Introduction works of Rogelio Salmona, a well-known


Research is a means of knowledge production. Griffiths (2004) defines research as
more than just ‘finding out’ about an issue, but a process which involves a
“systematic process of investigation.” According to him, a proper research is “carefully designed and executed with
regard to relevant methodological principles”, it also should, at the end of
it, “advance knowledge within its field of research”. Research findings and the
methods used should also be “made public”. (Griffiths,

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This essay aims to critically analyze the methodologies of Freya Cobbin
and Zerm, who both adopted a social constructivist paradigm, according to these

Cobbin is an architect practicing at Fielden Fowles, and a project
facilitator at the Richard Feilden Foundation. She was also the inaugural
fellow for the Rogelio Salmona Fellowship(RCF) to study the works of Rogelio
Salmona, a well-known Columbian architect, to at the end of it; benefit the
built-environment of the U.K. Zerm is a young architecture firm with a passion
for the rehabilitation and conservation of heritage buildings. Their passion
for architectural refurbishment stemmed from their research on the subject back
in Lille University. Based in Roubaix, France, the collective’s aim is to
reintroduce purpose into building waste, carrying out various projects and experiments,
at the same time encouraging the surrounding community to follow suit.

Paradigm, ontology, epistemology, nature

In order to inquire, one needs to first have a set of
beliefs, or an ontological position. These values will then determine the
epistemological stance of the researcher, and therefore the methodology (Killam, 2015). Both
researchers seem to share a common relativist ontological view, believing in ‘the sharing of knowledge’ (Zerm, 2017) through participation (Cobbins.F,
2017). Both researchers conducted their
studies with both etic and emic approaches in anthropology, sometimes
preferring one over the other, and of an inductive nature.

Research questions

 Zerm’s research
questions seem to revolve around the ‘need’ of the residents in refurbishing
their homes, and ‘how do we (architects) achieve this’ in an
economical and environmentally friendly way, in order to eventually prevent
their demise. (Zerm, 2017). Zerm speculates
that the (eventual) demolition of the Maisons 1930 could (hopefully) be prevented
by community intervention. Alternatively, Cobbin focused on  the theory that the ‘reality’ that Salmona
once envisioned is no longer true to the current occupants, therefore, subsequent
‘adaptation(s) is(are) inevitable’. (Cobbins.F,


While Cobbin proceeded to document these truths
through conducting multiple-case studies as she travels across Columbia, Zerm
adopted Action Research as their methodolody. (McNiff,
J. and Whitehead, J. 2006)
defines it as ‘people taking action to improve their personal and social
situations’, others classify it as one of the most practical ways of doing
research due to its potential in creating an actual change (Reason, P. and Bradbury, H., 2001; Barcik.R, 2016).

a)      The
researcher’s desire to define topics broadly (Cobbin covered multiple
buildings briefly),
b)      Cover
contextual conditions, not just the phenomenon of study (She paid attention
to history and how the occupants currently feel),
And rely on varying sources of evidence (Cobbin
used multiple methods to document her findings)


 Cobbin adopted an interpretive case-study
approach that considers:





(Yin.R, 1993)

The exploratory nature of Cobbin’s work suggests that she could have adopted
an Ethnological methodology. Cobbin’s blog offers a descriptive travelogue
on her observations of the ‘interactions’ between architecture and user in an informal
manner (, n.d), viewing each case as ‘strange or
unique’ (Preece, J., Sharp, H. and
Rogers, Y. 2015). However,
unlike Ethnographical studies, Cobbin was more interested in the physical
manifestation of such behaviour on Salmona’s works than the actual behaviour
itself. A mandatory trait for this methodology is that it should be carried
over a lengthy period of time to allow an accurate observation of the norms of
everyday life (Dorr-Bremme, Donald W., 1985),
which wasn’t the case for her work.





Role of researcher


Social constructivists believe that social interactions are crucial in
the construction of knowledge (Bruning, R., Schraw, G. and
Norby, M., 2011). McNiff (2006) holds a view
that in a context that prioritizes knowledge, power is often inseparable from
knowledge (Foucault, M, 2008). Woolfolk (2009) further supports this idea by boldly bringing
forth the idea that “some people have
more power than others to define what constitutes as knowledge”. It then
becomes necessary to address ‘who gets the last say’ in these situations.

