A HAPPI Chapter in the Story of Design and Practice Research

Matthew Barac Headshot
Dr Matthew Barac
The Cass School of Art, Architecture & Design, London Metropolitan

My involvement with HAPPI grew out of a personal and professional mission I was determined to pursue when, having taken time out to complete a PhD, I returned to practice and joined Pollard Thomas Edwards architects (PTE).

This was a mission to carve out space for practice-led research and embed its delivery in a dynamic of innovation. Going back to the workforce after several years in the ivory towers of academia, I was keen to demonstrate – to myself, my employer, and society at large – that the time and money spent on yet more university education had been worth it.

Back in 2008, I was tasked to put a bid together, working alongside senior colleague Patrick Devlin, to develop an investigation into the state of play of housing for older people in the UK. Our broad-brush brief aimed to raise aspirations and spread awareness about what may be possible in the sector – to challenge mainstream stereotypes across the full range of specialist housing types, from sheltered accommodation to nursing homes. Importantly, we would need to get to grips with the field so as to build a convincing case for reform, and to disseminate our findings widely in the hope of influencing practice and policy.

We won the contract in tandem with like-minded architects Levitt Bernstein who were, at that time, one of the few practices visibly investing in research. Soon we had a large team in place representing commissioning, delivery and advisory interests with the HCA as client representative and Design for Homes facilitating. 

“Can good design foster #wellbeing & flexibly support social activity into our later years?”

As a scholar recently inducted into the emerging discipline of architectural research – a field progressively embracing the relevance of practice-led and design-based methods of knowledge production – I was preoccupied by the difficulty of the research problem at the heart of our HAPPI endeavour: how do places and buildings come to matter to people? How can the architecture of our homes combat loneliness while promoting independence? Can good design foster wellbeing, and flexibly support social activity into our twilight years?

Our study innovatively deployed 24 case studies as not only a source of comparative information, but also a vehicle to drive discussion in which the activities of our HAPPI panel – Chaired by Lord Best and comprising a dozen figures across public life and industry – produced a narrative of learning, commentary and encounter, collectively generating the argument upon which the first HAPPI report – our core output – was constructed, and published in late 2009. The process of doing all this often felt like a roadshow; we would meet at 5am to board a train en route to several case study buildings in a day, or drive in convoy from a Swiss housing exemplar to a dementia care centre across the German border. The group took to the methodological challenge of tackling the inherently interdisciplinary research context; in our fieldwork, we became adept at negotiating the interface between anthropological immersion and architectural critique, always allowing for broadly framed, inclusive discussion.

These visits afforded opportunities to meet residents and stakeholders. In between, we debated the value of what had been seen, and reflected upon the questions anchoring our endeavours. Our discursive process and multi-pronged method of recording threw up new ideas – including the decision to organise our findings not as a conventional ‘think tank’ report but as a layered collage of voices, visual elements, and various types of text, artfully combined by our graphic designer in the final report, and delivered in other media too – including a set of short films released online.

Ten years on, the many lessons learnt remain pertinent for the design and delivery of housing in the sector, but the project also threw up new ideas about how best to conduct research about our lived environment. Too often, institutional knowledge is produced by policy wonks who don’t leave their desks, by teams of high-functioning individuals who – despite all their analytical skills and hard data – fail to draw meaningful conclusions because their research methods don’t account for the richness of the spatially constituted experience of everyday life. HAPPI developed a rich model for how to do this, and its methods should be adopted as a benchmark for the development of built environment policy.

To view all the HAPPI reports, visit the Housing LIN’s dedicated ‘design hub’  And to also read the reflections of Lord Best, Julia Park and Patrick Devlin in this series about ten years of HAPPI, visit the Housing LIN’s blogs page.


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