How to Write a Research Paper on Architecture

Tips and Hints from Gray Read


  1. What is a Research Paper?



  1. How To Pick a Topic



  1. How to Do Library Research and Narrow your Topic



  1. Analysis



  1. Developing a Thesis



  1. Organizing your Ideas and Outlining your Paper



  1. Writing



1.  What Is a Research Paper?


1.  Big Questions and Smaller Ones.  A research paper is an intellectual contribution to your profession that is written for your peers.  It identifies a current question of interest to the profession (The Big Question) and seeks to clarify the question or answer some part of it based on an investigation of past events.   A small research paper cannot answer a Big Questions but can answer small well-defined questions within the Big One.  Each answer to a small well-directed question helps us to understand and eventually address the Big Questions of our profession.  So identify a Big Question that interests you then refine it, looking for a smaller question that you can answer on the basis of your analysis of a topic.  This process of focusing from a big issue to smaller issues within it may take several stages.  Ultimately you are looking for a very small question that may have big implications.

2. Topics.  A paper needs a topic: some specific past event or person or building or movement that you think will help you approach the Big Question.  Sometimes you start with a question and go looking for a topic.  Sometimes you start with a topic and go looking for a question.  Often you start with a vague idea of both then focus them in relation to each other.

For Example:  If you are interested in how the design of a building can help to revitalize the city (Big Question), you might choose a building that you consider successful (topic) and analyze it trying to understand specifically what aspects of the design make it work (small question).  Your goal is to reveal the underlying ideas of the design so you and others may use some of those strategies in your own design work (thesis).  The goal of the paper is to share those insights with your peers so the field as a whole will learn how to design better.

3. Do-ability.  As you refine your topic and search for a small question within the Big Question, look for one that is answerable through research and analysis We can never know what goes on in the minds of other people (architects or otherwise).  We only know what they did.  When you pick a topic, be sure that you will have the resources you need to do research.  Make a list of relevant bibliographic references.  If you want to analyze a building, find out if drawings, photographs or other resources are available.

4.  Research.  A paper is based on research that usually includes reading what other people have written then analyzing a building or an idea yourself.    Be proud of your footnotes.   They acknowledge your predecessors and show how your work fits into the larger field.  Footnotes are the mark of an intelligent essay.

5. Analysis.  A paper contains your analysis of some aspect of your research. Simply reporting what you have read is not a research paper.  This analysis should be directed toward the answer of some small question within the Big Question.  Often you start with a vague idea of the type of analysis you want to do and a vague idea of the question you want to ask, and then refine them both in relation to each other.

For Example: You are interested in how to design for the tropics (Big Question).  So you do some general research on strategies for tropical design and find out that airflow makes a space feel cooler.  You decide to look at indigenous dwellings of the Tequesta of South Florida (topic).  You find some drawings of a house in a book.  You apply your knowledge from the general research and ask whether the form of the house induces airflow that would cool the space (small question).  You redraw the building on the computer and model how air would flow through it (analysis) based on other studies you have found (research).  From your analysis you believe that the form of the house induces airflow (thesis) and you demonstrate that it does through your analysis.  Then you suggest that this form might be adapted to contemporary design in Florida (arguing back to Big Question).

5.  Thesis.  A paper should have a thesis.  A thesis is a proposed answer to the small question within the Big Question.   A thesis is an idea or proposal that is tested by the analysis of specific examples within your topic.

For Example:   A paper might propose that the sheet metal techniques that Frank Gehry learned in trade school affect his design (thesis).  Then the paper would explain exactly what those techniques were, based on research, and select one or two of Gehry’s buildings for analysis.  The analysis would show clear parallels between the sheet metal techniques and the design of the buildings.  The examples should truly test the proposal, eliminate alternate explanations and demonstrate that the proposal is either true or false.  The goal of this essay is to show that material techniques have a significant impact even on design that is considered abstract.

6.  Sometimes a paper will take an accepted “truth” and question its validity, again using specific examples to make the case

For Example:  Some people believe that Le Corbusier is a rationalist.  Based on your general knowledge, you are not so sure.  Your research may turn up evidence that some of his decisions were not based on rational analysis but on superstition or chance.  You argue that the accepted belief is not true using the specific examples that you have found.  The goal of this paper is to correct a mistaken assumption and to narrow the historical support for Rationalism.

