Fiona Cousins on research at Arup

Arup’s long tradition of internal research and development is unique within the industry. Any Arup employee can propose a research project, and those that are selected receive funding for time and expenses.

I spoke to Fiona Cousins, a New York-based principal who leads the firm’s research programs in the Americas region, to learn more about what kind of research the firm supports and how it vets proposals.


Can you describe some recent research initiatives?

The research work is extremely varied, and almost all of our disciplines have made use of the program over the last five years. Some teams, like acoustics and geotechnics, are always pushing the envelope of their disciplines by finding new ways to use existing information or solving long-standing problems in new ways.

One project that I found particularly interesting last year was to do with real-time auralization. Imagine that as you move through a computer model of a physical space you hear sounds as you would hear them if you were really at that point in the space.

Screen shot from program allowing design teams to preview the sound of a space as they move through a 3D model

For our geotechnics team, we carried out some real-time monitoring of piles as they went in at JFK airport. The geotechnical team is very interested in this kind of back-analysis that allows us to understand whether our computer models of the soil and the piles really reflect what happens in reality. This type of analysis helps improve our practice over time.

We also used internal research funding to help set up monitoring of building movements around the excavation for the Transbay terminal in San Francisco. Some engineers also did some collaborative research with CalTech, using their shake table to simulate what happens to different kinds of buildings in earthquakes.


Transbay Transit Center

At the other end of the scale we’ve been looking at some of the ways in which we can communicate better with our clients through the development of visualization tools or collaboration with artists. As much of our work is very technical and specialized, we have to put a lot of energy into making sure that it can be understood and acted on by our clients and other decision makers.

Map showing the time needed to travel between a point in downtown San Jose and beyond

Two examples of projects that emphasize communication are the work done to show on a map the time taken to travel between different places by public transport and the use of a game engine to build a visualization of our façade and daylight analysis as you move through a building.

Daylight visualization study

Google has popularized the notion of allowing employees to use a large percentage of their working hours for research that may not be tied to immediate business needs. The commercial realities of the tech sector are obviously very different from those of the design field, but I’m interested in hearing your impressions of how the two relate.

Research in organizations that make products or sell something a large number of times is very different than the kind of research that gets done in a professional services organization, where the income stream is related to the number of hours that people spend working for our clients. Our research budgets are inevitably tiny in comparison, and we therefore have to be very focused about choosing our research projects.

At pharmaceutical firms, for example, research programs tend to explore many avenues: They can try 100 different things and if two of them work then that’s considered to be success. At Arup, we need about 80% of the things that we fund through research budgets to actually improve our skills and knowledge in a way that supports our business. The way in which we evaluate the research proposals and the amount of money and time that we can devote to them is completely different from how research is supported in a product-driven organization.

We need about 80% of the things that we fund through research budgets to actually improve our skills

What are the criteria used to judge the projects proposed?

Any Arup employee can apply for global funding through our design and technical fund, and each of the regions also funds projects that are particularly relevant to their part of the world.

When we are choosing our research project we look for three things. Will we be able to use the results to serve our clients better now or in the near term? Is the project collaborative, such that a number of our teams are interested or perhaps our clients want to work with us to do the work? And finally, do we have a dissemination plan that allows us to make sure that everybody in the region who might be interested in the project knows about it and can use the results?

Can you give an example of something that’s been developed through research that’s been applied on a building project in an interesting way?

One of the things that we’ve done applied research into is the ability to use computer-based tools during the site phases of work. We’re beginning to see good results from a couple of investments that sought to improve the process of recording and managing site observation and punch list information. Both of those projects have drawn on existing best practices and consolidated it into a tool that we can use, and perhaps even eventually sell. Those projects were focused on improving our effectiveness and accuracy during the construction phase of projects.

Screen shot from Arup’s eFAST tool

We developed the MassMotion tool through research funding over a number of years, and this is now regularly used to analyze how people move through buildings both during normal activities and emergency evacuations.

We’ve also done a good deal of research in the acoustics area. The acoustics team has done a lot of work that’s really proved useful. A lot of the SoundLab work initially came out of some research funding. Most recently, Anne Guthrie has done some work to optimize sound quality in performance venues from the musician’s perspective.

How has the firm benefited from this?

The firm benefits in at least two ways. The first is that when we do research or look at doing things in a different way our clients also immediately benefit. And the fact that we do this research is something that our clients also find attractive, especially if they’re trying to do something that is on the edges of what they view as possible. For them, our research allows us to solve difficult problems in innovative ways that other firms, who don’t have a culture of research and continuous improvement, cannot match.

Our research program acts to reinforce our culture of inquiry and curiosity

The second is that it allows the firm to encourage people to look at something that is of particular interest to them. It might be something that they found they needed when doing a project or the next step in a piece of work done on a project that doesn’t benefit that particular project’s client. So within the firm, our research program acts to reinforce our culture of inquiry and curiosity — the idea that if there’s a problem and you don’t know how to solve it yet, you probably can find a way.

Obviously, we are focused in how we pick projects for funding – the goal is to explore questions both because our people are interested in them and because the answers will improve our areas of practice. This is both about supporting our people in their interests and about supporting our people in getting better at their jobs and offering a better service to clients.

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