What is the architecture dissertation?
The architecture dissertation (or thesis) is an opportunity to demonstrate the skills you have learnt and the knowledge you have developed over the course of your studies. It identifies a current question of interest that you are willing to explore and analyse.
Thesis and dissertation mean different things in Europe than they do in the USA. In Europe, a dissertation is usually part of a masters degree involving a broader research project. In the USA however, the dissertation is part of a doctorate degree. Likewise, thesis in Europe generally refers to research work for a PhD, while in the USA thesis is part of your masters degree. Nice and confusing 🙂
Given that I am based in the UK, I will refer to the document as a dissertation, but much of the information and tips here are interchangeable. Hopefully you will find this guide useful when considering your architecture dissertation… or thesis!
Choosing your topic
Selecting a topic for your architecture dissertation is often one of the biggest challenges for students. Where to start?! Let’s take a look at the process of selecting your architecture dissertation topic.
Ask a question
Your architecture dissertation needs to ask a question. Whether it is a big question or just a small part of a big question, there has to be a reason for your research and data collection. So, when you have selected your big issue that you would like to explore, you can look at breaking this down into a smaller question for your subject.
By starting off with a big issue, and beginning to narrow this down into smaller issues, allows you to end up asking a small question that could perhaps have big implications or bring very interesting results.
Focus on an area of study that you are comfortable with
Try to consider areas within your field of study that you are comfortable with. For example, if you are particularly interested and inspired by environmental architecture, perhaps you can start there. On the flip side, if you are particularly interested in new technologies and software developments, then perhaps you could start thinking along those lines.
The more comfortable you are with your topic area, the more solid your work will be and you will be able to pursue your architecture dissertation with more confidence.
Select a topic that is focused
Don’t go too broad with your topic idea. Don’t forget, you are not writing a long novel, so your research and your final architecture dissertation has to be concise. A broad topic will make it very difficult to get into the nitty gritty details.
As an example, lets say you are interested in the feasibility of using sustainable prefabricated systems in residential architecture. This is a fairly large subject, so your work could look at an aspect of this, such as a particular sustainable prefabricated system like a timber panel, or perhaps prefab systems in social housing. You could then drill down further. You can look at the subject as a whole in your introduction or conclusion, but investigate a more focused part of that topic for your own work.
Don’t forget, as you start to investigate your topic further, it may lead you to other questions, which in turn can change the theme of your architecture dissertation. Don’t be too fixated on a topic in the early stages that stops you from shifting and developing the dissertation. It is a bit like design projects, sometimes it is easy to get fixated on your concept at the detriment of the design – adjusting, and pivoting can be a good thing, it is an iterative process.
Look at other architecture dissertations
Take some time to read and research other dissertations, to get a feel for what excites or interests you. By gaining an understanding of the format, content and overall outcomes of the architecture dissertation, you will be able to develop your ideas more easily, and drill down on a topic that fits.
Read other architecture works
Take some time to read other architecture works while you are in your topic decision making process. This might open up new ideas and thoughts that you didn’t think of before. Look at current trends, what is new, what is changing, what hasn’t changed, why? How about world events, how do they impact architecture? How does architecture impact them? What can we learn?
Make sure your question can be answered
Once you have chosen your question or topic, make sure that data collection and research will bring you to some sort of conclusion or answer. It will be very frustrating if you are investigating an issue that will not be possible to conclude on or solve. Make sure you can ask the right questions to get information from people, are there enough books on the subject? Is there any historical data that might be useful? How about photographs and drawings. Consider how you will research your architecture dissertation before finalising your topic.
Carry out your research
The research phase of your architecture dissertation is really important. We must look at many different sources and aspects of our topic to start to develop our strategies and ideas.
Start with the library
The best way to start investigating our topic is to find out what information currently exists, who has asked your question, or similar questions, what has been published? So head to the library and start reading! Try and get a selection of sources for a more balanced overview, rather than relying on just one source. Although you can use the internet, don’t forget that it is an unregulated source, and therefore not all the information is completely reliable.
Keep track of any books, journals etc that you have consulted. (more on that later).
Follow the citations and references in relevant articles to see if other works have been written that are relevant to your topic. Research papers are a good sources of references and information you could further explore.
During this initial stage of research you may still be narrowing your topic, refining your question and thats totally ok. Often, it is not until you have started reading around your topic and delving deeper that you start to see the questions that need to be asked.