I hope you see a pattern here.  Research papers test ideas by examining specific examples.  They are written to advance the understanding of the field, not just the person writing them.



The Learning Center can help you through this process step by step.  They are in PC 247,  348-2180.

Books that may help:

2.  How to Pick a Topic


1.   If you start with a Big Question, then picking a topic requires some general research to scope out possibilities.   You are looking for some specific person, building or event that was engaged with some aspect of your Big Question.  In the process of looking for a topic you will have to define and narrow your question.  Often a topic will suggest aspects of the Big Question that you hadn’t considered before.  This is good.   You are looking for a topic that will help you to find a small question that you can answer.

For Example:  If you are interested in how to make cities better.  You may choose a city that you think is nice, like Paris.  Then you read an Encyclopedia article on Paris and find out that Baron von Haussmann radically renovated Paris in the 19th century.  So you read more about Haussmann and find out that Haussmann made Paris more enjoyable for folks with money but displaced many poor people from their homes.  So you change your question:  How to make cities better for poor people.  Then maybe 19th century Paris is not such a good example.  So you go looking for a city that planned for poor people.  Several South American cities are seriously considering how to design for barrios.  Pick one of them.  This is the first step toward refining your Big Question to a small question and refining your topic to address your question.


2.  Talk to people and use general reference books such as Encyclopedias to get a general idea of the facts of a topic before you commit yourself completely.


3.  Be sure that you can find information on your topic.  Scope out sources before you commit yourself to a long-term research.  Many promising topics are simply inaccessible in the time given and with the resources that we have.


Let’s say you start with a Topic.  Then you must seek the question


4.  Do some preliminary research on your topic and scope out what you might learn.

For Example:  If you were assigned the topic of 19th century urban design in Paris then you would find out that Haussmann designed boulevards.  You may be more interested in architecture than street design, so you might ask how architecture is affected by street design.  This question might then lead you to look at Haussmann’s instructions to architects who designed along his boulevards. (Check to see whether that information is available)


5.  This back and forth reasoning between question and topic should help you to focus both.

3.  How to do Research and Narrow your Topic


1.  There are many different kinds of research: experimental, historical, visual, imaginary.  Even dreaming can be research.  We do research to find out about something and we often need to invent ways to find out what we want to know.  Architects are always engaged in research.  We might make a mock-up of a detail in order to test how it works or how it looks.  We might ask how other people have done a detail before, or how they have used a material or used a form.  Steven Holl does experiments with materials directly to better understand their properties.


2.  If you begin with a Big Question (something you want to find out), you will have to decide what is the best way to go about answering it or answering a part of it.  You should design your research to be both effective and doable.


3. In Architecture, we often rely on two types of research: research in books and visual analysis.  We read what other people (generally architectural historians) have written about buildings then we look at the plans and photos ourselves. 


Library Research

Often the most accessible way for us to find out about things is to see if anyone else has asked the questions before and whether their research is available to us.  Is it published?  This takes us to the library.  Funny how often we wind up there.


1. Start with general resources: Encyclopedias, even the Internet. (Remember that the Internet is an unregulated resource so the material you find there is not necessarily reliable.  The Internet is also very limited; never stop there).  It is easier to look up topics than questions so you often have to skim through a fair amount of material to find out if it is relevant to your question.  When you have settled on a topic use the library catalog to find books.  You often have to seek out a number of different books and articles to get a complete picture of how your topic relates to your question.


2.  After your preliminary research, when you search for both books and journal articles, use a broader database than our FIU Library Catalog.  I recommend Eureka RLG (Research Libraries Group).  You get there from the Library Home Page by clicking on “Subjects” then on “Architecture” this will take you to a list of the databases that are most relevant to architectural research.  Click on Eureka.  When it loads you will be able to search the main RLG database of books.  If you are looking for journal articles, click on “Change Files” then on “Avery Index.”  This is the most comprehensive catalog of journal articles related to Architecture.  Then do your search as usual.


3. Bibliography. Keep track of it.  Get references from footnotes of articles you read

When you find a book on your topic that is useful to you, look up the other books that the author has written.  They may also be interesting.  Some computer programs are designed to keep bibliography and footnotes in proper form:  “Endnote,”  “Procite” etc.


