How to Teach and Archive Tacit Design Knowledge

June 23, 2005 · by DesignIntelligence

“Case studies that have been a staple diet in the business world,” writes Cal Swann, “are almost non-existing in design.” He properly observed the lack of systematic and documented study in design professions. This non-existence definitely applies to architecture—and more in general, to A/E/C ...

“Case studies that have been a staple diet in the business world,” writes Cal Swann, “are almost non-existing in design.” He properly observed the lack of systematic and documented study in design professions.

This non-existence definitely applies to architecture—and more in general, to Architecture, Engineering and Construction; this is all the more surprising given the particular type of knowledge involved in this field. Although architects may view knowledge with disdain, as a hindrance to unfettered creativity1 or an encapsulation of ‘freeze-dried prejudices’2, this disdain does not make architecture an exception to the rule that every discipline has its own realization of knowledge3. Since architecture tends to deal with unique projects, a good deal of the knowledge involved is experience-based and tacit.4

In general, tacit knowledge differs from explicit knowledge by the degree to which it can exist independently of a specific context or “knower.”5. Tacit knowledge only arises when knower and knowing become one—a phenomenon called “indwelling”—as its acquisition tends to be staggered over time and rooted in experience.6 In architecture, as in other design domains, design is learned primarily by experience.

Architects’ education heavily relies on learning in action, i.e., learning through the practice of designing without being aware of what is learned.7 This implicit process of knowledge acquisition is grounded in the dyad master-apprentice, both in the context of the studio setting and in professional practice. In addition, some knowledge might be gained from studying design products, yet products cannot reveal the constantly changing conditions that actually structure the process of designing.8 Indeed, “conflicting demands from within the client organization, the remoteness of the user, difficulties with the bearing capacity of the soil, an unsympathetic planning authority, changing circumstances during the design period, restricted or inflexible methods of financing scheme … and many more difficulties remain inscrutable to all but the most perceptible and insightful of architectural critics.”9 Dealing with such changing and conflicting conditions requires a form of knowledge rooted within the very act of designing, and thus escapes the static form of a design product.10

Architectural practice is not—and has never been—documented and studied very systematically. Despite the immense wealth of professional expertise embedded in design processes, apart from a few isolated pilot efforts there are no consistent and systematic actions to establish and maintain access to the profession’s knowledge, let alone to extend its potential reach.

To remedy that lack, Building Stories is conceived to assimilate in design practice and education simultaneously, enabling both parties to join forces in building a growing knowledge base of and for the profession. It was developed in a course of the architecture program at the University of California-Berkeley.

Building Stories

“Analytical is good; anecdotal is bad. I know that the world of science and enlightenment emerged from an era of darkness where there was dependence on myth and fairy tale and anecdote. It is self-evident that we have entered the more reliable world of science and logic and verification through experiment. The greatest material progress that the world has ever seen has occurred because we have put storytelling behind us. Instead, we have built our world on the rigor of scientific thinking.”—Stephen Denning

The antagonism toward storytelling, Denning writes, can be traced back as far as the time of Plato, who identified poets and storytellers as dangerous fellows putting unreliable knowledge into the heads of children, and reached a peak in the 20th century with the determined effort to reduce all knowledge to analytic propositions, and ultimately physics or mathematics.

Abstract analysis does not fully fit the uncertainty, the value-conflicts, the unexpected changes, the confusion, the chaos—in short, the living core of what is involved in a real-world architectural project. Part of the business of designing and building undoubtedly obeys the rigor of analytical propositions, yet to reduce the living complexity of architectural practice to that part is just that; a reduction.

In general, complex systems can be characterized as consisting of large numbers of components, which in themselves can be simple and which interact dynamically by exchanging energy or information.11 Even if one component interacts with only a few others, the effects of these interactions are propagated throughout the entire system. When using “systems” in a wider sense so as to include activities, tasks and processes and other phenomena, then architectural practice obviously matches this definition.

