Design to Embed Value in a Home [Interview]

I caught up with Brian Phillips, principal of Interface Studio Architects, in Miami recently while he was down as a visiting critic at the University of Miami School of Architecture.  Based in Philadelphia, ISA is a prominent architecture and research firm on the leading edge of green building and pre-fab construction with notable projects such as the 100k House and The Modules, featured on Jetson Green a few years ago.  Here is our discussion on the work of ISA and direction of the green building industry.

Q. What is ISA’s design philosophy?

Innovating the everyday.  We look hard at all the parameters of a project, even the mundane details and most challenging constraints, as engines for creative and innovative solutions.  By beginning without stylistic tendencies, asking different questions at the outset, details such as budget or programmatic relationship can become important design elements which are in turn amplified to something interesting.

Q. Why is sustainability important for the firm’s work?

We believe that energy efficiency is implicit to making good architecture.  Sustainability on the other hand, is more complex than strictly saving energy. We consider the social, economic, and urban contexts of projects to create resilient, intelligent systems within which buildings participate.

Q. The 100k house is one of your most notable projects, how did the idea come about?

A young developer (postgreen) was looking at the typical townhome development pattern and asked why develop projects my friends can’t afford?  So we began looking at what the starter home for a 30-something, Gen Y target would be.  For these sophisticated and green-minded consumers on a budget, the 100k house fills that market perfectly.

Q. What was the key to affordability?

1,000 SF at $100/SF, while achieving LEED Platinum standards, was the formula we used to inspire design possibilities.  Conceiving of a project that meets those metrics was our design challenge and it asked us to work more like industrial designers rather than architects.  If we didn’t have to do it, we didn’t.  We stuck to a simple, elemental, urban approach that resulted in exposed concrete floors and surface mounted CFL light bulbs, for instance.  The green building approach emphasized the quality of the envelope including insulation, windows, and air sealing.

Q. Have you tracked the performance of the home?

We’ve received feedback from the owner that their utility bills are roughly $1,000 a year, which is significantly lower than the comparable home in the area.  The HERS score was near 50 on the original homes, but we have since lowered that to near 20 on more recent iterations.  On future projects our goal is to incorporate more feedback channels for the occupant to allow them to take charge or their water and energy consumption in a real time scenario.

Q. What were some of the lessons learned?

Keep it simple and focus on the envelope.  The envelope is the best way to embed long-term value in a house and isn’t subject to mechanical failure or user choices. This allows the mechanical systems to be simplified and be more affordable.

Q. How have your designs evolved since the 100k house and been able to inform your current work?

The 100k house sits in the middle of the timeline for our firm, but serves as the clearest thesis statement.  We received a 2011 Pew Fellowship in the Arts allowing us to focus more on experimentation, research, and design competitions.  We are beginning to expand geographically while also scaling up the ‘100k thesis’ on bigger projects in Philly.  Recent assignments include Net Zero housing in Boston (through the Mayor’s E+ Housing initiative) and a theoretical project for what a 100k house might be for Detroit.

Q. What are the top three priorities a team should focus on with a green building project?

1) Saving energy and money for the user is always number one.  This means providing a high performance envelope.

2) Every project is different in its requirements and therefore requires a unique approach to sustainability.  Maybe a project is net zero water instead of energy, because of site location or other factors. Fully exploiting available opportunities and thinking about the bigger context of a project is important. It can be unsustainable to insist that every project, regardless of location, program, or budget, achieve net zero energy, for example.

3) Affordability.

Q. Do you prefer to work with LEED or Passivhaus standards?

It all depends on the building.  For residential, Passivhaus is a great philosophy; save energy, save money, focus on the envelope.  It allows the project to stay very true to its core mission.  In a commercial setting, where projects are more complicated, something like LEED is more applicable because it allows for a more balanced and diverse approach.  I think that zoning codes could begin to play more of a role in the process.  How can we find more synergies which promote sustainability within urbanism?  For instance, could mixed use development be an energy strategy?

Q. Where do you see green building going in next 5-10 years?

I believe green building and high performance construction will continue to be ramped up through local regulations and building codes. The question that will remain is what does sustainability mean? Is it jobs, walkable neighborhoods, quality of life, healthy lifestyle?  The conversation will get less technical and lean more toward aesthetic, economic, and social issues.

Photos courtesy: Interface Studio Architects.


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