4. Take notes.  Keep track of your research. Always write down the citation: the author, name of book or article, Name of Journal, Date, Publisher, and the page numbers of important points. The Learning Center has tips on Taking Notes


5. Don’t hesitate to use the Interlibrary Loan service.  It may take a couple of weeks to get a book but it’s often worth the wait.  From the Library Home Page, click on “Forms” then go to “Interlibrary Loan”  “Display Forms”


6. How to Avoid wasting time reading too much irrelevant stuff: Read abstracts of articles.   Read prefaces, introductions, Tables of Contents and scan footnotes of books to see if they apply to your topic.  Read reviews of books


Narrowing Your Topic

By now you have too much information.  You need to focus both your question (from Big to small) and you need to focus your topic.  Here are a few things to try: You may have to do this a couple of times before you arrive at a topic and a question that are manageable.

1. Take notes as you read.   Keep the big question in your mind and make notes when you your reading or building analysis gives you an insight.  As you get a clearer idea of how your topic relates to the big question, you can focus your research.  As you start to have more insights into the topic, you can formulate more precise questions.  Take notes on your own thoughts on the topic and the questions is raises in your mind.

2. Pick an example that seems to represent a larger group or an idea and analyze it in terms of your question.  Refine both as you proceed.


Sometimes bringing in information from outside your topic will give you a new point of view so you can see things from a new angle.

3. Compare two examples from opposing camps.  Pick two examples that seem to represent two opposing ideas.  What do they have in common?  How are they different?  Refine your questions and theses as you proceed.

4. Take a written idea and a building and analyze the building in terms of the idea.  I picture the idea as an arrow that can pierce through a complex thing like a building and make a clean hole.

For Example:  Frank Lloyd Wright wrote several books and built hundreds of buildings.  Choose one idea from one text that seems related to your question and a building that he was working on at the same time and ask if the idea in the text appears in the design of the building.

Take a written idea from elsewhere and ask if it fits the case at hand.

For Example: Many historians have described Picasso’s use of collage.  Are some of those ideas applicable to Le Corbusier’s work?  

5.  Focus.  When the number of points you are trying to make becomes unmanageable or the details become overwhelming, try to zero in on the most significant point.  Spend your time analyzing one aspect of something in terms of the whole rather than trying to analyze everything.

6. Refine your question.  Sometimes your question is bigger than any example can answer.  Focus your question

For Example:  If you are interested in how Eskimo culture affects their buildings and you are analyzing an igloo, you may find that the form has implications for: social relationships, cooking methods, communications, dress, games, sexual mores, etc.  It’s too much.  Focus on one aspect like cooking or games and find out all you can about it. 

7.  Just pick one.  If you come up with a whole array of ideas that is too much, just pick one and consider it carefully in terms of your Big Question.  See if it presents any opportunities for a small question.



4.  Analysis


Every academic field has developed different kinds of analysis to help them answer the questions that they ask.  These include Statistical analysis, Logical analysis, Textual analysis, Historical analysis, Financial analysis, and as many others as you can imagine or invent.  Architecture draws on many of these for various purposes but the ones we normally rely on for research papers are the following:


1.  Visual Analysis.  This is usually the best part of your research.  Look at the plans and photographs of a building and try to picture it in three dimensions.  Then use your knowledge as a designer and ask questions.  How does the space feel?  Does it work as the architect intended?  What is the spatial sequence?  How does a person move from one space to another?  How does it fit the site?  What are the views from one place to another?  How does the structure work?  How does it work in the local climate?  How does it work in the city? The questions are endless.  They are the same ones you ask yourself when you are designing.  Write down your observations.  They are valuable.  Hopefully one of them will resonate with your Big Question and this will become your small question.


2. Textual Analysis.  This is close reading of text.  What do the words mean? What does the author mean?  Where did these ideas come from?  What are the implications of the ideas expressed?  Often understanding what an author is saying requires reading beyond the text at hand.  What else has the author written?  Is the author responding to other people or ideas?  What are his or her references? 


3. Historical Analysis.  This requires research into the historical circumstances surrounding a person or building or event.  What was going on at the time?  What were the dominant issues of the day, both political and philosophical?  What ideas and circumstances was the author or architect addressing?  Who was the audience?  You might also ask what were the precedents of an idea.  Where does an idea come from?


