Research by design

In addition to the design work, a relatively large amount of time is spent on research at H+N+S. Every year a substantial budget is made available for research-related projects. The research is done for knowledge development at the office, often for the purpose of designing the projects. In certain cases, H+N+S also puts research themes on the agenda outside the regular projects.


Much has been said and written about research by design from an academic angle. We would like to compare this with an overview from daily design practice, based on our own experiences. When we talk about 'research' here, it is about more than collecting data and preparing knowledge components that are necessary for a well-argued design. Design and research are closely related and are increasingly intertwined.

Research laboratory

We see H+N+S as a research laboratory, a place where there is room for research, agenda-setting for new themes and room for experimentation, even if it is not directly requested by a client and there is not automatically time and space in a commercial environment. for in-depth research. A number of forms can be distinguished in our daily work in which 'research' plays a role.

Overview of some H+N+S publications.

[1] Research feeds design

The most common form of research in our practice concerns the use of: collected knowledge and insights from our own research and/or research results from third parties, as input for the design. This involves collecting information and applied knowledge for design work. Thorough research into the subsurface, water system, ecology, history, networks and occupation forms the foundation of the design. The emphasis on the system side makes the work of H+N+S special.


The research results are integrated into the design. In order to achieve this integration, the input from the environment, the client and the design intuition is used. In the end product, the design, the research is usually only implicit. In 'research feeds design' there is a linear relationship between research and design, from research to design (and generally not the other way around).

Sketch development Trintelzand - integration vision Houtribdijk variant maximum.


At the beginning of the design process, we choose the topics that are relevant to the project, where we devote the time for analysis and research. This is an important step in the design process: here we dig up the relevant information and design principles. In the context of a commercial agency, this choice is made fairly quickly, often on pragmatic grounds and intuitively, on the basis of 'expert judgement'. This expert judgment largely stems from knowledge and insight built up in previous (research) projects.

Many of the research projects belong to a specific theme in the oeuvre of the office, which has been consistently worked on for a number of years. Such a line of research involves knowledge development and knowledge accumulation. This applies, for example, to heritage projects in which a certain methodology has been developed over the years. Something similar applies to energy projects. Other 'long lines of research' within the office focus on the themes of ecology and flood risk management. By continuing to build on previously acquired research in the projects, it is still possible to develop and build knowledge within a commercial environment. Knowledge development is often also continued with the same partners, such as with Buiting advice when it specifically concerns natural forest development and with various engineering firms, for example when it comes to dimensioning the water system.

The forest development at the entrance of the NMM Soesterberg.

[2] Research meets design

Another common form in our work is a working method in which the own research (always with knowledge partners) and the design run parallel on the basis of equality in an interactive and iterative process. The researchers from professional partners such as universities such as TU Delft or WUR, a knowledge institute such as Deltares or TNO, a consultancy firm such as CE Delft or Probos are fed by the designers in approach, scope, etc., and vice versa.

This is therefore not a linear process as in research feeds design, but a cyclical process in which 'research' and 'design' mutually feed and influence each other. In the end product, both things are in principle also (more) equally reflected. These often concern projects or competitions initiated by ourselves or by the partners, with which new themes are explored and/or put on the agenda. This is done, for example, in the field of flood risk management, such as the research into safety and quality along the Dutch coast in Atelier Coastal Quality, the IPDD research (Integral Planning and Design in the Delta) and the BNA research The adaptive dike. Examples from the energy line, aimed at the energy transition, are the IABR research Energetic Odyssey for windmills in the North Sea, the research Biomass as a design assignment, or the winning entry for the Eo Wijers competition S3H-BTK.

The dyke as part of the production landscape (the Adaptive Dike).

In the commercial environment of an agency, these kinds of projects are difficult to organize. We often have to actively look for a client/financier ourselves and we have to work with reduced rates. Conversely, these types of projects are very formative and feed the knowledge development within the office (as a laboratory) and this knowledge can be used in other projects.

Submission S3H-BTK for the Eo-wijers competition.
In both cases, a working hypothesis is worked towards a concrete translation in images.


The research influences the design, as does research feeds design, but the reverse is also true in this case. This ideally leads to cross-pollination. In practice, it also often leads to (sometimes pleasant, sometimes tough) confusion of tongues as a result of the different domains and cultures of the two blood groups 'researchers' and 'designers.… You have to go through that, but it pays off!

Research meets design leads to two types of results in our work:

  1. Putting on the agenda by setting a vision for the medium term, eg in our submission S3H BTK for the latest Eo Wijers competition. The team chooses a possible future and uses the design as a way to visualize this future and to explain the steps towards it.
  2. Putting on the agenda by setting out possible scenarios for the future. The means of a long-term vision (eg 80-100 years ahead) is used to outline possible futures and to clarify the choice moments. Examples of this are the results of Atelier Kustkwaliteit, IPDD and Energetic Odyssee.
Still from animation 2050: An Energetic Odyssey


Our role as designers in these processes is often twofold. During the exchange of knowledge, in workshops and studios, we are the drawing and bringing together hand and we try to get a clear picture of the assignments, challenges and possibilities by recording what is introduced. Simply put, we ensure that there is not only endless 'talking or writing', but that conclusions are recorded - also literally. In addition, we translate this into visions of the future and we make the choices and moments of choice explicit. In this way we initiate a discussion that would not be had if only words were used.

Possible future developments are explored in this type of work by making various scenarios (when it concerns explorations of what external forces may come at the research theme) or future perspectives (as development directions for the themes touched upon in the research). In this way, moments of choice come into the picture and strategies can be elaborated that deviate from the autonomous development.

Future view for the Steam scenario
Future view for the Rust scenario

[3] Research by designers

The third group of projects concerns projects that are often initiated or co-initiated by ourselves, in which a client is then sought and we, as designers, carry out the research ourselves. This produces different results than when a regular researcher would do that.

As designers, we formulate the research question ourselves, fueled by a certain fascination (or dissatisfaction). This concerns new social themes that we consider relevant and interesting and for which there is (still) insufficient attention (and time) in regular 'project practice', for example in the field of our historical heritage.


In this category, the end product is not a design, but the research results themselves form the end product (although it does contain recommendations and information that can be useful in a design, for example as design principles). Most studies lead to publication in book form and/or publications in professional journals. Many of these studies have been co-financed by the Creative Industries Fund NL. Examples are:

Page from Landscape living


In principle, the research is systematic and as complete as possible. At the same time, within the context of a design agency, we quickly reach the limits of what is feasible: extensive scientific research and good translation of this into illustrative images takes a lot of time. In the academic world, students, graduates and PhD students can work to solve this. Agencies have a handicap in this regard. That is why we often work with trainees to compensate for this to some extent.

However, just as for research meets design projects, these types of projects feed the knowledge development within the office and deepen design practice. The knowledge gained can be used in other projects. Fortunately, the research projects also have an acquiring power in favor of the 'normal' design projects, which can ultimately make it commercially interesting. But above all, research projects are just really fun and inspiring to work on.

Design principles from the book Landscaping living.