Architecture: art or science?

Peter Park of Ayming UK, argues that architects are missing out on tax incentives because they believe R&D does not apply to them. It’s a common misconception and architecture firms need to raise awareness about what the criteria are

Architecture projects are often dismissed by architects themselves from research and development discussions with regard to R&D Tax scheme eligibility. Notwithstanding the immediate ineligibility for organisational structure of LLP traditionally used by architectural firms, perhaps this is largely due to the underlying misconception surrounding the nature of their work. Architects often believe the definition of R&D for tax purposes does not apply to them, something that construction sector as a whole experienced in the past. This misconception relates specifically to the domain of their work, i.e. outside “science or technology” when considering work in relation to definition of R&D for tax purposes: “R&D for tax purposes takes place when a project seeks to achieve an advance in science or technology”.

Before we begin dissecting architecture for R&D, it’s worth asking: ‘what is architecture?’. This is seemingly a simple and straightforward question, yet one which no simple answer would satisfy those in and round the discipline. Though its definition has evolved to reflect the times and environments within which it is practised, its very basic definition can perhaps be stated as the integrated, “art and science of engineering” and construction for design of built environment.

Architecture is an over-arching term which encompasses a multitude of different disciplines and sub-disciplines which all work collaboratively toward the same goal of safe and correct functioning of built environment. This includes those in recognised fields of science and technology specifically developed for architectural design, such as building physics, fluid dynamics, form-finding, acoustics, fire engineering, software development, mechanical and electrical engineering, and material science, amongst others.

These can be collectively described as either architectural technology, architectural engineering or architecture engineering, which is recognised under the Civil Engineering section of the Frascati Manual, which forms the basis of the international standard of R&D.

It is important to recognise that while the discipline of architecture is concerned with human, social and aesthetic aspects, it is not a social science nor is it a purely aesthetic pursuit. To demonstrate this point, perhaps, an analogy would be useful.

Tesla manufactures electric vehicles. When Model 3 came out in 2017, some reporters and critics didn’t spare such epithets as “beautiful” and elevated its status as an aesthetic object, whilst its success was believed to contribute to a positive social/environmental impact. Be that as it may, however, it is also undeniably mobility/transport equipment i.e. a vehicle, and it would be difficult to dispute, amongst other things, it is also a machine for driving in.

Similarly, as Le Corbusier once famously wrote in his 1923 ultra-modernist architectural manifesto ‘Vers une Architecture’ or ‘Toward an Architecture’, “La maison est une machine à habiter”, or “The house is a machine for living in”. Nearly 100 years later in 2021, with complex systems of HVAC, vertical transport, solar and air control technology, additive manufacturing technology and modular components packaged in equally complex NURB-Spline generated geometric envelopes, this notion that a building is an efficient tool to help provide for the necessities of life, has become truer than ever.

Now bringing all this back to R&D for tax purposes, indeed, architecture is, amongst other things, a “science of creating those machines for living, sleeping, and working in”, which certainly brings it into the sphere of the R&D Tax Credit scheme.

As mentioned earlier, many architects dismiss the scheme and the benefits it provides, because they don’t believe their projects meet the criteria. However, here are some examples of architectural projects that would qualify for R&D Tax:

  • Development of new materials or adaptation of materials in novel context;
  • Collaborative development of Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA) and Modern Method of Construction (MMC);
  • Computational Performance‐based Generative Design incorporating solar and airflow studies;
  • Development of geometry-definition/form-finding techniques for generation of unique building envelope;
  • Development of algorithms and workflows for automation in digital design;
  • Development of sustainable architecture

Peter Park is assistant manager of innovation incentives at Ayming UK