Upali Nanda: Making Research a Priority
Dr. Upali Nanda is a self proclaimed absent minded professor by personality, but her position as Vice President and Director of Research at HKS Inc will have you considering otherwise. In her vital role, Upali makes us reconsider why research is important to the profession.
Dr. Upali Nanda is the Vice President and Director of Research at HKS Inc., a global architectural firm. Her research, ranging from visual art and neuro-architecture, to safety, efficiency, and hard ROI studies, has resulted in numerous publications and presentations, including peer reviewed journals such as Environment and Behavior, Journal of Emergency Medicine, Health Environments Research and Design Journal, and Intelligent Buildings Design Journal. Her work has also been featured in articles in the WSJ and Harvard Business Journal. Her work focuses on human perception, health and wellbeing, and the measurable impact and immeasurable value of design for humans and organizations. Her doctoral work on “Sensthetics” has been published as a book available on Amazon.com. In 2015 Dr. Nanda was recognized as the researcher in the Top 10 Most Influential People in Healthcare Design by the Healthcare Design Magazine.
Dr. Nanda is also the Executive Director of the Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation, a 501c3 non-profit research organization committed to building research to drive innovation in practice. She serves on the advisory council of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, the Academy of Architecture for Health Research Council, and the EDRA CORE program. She has a PhD from Texas A&M University, an M.A. from the National University of Singapore and a B.Arch from the School of Planning and Architecture, India.
The Quick Details:
Name: Upali Nanda
Title: Director of Research
Degree(s)/Education: PhD; M.A(Arch); B.Arch
Your personal hero(s): Albert Einstein – not just for his science, but for his philosophy
What first made you interested in architecture?
The balance between science and art.
What do you do now?
I serve as the research director for a global architectural firm HKS Inc. and as Executive Director to one of the first non-profit research entities dedicated solely to how research and evaluation can advance architectural design (Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation).
Do you apply your architecture background to your current job?
I am working in architecture, for architecture, but not “on” architecture. My training has been as an architect, but my role has evolved to an advisor and a student (because how can you be one without the other) of architecture.
What’s in store for the future of the architecture education, the profession, and/or the building industry?
Design thinking is a skill that architects and allied professionals bring to the table; however, unlike many design professions like industrial design or graphic design, architecture deals with multiple scales simultaneously (for instance, one team may be responsible for everything from the master plan to the selection of a chair or a door knob). This inherent complexity is our challenge and our unique skill. I believe architects are uniquely qualified to provide the stage for transforming culture, organizations, and human experience by crafting the “stage for the theater of life.” This “stage” may be brick-and-mortar or completely new, recycled, responsive materials, as building technology and materials evolve. It may not be “physical.” We may become responsible for footprints as well as cloudprints, and it may become completely customized, where instead of human adapting to space, space adapts to humans in real time. We don’t know where the bursting boundaries of knowledge on building systems, human systems, and eco-systems will take us just yet. How will neuroscience and nanotechnology transform architecture? We don’t know. But WANTING to know and committing to learn can get us out of the reactive cycle of solving yesterday’s problems for the lowest dollar.
More and more we are getting involved in the front end where organizations are considering not WHAT to build, but WHY to build. Having strategists, researchers, lean champions, and business analysts is becoming the norm because we are realizing that building spaces for many years doesn’t work unless you have a truly future-focused and change-ready approach. If we return to the theater analogy: our future lies in creating a stage, which is no longer a passive backdrop but a responsive–and responsible–contributor to the script and the outcome of the play.
Any additional thoughts/information?
This is an era of too much information and very little wisdom. We are bombarded by multiple perspectives, data points, trends, and ideas. Research as a word is casually tossed around, and instant credibility is established and rarely questioned. It seems in this information age we are still playing the game telephone with information as it goes from one click to the next, rarely having the opportunity to truly analyze and assimilate what we hear/read. Through this constant chatter, we must find our way as individuals and professionals to make a meaningful difference and have an authentic voice.
My role didn’t exist in an architecture firm 10 years ago; now it exists in many. The embracing of research is slow in coming, but it is a big part of the fight against commoditization in the architectural profession. But this fight cannot be fought by a single organization or individual. Too many initiatives are started and never connected. Now, more than ever, we have to respect the emerging roles and come together as a community which celebrates blurred boundaries, even while committing to a clear vision.