4.  Sometimes a question you might try two kinds of analysis in order to focus the question.

For Example:  You are interested in how Deconstructivist theories affected Design (Big Question).  So you ask how Peter Eisenman’s deconstructivist ideas affected his building.  You survey his work both written and built and pick one theory and one building (narrowing your topic) and ask how they relate (small question).  You read the text carefully and try to understand the ideas and why he is writing them (textual analysis).  With those ideas in mind, you analyze the building (visual analysis).  You draw your conclusions (thesis) and support them with your findings.

5.  Developing a Thesis.  What is a Research Proposal?


 By now you have done some reading on your topic. 

You have focused your question so that the topic you are researching will address some aspect of it. 

You have focused your topic so it will address the question precisely and the research can be done in the time given


1. Your research may draw you in directions that you had not thought about before.

Consider these leads.

Do they seem fruitful?

Do they address your questions in some way?

If yes, then consider changing the focus of your question so the topic fits.

If no, keep looking for some set of details that does address your question.


2. As you analyze what you have found, you are looking for some set of details that seems to answer some aspect of your question.  These details should be representative of a more general condition.   What do these details suggest about your question?   Keep track of these details (note where you found them); you may want to use these details later to build your argument.


 3. Think about your research.  Do the details you discovered suggest a thesis?  Write it down.  Does this thesis relate to your question?  Is it interesting?  If so pursue it, if not, think and research some more.  If you come up with several theses, none of which seem satisfactory, write them down.

Are these theses interesting?  Do they teach you something you don't already know?

Are they provable? Can they be supported by evidence?


4. Try approaching your topic from another angle.  Pick another topic, or method of analysis, or theory and try to see your topic from that point of view.  Sometimes even a very distant comparison can make poetic connections that suggest ideas that you hadn’t thought about yet.

For Example:  Traditional poetry is written in specific meters and with certain kinds of rhythms.  Can you see visual meters and rhythms in a building of your choice? 

Here’s a wild one:  Physics describes quanta as series of steps with fixed quantities of energy, mass and charge that particles must have so there is no continuum between them.  Does Architecture have a parallel condition?


5.  Now you have one and hopefully more than one thesis.  Go back to your research with these theses in mind.    Try to find other details that either support or contradict your theses.  By now you should be familiar enough with your sources that you can find things without fuss.  However the theses might take you to other resources as well.


At this point you may want to focus some more.  Perhaps your details are still too general.  Focus, focus.


When you have two or more specific details that support an interesting thesis, then you are in good shape.


Now outline your argument using the details (with references) that you have discovered to support your case.



What is a Research Proposal?

A research proposal is a paper that explains:

1.     The Big Question that you want to consider

2.     The topic and specific examples that you are going to use

3.     The small question that you propose to answer

4.     The resources (bibliography) that will give you the information that you need

5.     The kind of analysis are you going to do (formal analysis, historical, statistical etc)

6.     Explains how you are going to argue from your example back to the large question.


6.  Organizing your Ideas and Outlining your Paper


An Outline is a method of organizing your ideas and your paper before you actually write it.  This way you can focus on thinking the ideas through and on putting them into a logical sequence, without having to struggle with sentence structure at the same time.  You can change elements of the outline and rearrange things easily

An Outline should be the paper without the sentences.  It should be almost as long as the paper and should contain everything that will be in the paper:  All the ideas, all the thinking, all the evidence, and all the references.  An outline is not a list of sub-topics.  Someone should be able to read the outline and know exactly what your thesis is and how you are going to support it, point by point. Writing outlines helps you to think things through without the pain of making sentences.  With a good outline, writing is easy.


Microsoft Word has an Outline function in the “View” menu.  It’s easy to use and very helpful

1. You have a thesis or two by now and a reasonably good grasp of your question and topic though they probably need some refining and clarification

2. Try writing a paragraph that explains your thesis.  After several drafts this may wind up as the first paragraph of your paper.  You are trying to explain it to yourself.

3.  Now lay everything out in front of you and try to put it in a logical sequence as if you were explaining the ideas to someone else.  Where to begin is tricky.

4.  Identify the main ideas and the evidence that supports them

5. Identify your thesis.


Organizing your Paper

1.  The first section should introduce the Big Question, the Topic, the small question and your thesis.  This will become the first page of your paper.  Keep the introductions short. If it’s a person you should say when and where they were active (not when they were born) and what was their major contribution to the field.  If it’s a building: When, where, what, why, by whom and for whom.