The components involved operate along at least six dimensions:

These components are often contradictory and always highly interwoven, and to make matters worse, they cannot be treated as invariants of the process since they are subject to constant change, hence the term living complexity. These constantly changing conditions make designing as tricky as juggling: “a juggler who’s got six balls … and an architect is similarly operating on at least six fronts simultaneously and if you take your eye off one of them and drop it, you’re in trouble. There is a sequential development but it is on several fronts simultaneously.”12 But suppose that these connected and changing components can be analyzed mathematically. In that case, representing the results would involve at least a six-dimensional space, in which a single point would describe the state of the process at a specific time. Satisfactory as this might be for mathematical description, when it comes to communication, a phase space with six dimensions is hard to visualize.13 People can instantly grasp two dimensions and using perspective drawings, reasonably easily understand three. But as they move beyond that, even architects—the spatial visualizers par excellence—quickly find themselves in trouble.

At first glance, capturing and communicating something as complex as design practice thus seems extremely difficult. This expectation, however, is not confirmed by everyday life. People manage to cope with and share phenomena of a very complex nature fairly well. The natural way in which they seem to do so is by telling each other stories. A story is not only direct, easy to read and entertaining; it respects the intricate relatedness of things in a way that makes them easy to remember afterwards. As such, the story format provides a dense, compact way to deal with and communicate complexity in a short period of time.

The use of the story format in architectural case studies is not new. ARCHIE, one of the first Case-Based Design Aids (CBDA) for architecture, represents case studies of public buildings by various story types.14 Existing descriptions of the buildings—blueprints and specifications—are augmented with evaluations collected through surveys across several stakeholders. Obviously, not every part of a public building is equally interesting. Describing features that turned out exceptionally good or particularly bad by short pieces of text, ARCHIE slices case studies into three types of stories. Point stories describe how certain features of a design (e.g., separated entrances) contribute toward, or undermine some particular goal (e.g., privacy). Interaction stories discuss how features of a design case can be interpreted with respect to several design goals (e.g., privacy, security, circulation) perhaps advancing some while frustrating others. The third type, cluster stories, serves mainly as a table of contents by summarizing several point stories that are located close to one another (e.g., all stories about a particular room).

Another CBDA called PRECEDENTS uses stories to store recognized outstanding cases, to teach architecture students about the spatial-organizational concepts in museum design.15 As already mentioned, stories are central to the Building Stories methodology too. The main differences with ARCHIE’s and PRECEDENTS’ stories, however, lie in the moment and method of story collection, which flow logically from the knowledge we aim to capture. This knowledge, we have pointed out, is essentially experience-based and implicitly embedded in the actual process of designing and building.

Therefore, the Building Stories approach tells stories about projects that are still in the process of being designed and/or built. Moreover, for a story to communicate the tacit knowledge and experience necessary to this process, it seems but logical that the storyteller be someone who is to a greater or lesser extent involved. Stories should reflect an understanding gathered from living within the project and its process, as experienced by the narrator as participant, not merely as spectator. At the same time, telling the story forces the narrator to step back and take some distance to reflect on what is happening, as if the implicit mechanism of reflection in action is made explicit.16 In this way, the Building Stories technique fosters a learning attitude that both situates storytelling in and articulates critical reflection on concrete experiences of design practice.

Starting Building Stories

A first report from the future is given by “Building Stories: A Case Study Analysis of Practice,” an experimental course offered in the architecture program at UC Berkeley. The course crystallizes the Building Stories methodology by providing teams of architecture students, architectural interns and seasoned architectural professionals hands-on engagement in exploring the knowledge embodied by the best practices of significant architectural firms in the San Francisco Bay area.

The course combines a guided set of activities in a case-based method of instruction. Students (some of which are interns in professional practice) follow two parallel and complementary agendas. One provides a theoretical and methodological framework for undertaking a case study through storytelling. The second constitutes the active engagement into building one or more building stories about a selected case, by analyzing primary source documents and interacting with practitioners responsible for the project under study (and possibly construction). Through a series of weekly lectures/discussions, students and interns become familiar with the materials of the case-based method, and with the critical questions needed to explore the richness of the stories created in an active project, while opening a dialogue on the rigorous study of the broader aspects of the profession.

Teams also have weekly meetings with professionals in the office executing the project. The meetings provide opportunities to discuss, clarify, and elaborate these issues while allowing students and interns to discuss and evaluate the progress of their case study fieldwork.