Cobbin’s presentation clearly states that she was a
researcher sponsored by the British Council. This meant that she would not have
complete freedom to determine her research methodology. It also meant that
funding was probably not an issue for Cobbin, though she was probably working
on a strict timeframe. The political nature of the RSF also meant that the
knowledge that she could share would be vastly restricted to what would be at
least favourable to the Columbian Government—’Power’ lies in who she would be
reporting to, and against.

In contrast, Zerm’s research was self-initiated, which
suggests that they had a free reign over designing their own research direction.
Although time is not a limit, they had to be resourceful to find funds to
support their research. More often than not, money constitutes power. It is
possible that their research might be limited in some ways by funding bodies,
and expected to be accountable for managing funds.

Being a young practice, it is only logical to learn
from the more experienced, or a “more knowledgeable other(MKO)”, as proposed by
Vygotsky (1978), a prominent Russian
psychologist in the 1900s. Zerm initiated collaborations with various other researchers
and stakeholders to construct a collective knowledge. However, it could be said
that some of the participants’ roles were purely passive. Artists were ‘hired’,
with the mere purpose of producing aesthetics, suggesting that there is a
hierarchy between collaborators.

Zerm constantly questions the role of the architect in
building conservation and affordable housing, or the need of further commercial
development in the face of this dereliction of heritage buildings: is it merely
to “run a business and buy a brand new
car? (Zerm, 2017)”  Zerm indirectly suggests
that this ‘power’ should also be given to the community, believing that
architecture is for everyone, therefore, they took on an educator’s position to
equip the public with construction knowledge and access to cheap building
materials to refurbish their own homes.

Advancing Knowledge – Analysis – Methods used

-role of researcher /in their/ research// rigour

defines ‘advancing knowledge’ more than just an act of gathering new
information for a specific task; research done functions to add to the existing
discipline. The question ‘why and ‘how’ the research data was collected is then

Cobbin’s research stemmed from her personal interest
in Psychogrography. The field was defined by Guy Debord
as “the study of
the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment,
consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.(Knabb, n.d)” She decided upon two methods
of data collection that would provide her with an insider and
outsider view of Salmona’s buildings.         

Cobbin ensured a holistic research by choosing a
variety of civic building typologies in both urban and rural areas in the form
of ‘sequential sampling’, and for combining participant-observer views with
interviews. Some latent phenomena would only be noticed by observers rather
than the observed. She adds on to the information gathered from interviews with
photographs and personal observations about Salmona’s works.

The use of an informant, the interviewee, as a surrogate
census then brings forth the topic of adequacy. Cobbin thinks of her
interviewees as ‘representative respondents’, assuming how they feel as a valid
sample of the whole. Some may say that ‘it is a bad way of sampling … to
assume that it is verifiable on other grounds,’ (Bynner, J. and Stribley, K. 1979). It is also possible that
Cobbin’s personal experience on site would have affected the way she
interpreted the interviews. Though she did not state the manner she conducted
her interviews, it is most probably designed to encourage information from the
informant (Hammersley, M. and
Atkinson, P,
2010). The informal
nature of her research suggests that it could open-ended, non-directive

By conducting cross-case examinations in an objective
manner by removing herself from her subject, Cobbin was able to develop new
opinions furthering her research theory—the manner of adaptation of Salmona’s
work is dependent on the cohesiveness of a community, which may differ due to
place (in the city or the outskirts) (fig). She
was able to see underlying manifestations and similarities between different
occupants of what could be deemed as a ‘latent’ attribute (Bynner, J. and Stribley, K. 1979). This method is in accordance to her inductive nature
of research, in which ‘truth’, or ‘reality’ is hypothesized based on the
collected evidence. (Copi, I., Cohen, C. and Flage, D,2007) However, while
her observations were aimed to eventually benefit the British built environment,
it is debatable if such site specific observations could be generalized to be
adapted into a completely different context. The needs of Columbians may differ
from that of British citizens. It could also be argued that she has produced a
large amount of material, but less knowledge. However, that is not to say that
Cobbin’s research is redundant. Grififth states that the importance of the
aforementioned preliminary characteristics may be subjective depending on the
researcher’s field of inquiry. He adds that how ‘knowledge advance’ is viewed,
in terms of production, or its generalization, is debatable.