For Example: First Section of Outline:

I.  How does “Organic” Architecture relate to the site?  (Big Question)

1. Frank Lloyd Wright’s theory of Organic Arch in re: climate (Introduce Topic)

            2.  Do Wright’s buildings relate well to their climate? (Small Question)

3.  I will look at the Robie House and one example of a typical 19th century house in Chicago to see which relates better to the climate (focused topic and question)

4.  I will analyze both for energy use and living spaces that relate to the outside (Analysis Method)

5.  I will show that the Robie House does not conserve energy nor does it provide living spaces that relate to the climate such as sunny windows in winter (thesis)

II. Explanations and supporting details, etc.


2. The “meat” of the paper is your analysis laid out in detail.  This is your original contribution to the field.  Take your reader through it carefully so they understand what you have done and why it is important.  This analysis should support your thesis, point by point.


3.  The conclusion relates the thesis back to the Big Question and explains its implications:

For Example:  The end of the paper above on the Robie House might be outlined as follows:

IV. This paper shows that Robie House does not conserve energy nor provide living spaces related to the climate any better than other typical houses in Chicago in the 19th century and is worse than some.

            1. Wright’s defined his architecture as “Organic”

2. Our current definition of ‘organic’ is a description of how a building works in its climate

3. Wright’s building does not work well in its climate therefore his definition of ‘organic’ must be different than ours.

His criteria for “organic” do not address how the building works so must address only how it looks.

4.  Even though he calls it ‘organic’, Wright’s architecture may not be an appropriate model for contemporary site sensitive design.

V  “Organic” Architecture may not be appropriate to its site in all aspects of its design.




7.  Writing Tips and Pet Peeves


Writing requires concentration so plan ahead.  No one can write effectively for more than 4 hours per day.   After that you become very inefficient.  Do something else.  Writing is a craft.  The more you do it, the better you become.  It’s never easy, but it can be very satisfying.  There’s nothing like the thrill of a well –wrought essay.


Your goal is clarity.  You want someone else to be able to understand your ideas. 

Be brief.  Avoid unnecessary words.



Rough Draft

1. Follow your Outline.  Just do it.

2.  Your goal at this stage is simply to get your ideas on paper.  Don’t stress out too much over grammar and sentence structure, you can fix it later.

You should focus on clarity, organization and sequence so one idea follows another in a logical flow.

3. Sometimes you wind up writing one idea several times, each time thinking to yourself..”What I really mean is…”  Good.  Pick the best; delete the rest.


Second Draft

1. Now pay attention to language. Read what you have written.  Ask  “Is this what I really mean to say” Try again to say it better.  Often your ideas change from the beginning of a draft to the end.  Perhaps you need to rewrite the beginning to agree with the conclusions you have reached in the end. 


2.  Fix the grammar.


3.  The first paragraph is the most important.  You will probably rewrite it several times before you are satisfied that it really states the premises of the essay:

            The Big Question

            The Topic

            The small question

            The thesis


Some Language Tips


1. Avoid value-laden generalizations: Do not tell me a building is “important, marvelous, beautiful, remarkable.”   Show me why.  Use specific examples; demonstrate your ideas with descriptive detail rather than hyperbole.  When you resort to effusive praise it usually means that you have not understood why it is so.


2.  Write in the active voice.  It makes your sentences more forceful and keeps the energy moving forward.  Use passive voice only when you truly need it.


4.  Write positive statements rather than negative one such as: “Do not write negative statements” Positive statements are stronger and less confusing.  In general, use negative statements only for emphasis.


5.  Say things in the most direct way you can.  You sound more intelligent that way.


6.  We live in the 21st century, we do not call it the 2000s.  Likewise in formal writing, the 19th century should not be called the 1800s.


7.  In general use “to use” rather than “to utilize.”  Avoid other complexifications of simple words


8.  To native Spanish speakers: Be careful not to confuse singulars and plurals.  Be consistent with present and past tenses.   It’s “where” not “were”


9.  Computer spelling checks are often wrong.  They do not check context and meaning so often confuse words. 

9.  Compute or spell in cheeks ore oven rung.  Day donut cheek contacts ant mining so
oven conduce wards.



Polishing your Prose


1.  Have a friend read it and comment.  You read their work too.  You can help each other.  Your goal is clarity.


2.  The best book I’ve found to help you polish a draft is:

Joseph Wiliams,  Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace  Addison, Wesley Longman Co., 2000