Each case study team includes two students, paired with an intern and one contract/project advisor from the firm designing the project.

At least one is a Master of Architecture student and two are recent graduates/interns. Professional students receive formal IDP (Intern Development Program) credit. The contract/project advisor and other major participants of the firm receive AIA (American Institute of Architects) continuing education learning units.

The firm contract/project advisor acts as a conduit for access to case-study materials. He/she discusses key project issues that exemplify general aspects of the profession. The firm coordinates access needed by the research team, including contact with the consultants and other professionals involved in the design, management and construction of the project. The contract/project advisor discusses and evaluates progress of the investigation and the structure of the case study report.

During the first seven weeks of the course, each of the research teams investigates the entire history of their case, up to that moment, using the following categories as guidelines to organize and direct research:

The first half of the course concludes with an interim case report and presentation illustrating the above characteristics. Then each team identifies a series of issues or threads that may be “building story” opportunities during the second half. Examples could be: unique client circumstances, special financial conditions or particular organizational structures that will shape each specific “building story.”

The first case report is recorded in a dynamic, electronic format on the web, accessible to all team members—students, interns and advisors—to allow immediate update of new discoveries as the investigation proceeds.

The second half of the course “puts flesh on the skeleton” by formally constructing the details of the “building story,” much as one would write a novel. The plot or thread is positioned; e.g., a failed bond issue. The characters are illuminated, with say, the introduction of a construction advisor as the client. And the setting is established; it could be a revised firm organization to value engineer the originally proposed scope, schedule, and budget.

Over the next six weeks, new chapters are added.

The final case study report includes analysis and conclusions by the team, along with the information collected during the investigation, posted on a public web site. It serves both as a repository of stories and as a foundation for further research in future courses. So far the site features more than 22 stories about 12 different cases, largely covering the six dimensions mentioned above. Cases studied range from the San Francisco Zoo (designed by Field Paoli Architects), the Mount Zion Outpatient Cancer Center (by SmithGroup for UC San Francisco), to the new de Young Museum (by Herzog & de Meuron in collaboration with Fong & Chan Architects).

The outcome of the course is as varied as the cast involved. Throughout, students and interns acquire a critical understanding of the common issues and tasks in design practice, resulting from exposure to a diverse set of active architectural projects in the Bay area.

As one student said, “There are a lot of great things about being in the moment where decisions are made, and you lose that when the building is finished.” Grounded in the everyday activities of an architectural office, the course introduces a level of realism rarely reached in traditional studio.

For interns, the case study offers broad experience in all areas of the design process, and frees them from being tethered by headphones to a computer day in, day out.

“In the firm where I worked before,” an intern writes, “I never had the opportunity to really walk through a construction site, meet with consultants, being exposed to all that.”

From the practitioners’ point of view, the process equips firms to be self-critical in an entirely new and systematic way, and to reflect on and record their process of creation for further refinement. Like in Action Research, the implicit process of learning from experience becomes explicit: each practitioner involved, as well as the firm as a whole, learns consciously from the case study and thus becomes empowered through the process.17 One advisor especially appreciated the larger perspective provided by the case study, beyond the detailed, day-to-day view. “It’s beginning to start a process for myself to analyze what happened, how the project evolved … I enjoyed going back through the documents and realize: ‘Oh my God, we really did this. I have to remember this for the next project!’”

The overriding goal of the course is to contribute to the development of a knowledge base of and for the profession. Access to a growing repository of “building stories” will confront architecture students with the real-world complexity of design practice, while enabling practicing architects to learn from each other’s experiences. Doing so may interweave continuing education with everyday practice. And such a repository may help architecture schools bridge the so-called educational gap, enhance the body of knowledge substantially, and stimulate reflection on current trends and methods in practice.18

Future and Related Work

With about four teams participating in the course annually, we expect the repository to slowly but steadily accumulate into a sizeable collection, valuable not only to participants of the course, but also to architecture at large. For the collection to become useful, however, merely providing access to a large archive of stories will not do. Instead it should guide students and professionals to those relevant to their task or topic of interest. When facing a particular problem, practitioners don’t want every best practice under the sun, only the lessons that address the issue they are struggling with. Therefore, future research includes devising a searchable format for the repository.