On the other hand, Zerm is fuelled by their passion to
educate the public. The collective took on the role of an active participant,
taking the first step to initiate a new movement through their research. They clearly stated two aspects deciding their choice
of methods: knowledge production and dissemination. Zerm generates knowledge
through various exercises. Action research is heavily laden with unknowns. It
is a process that includes high inclusivity of the researcher, therefore the
researcher becomes a key component in the phenomena (Barcik,
R., 2016). Barcik also states that
‘a proper action research should be an iterative process’, consisting a
repeated cycle of identifying issues, planning action, taking action and
evaluating data. Though they did not show many case studies during the
presentation, Zerm did explain about testing the viability of their experiments
(recycled terrazzo) on real-time projects (refurbishment project in Lille) in
collaboration with experienced architects. This constant re-evaluation of
concepts and new ideas (factory showcases) increases the accuracy, therefore
rigour, of the research.

While they might have produced new knowledge, it was
unclear if any research was done to gauge resident’s perceptions on the
dereliction of the Maisons 1930. It is necessary for a researcher to question
the value of such knowledge. Zerm’s
efforts may be seen as a passionate attempt to essentially keep people from
leaving the gradually-deteriorating housing facilities. It could be argued that
it was a conflicting perception of ‘value’ in the first place.





Making public – communication/ dissemination

‘Making public’ a research involves data
communication, and will ultimately result in the dissemination of knowledge.

McNiff (2006) describes action researchers as people
who wish to empower other people to critically engage with ideas (knowledge) to
‘create their own new futures’. Zerm holds an opinion that discounts architectural knowledge as a
privilege, a self-study research view, stating that architectural knowledge
should be made accessible to the public—suggesting a permeation of boundaries
between researcher and the public (Capra,F,. 2003),
to create ‘a large common knowledge’ (Zerm, 2017).

Zerm ensured ‘dissemination of knowledge’ through
different mediums of participatory methods. Exhibitions, workshops with schools
and public forums showcases examples and possibilities of refurbishment to the
wider public, transforming what was merely ‘lifeless’ ideas to reality,
therefore encouraging action (Mill,J.S,. 1985),
while their publications ensured that the obtained knowledge could be easily
duplicated, and therefore propagated. On the other hand, Cobbin’s communication
methods were less participatory, being mainly dependant on the internet. Though
the content of her research was engaging in itself, it wasn’t clear if she
carried out different methods to convey her findings.

As important the production/dissemination of
knowledge, it is crucial to critique the practical sustainability of such
knowledge. Lewin suggests that an organization (or practitioners) would grow,
if participants of events were collectively involved in the experimentation of
a strategy, creating a self-sustaining force even with the removal of an agency
(McNiff, J. and
Whitehead, J. 2006).









Addressing the bigger picture, Zerm believes that
demolition is inevitable, and that a collective knowledge on building waste
management could benefit our environment—it was essentially a call to arms. Cobbin’s
conclusion from the end of her fellowship took on an unexpected turn. She replicated
one of Salmona’s work into a sandcastle in Choco, a rural area by the beach without
any of his preceding works. As she got surrounding children to participate in
‘reviewing’ her masterpiece—which they ignored, instead busied themselves with
carving a river and erecting shelters out of sourced materials (driftwood and
seashells) into the landscape—that she came to a realisation: ‘who really cares about the architecture when you have the
natural elements at your fingertips to be most enjoyed?’ (Cobbin, F,. 2017) It
was a statement that contradicts her initial theory, concluding that the
importance of architecture comes secondary to infrastructure “whether physical, social, educational,
governance, etc.” (Cobbin.F, 2017)

This exercise helped me to understand the importance
of passion in research, and how motivation could drive a mere thought into
being. It helped me change my perspective that research is a just dull process
to produce quantifiable data, and has opened my eyes to the many engaging ways
it could be done with!