rare today. At that time, however, joint dissertation writing was still possible at my university. My colleague and I worked closely and intensively together. In this new subject area and under comparatively isolated conditions, we were able to constantly exchange ideas, motivate and push each other forward. Our supervisor could only support us a little. At that time, it was not necessary to detail the respective contributions of my colleague and me. Today, it is becoming increasingly necessary to identify each author’s contribution in a research project and this brings greater clarity of all involved.
It is a great opportunity to treat a topic as comprehensively as possible in a monograph and I advise my PhD students to do so. This level of scholarship creates the necessary depth on fundamentals, explores the interrelationships with other topics and the justification of one's own approaches.
My habilitation thesis dealt with the implementation of sustainable development principles in the construction and real estate sector. This enabled me to place the topic from my doctoral thesis in the broader context of sustainable development and to achieve the necessary professional breadth for a habilitation. This started me on a journey to adapt the understanding of sustainability to a range of industry sectors and objects (construction products, buildings, building stock, etc). By doing so, it was possible to take a comprehensive approach to a transition process of implementation that was targeted and tailored to specific groups.
In the case of a habilitation thesis, a cumulative approach makes sense from my personal point of view. Several publications, which have undergone a strict scientific review, possibly from different journals with a specific profile, can achieve a certain professional breadth in the field/topic under consideration and the willingness for an open scientific exchange can be demonstrated.
I have always tried to ensure that my research is relevant to society. My initial target group was students of architecture. The influence of building owners, investors and rule-makers has often been overlooked by researchers and educators. My interest in concrete implementation led me to a stronger engagement with policymakers. Today I try to support also policy and industry through the development of national and international standards. In times of important decisions and major upheavals (e.g. the climate emergency and the limitation of excessive consumption of resources), decisionmakers need sound advice from science. The implementation of a transition relies on strategies (i.e. robust instruments, measures, legal requirements), their technical support and monitoring, feedback and adaptation. These are vital contributions that the research community can provide to society.
Reaching and influencing policymakers and practitioners can be difficult for researchers. For many politicians and practitioners, the topic of life cycle assessment became too complex for their comprehension and capabilities to engage with it in a practical way. A distinction must therefore be made between research on scientific fundamentals and the further development of possibilities for their application. One example here is standardisation. ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 describe the fundamentals of life cycle analysis. I myself am involved in international and European standardisation in the area of applying these fundamentals to provide life cycle assessment data for building products and the life cycle assessment of buildings. Examples are ISO 21931-1 and EN 15978 (both are currently under redevelopment).
Today's research culture (both research funding and career advancement) rewards those ideas and results that are new, unique or 'innovative'. But this often is at the expense of detailed, more in-depth research. My initial research engaged with previous work from the 1970s onwards. Only much later, I discovered a much richer set of older guidelines and principles from the 1920s for energy use in buildings and in manufacturing. A coal shortage after World War I led to practices for minimising coal consumption in heating and also in the manufacture of building products. Early 20th century research had compared the embodied energy for the manufacture of different exterior wall systems. This research influenced the selection of building products with the least coal consumption in their manufacture.
An important lesson is that current researchers can greatly benefit from a wider understanding of a context: theory, the history of technology and the (past and present) driving forces of social development. Not only will this inform one’s research, but it provides a strong grounding in the role, contribution and responsibility of science. This role is subject to constant change and must be constantly reinterpreted. I see scientists today on the one hand also as part of civil society and on the other hand as the advisors to decisionmakers – providing the evidence for policy formulation and evaluation. In a world in which complexity is increasing, science must develop foundations and findings, but also actively communicate and advocate them.
Many research topics currently seem fast-moving and campaign-driven: sustainability, resilience, embodied carbon, gray energy, circular economy, etc. Like surfers, some researchers try to ride the current wave. It seems reasonable to engage with current topics (especially if there is short-term funding). The problem here is that many projects no longer place sufficient emphasis on research into the state of the art in science and technology. Reviewers of research proposals should pay more attention to this.
Other researchers 'dive' to the bottom to solve a detailed question, regardless of new developments or conditions. Still other researchers are the long-distance swimmers. They watch the waves, sometimes swim against the current to reach a goal, and more often look into the depths to avoid losing contact with the bottom.
I situate myself as one of these 'swimmers' who engages with a research question over the long term. The longer one deals with a topic, the better one recognizes the waves and cycles. Particularly in the area of the application of life cycle analysis in the construction and real estate sector, there is a constant and cyclical fluctuation between complex systems and the call for simplification as well as a multitude of indicators and the concentration on a few. Ideally, it is possible to preserve methodological approaches and principles, to use the progress of knowledge and to apply this in a new context. Especially the topic of sustainability in the construction and building sector invites this. I was able to remain true to my basic direction and was never funded from short-term research projects. For research funding, I was able to choose research questions that suited my subject matter and my goals. Thus, it was (and is) possible to support the implementation of sustainable development principles in the construction and real estate sector by providing suitable methods and tools over the long-term.
My professional development as a researcher was shaped by many small coincidences and some major changes. My career benefitted from many people providing advice, encouragement and opportunities to me. Scientific advancement is a group effort. Particularly in the built environment, we benefit from a wide array of disciplinary perspectives and the sharing of expertise and knowledge between researchers. A generous, altruistic approach is a vital part of the research community.
It is important for each of us to assist others in the research community, e.g. providing tips, opportunities, reports, recommendations. These constitute a form of respect and generosity. Much of what we can do is altruistic and brings benefits: providing early career researchers with opportunities, voluntary activities, providing our time and expertise to worthy organisations without a fee, etc. You can continue to benefit from all these activities yourself, take up new ideas and develop them further, maintain and develop networks. This can and will help others, but you will also benefit.
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