Take notes and keep track of all your research, book name, author, title, date, publisher plus all the page numbers of the important points. This will help you when you come to referencing and citation and also enable you to stay organised.
Keep your topic / question in mind as you read through the research material and make notes on relevant points, in your own words. Write down any phrases or quotations that you will want to cite later, but make sure you keep a list of the details of the author etc, so the quotation doesn’t get mixed up with your own writing.
Citations and references
Make sure you reference and cite all your work correctly. This is a tedious part of the architecture dissertation but extremely important to do it right.
You can find a guide about doing the Harvard referencing system here:
Or refer to your own university library reference material to make sure you are carrying out your citations and references according to university guidelines.
The goal of your architecture dissertation should be to gather and interpret new data, rather than just regurgitating existing information.
Try to collect data that you can analyse and interpret rather than just writing descriptively about the topic.
Collection of data can include information from books as we have mentioned, but also reports, studies, statistical data, surveys, interviews, opinions, archived material, and so much more. Be prepared to think openly, and think wide. By drawing on many different data sources and formats you will have a more rounded research pool to collect data and analyse going forward.
As you analyse your data and research your findings will shape your architecture dissertation, the topic and the big or small question that you are exploring. Make sure you leave the title, introduction and abstract till last.
There are different types of analysis when it comes to researching. The main ones you will be using for your architecture dissertation are visual analysis, textual analysis and historical analysis – although there are many more that you could draw on.
Obviously your choice of topic and question will determine what data you will be analysing but lets look at this as an overview.
Textual content analysis
This is a deep focus on the books, reports, papers and journals that you have identified as being an important part of your research. The areas you have ‘highlighted’ to be of interest should be studied in detail and notes taken as to why these points are important. What is the author saying? Why is this important? How does it relate to your question, and your observations? Has the author written any other titles? Do they refer to other titles? Lots of questions to ask in order to draw out the information you are looking for.
Visual content analysis
Visually, you will be looking at plans, maps, photographs and use your skills to question what you see. Analysis the spaces, the site etc similar to a site analysis. There should be countless questions you could ask when analysing your visual findings, write down your observations.
Here you will focus on the historical events or situations that have had an impact on the topic or question that you are studying. What were the circumstances at that time? Where do the ideas come from? What is the author focusing on? And so on.
When presenting your findings, make sure you use all your skills. You are after all, studying architecture, and you have taken years to hone your presentation techniques. Where appropriate, use maps, images, drawings, surveys, time lines and data mapping to explore and present the data you have collected and analysed.
The main things to consider here are:
- What is your big question or topic
- What is the sub topic or smaller question that you are looking to answer
- What research and information will you draw on to answer the question
- How will you analyse the research
- How will you present or argue your findings
Before presenting or putting together your final works, it is important to have a clear structure to your architecture dissertation and the research you have carried out. By now, hopefully you will be clear on your topic and the question you are looking to answer. You will know what research you will draw on to inform your ideas, and how you will collect your data. The clearer you can make your outline of how you want the structure of your dissertation to be, the easier it will be to write. If your ideas and concepts are in a muddle, the end result could mirror this.
General Architecture Dissertation Tips
1 Start work on your dissertation early.
2. Include references and citations to other scholars work.
3. Discuss the topic with other people.
4. Make the most of your tutorials, or any dedicated sessions.
5. Don’t get stuck on your title/topic. Let your data research lead and guide you.
6. Don’t feel you have to solve the worlds problems with your architecture dissertation. You are contributing to the research on a particular topic, don’t feel that your work has to result in a ground breaking solution to a worldwide problem.
7. Tell a story – make sure there is a flow to your architecture dissertation. Avoid using complex sentence structures and fancy words, make it readable. Always try to say more, with less – keep it simple.
8. Give yourself plenty of time to carry out your project from start to finish. Start early with your research – it takes a lot of time if it is to be done properly.
9. Make a schedule – dedicate chunks of time to your architecture dissertation. Ideally intersperse these studies with lighter tasks or something different like sport. It is difficult to write for more than 4 hours without becoming tired and inefficient so make sure your schedule allows for breaks and changes in activity.
10. If you are asking people for help in your data collection, make sure you give them lots of time to get back to you.
11. Be as direct and clear as you can in your writing, avoid fluffy over wordy sentences.
12. Get someone to proof read your work, ideally a couple of people.
13. Use your tutors for advice and guidance, that is what they are there for. Be sure to ask plenty of questions if you are not sure about something.
Wishing you the very best of luck with your architecture dissertation work!