In closing, let us compare our method to other approaches. One of the earliest and most straightforward examples is the 18th century pedagogical technique of Jean-François Blondel, who took his students on weekly tours of Paris, explaining the relative merits and defects of the buildings visited. Besides the students’ experience, Blondel’s habit brought about four enormous illustrated volumes of critical building reports.19

More recently, the Vital Signs Project encourages architecture students to examine existing buildings with attention to energy use, occupant wellbeing, and architectural space making.20 A set of measurement techniques, often involving novel approaches, was developed to reveal operating patterns in contemporary architectural, lighting, and mechanical systems.

The Whole Building Matrix studies cases through a totally different pair of glasses.21 The approach uses semiotics, the formal discipline of signs, to determine the features buildings must have to count as (sustainable) architecture. Adapted from Charles Peirce’s semiotic system, students investigate function and sustainability, and features that present evidence of the architect’s intentions; features that have unintended or surprising physical effects; the feelings and emotions the building arouses; sensations linked to materials; and the overall art/aesthetic experience.

These approaches share Building Stories’ profound belief in the richness of concrete cases. How they differ is that the other methods treat the project as a finished design product, independent of its design and construction. The Building Stories approach adopts a broader perspective to include corresponding design and building process—not so much as process per se, but in relation to its impact on the results. Our students are asked to construct a story that does justice both to project and process, end and means, destination and journey. This raises the familiar dilemma between fact and interpretation. But to neglect either product or process, destination or journey, is likely to deform our comprehension of architectural practice.

A similar perspective characterizes the nationwide case study documentation program set up by the AIA to help improve practice education in United States.22 Like Building Stories, the approach provides both students and practitioners a context of (continued) education about design practice, grounded in the complex realities of specific projects and processes. However, the AIA requires investigators to use a detailed Development Checklist which scrutinizes a project’s delivery, services and business aspects.

“The episodes of practice” constitute a minor feature in the checklist, and are restricted to one per project. By contrast, Building Stories puts stories at the core of a case study and acknowledges the wealth of stories embedded in a single project, so as to highlight the unique, interrelated nature of events, people and circumstances.

No single story can ever reveal everything, since partial description is built into the very nature of storytelling.23 Any individual story is necessarily subjective, only one of many that might be told about the same project. Different stories are incomplete or inaccurate in different ways; understanding these specific inaccuracies is key to understanding a story’s value.

So what exactly is the status of the 22 subjective and selective “Building Stories” we have so far? In what frame of mind, and with what intention, are we publishing these stories on a Web site? We hope they are a first step in a profession-wide process, by which architecture firms will gradually become conscious of their own knowledge capital, and will team up with architecture schools in its recording, exploitation and exchange.

Ann Heylighen is a postdoctoral Fellow of the Fund of Scientific Research, Flanders. This paper was drafted mainly during her stay in the Design Practice Group at UC Berkeley in 2002.

W. Mike Martin is Professor of Architecture; Chair, Department of Architecture, University of California-Berkeley.

Humberto Cavallin is an architect who holds a master’s degree in social psychology. He is a resident student at UC Berkeley, and invited professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras


1. Joseph Press, 1998
2. Horst Rittel, 1985
3. Harry Scarborough and Gibson Burrell,1996
4. Jeong-Han Woo, et al, 2002
5. Michael Polanyi; 1964, 1967
6. M Grene, 1969
7. Donald Schön, 1983
8. John S. Brown and Paul Duguid, 1996
9. Bryan Lawson, 1990
10. Schön, 1985
11. Paul Cilliers, 1998
12. Lawson, 1994
13. Stephen Denning, 2001
14. Eric Domeshek and Janet Kolodner, 1992
15. Rivka E. Oxman and Robert M. Oxman, 1994
16. Schön, 1983
17. Cal Swann, 2002
18. Ann Heylighen, 2003
19. Peter Collins, 1971
20. VitalSigns_Web, 2002
21. Jean Gardner, 1999
22. Marvin Malecha (editor), 2001
23. Denning, 2001

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