Mar 21st  2016 RISD Hot Seat IX


Laura Briggs

is head of the Department of Architecture. She is a Mushenheim Fellow and a partner in BriggsKnowles Studio, a practice recognized for its use of light, color and the integration of energy efficient and renewable energy technology. The studio has been featured in The New York Times, Dwell, Domus, Metropolis Magazine and Fine Living HGTV. Her own work focuses on super efficient buildings, adaptable photovoltaic systems, and concentrating solar. She holds a Master’s Degree from Columbia University’s Advanced Architectural Design Program and a Bachelor of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design.


          I’m interested in active solar, working with renewable energy, and one of the areas I’ve been working with is recently concentrating solar, which is amazing because it appears as if you generate energy from the air. By simply using mirrors in the right configuration, you can produce enough energy to run a house, cook food, etc..This research was originally based on the work of Felix Trombe and his 13 story mirrored concentrator that was integrated into a research building in the French Pyrenees Mountains after World War II. I have also pursued hands on experiments through a fellowship I received from the MacDowell Colony. I was able to create a 10 foot double parabolic mirror that focused light into to a ephemeral figure. It is an ongoing project. It fascinates me how geometry interacts with energy flows and that different types of energy come from light between the visable and the infrared spectrums. For instance, when I added water vapor to the atmosphere at the focal point of the concentrating parabolas, two intersecting double helix cones appeared. It’s both spectacular and allows us to see the very simple and direct relationship we can have with nature to deal with needs and flows of energy. It’s like warping the energy flows, since you can slow them down and catch them to match our human needs. 

          I was involved in the Solar decathlon not only here at RISD but previously at Parsons. We were very interested in social housing and being able to make better affordable houses with solar energy that could help low income families. Often the reason people lose their housing has to do with the owners inability to meet their energy bills - heat, water, etc. We were interested in being able to help provide a different standard of affordable housing, and we used the solar decathlon as a way to bring funding and visibility to that project. We partnered with Habitat for Humanity in Washington DC. The collaboration worked out well because there was a like-minded project director and a great team. When we built the house for the competition, we trained the Habitat team along side our students in the methods of super energy efficient construction. After the competition was done we moved the exhibition house to a site a few blocks away in Washington where Habitat took over building a second home. We went down to help them at that point. It was the perfect way of transferring what we learned and building knowledge building. We then helped Habitat DC to write grants to build 10 more passive homes. With this educational partnership and model, we educated a much broader audience, which have spawned other great works. The homeowners were also participants. It was really good to not just make a house for someone in the abstract, but we really got to know the families who were going to live there and their issues.

           We are beginning to plan something similar in Providence. We started with the Techstyle house where we are interested in creating a situation where radical innovation is primary, and do it for a community of artists and designers. In a two year cycle the faculty and students prototyped a completely new type of construction, by developing a fabric skin that was suspended, super insulated and airtight. The house meets the inhabitant’s standards working only with the natural resources available from the site. There is a lot of potential from this prototype. First it allowed faculty and students in our department to form relationships with experts beyond architecture, which are now continuing to grow as we move forward. We are hoping to marry the knowledge that we gained through the Techstyle House with a different challenge: affordable housing. How do we build the most lightweight, cost effective solar housing? In addition, we have formed relationships with the city of Providence Department of Planning, and our students are now working with them studying micro housing designs that  could be deployed in partnership with a non-profit developer. It is a long-term project, but it’s exciting to be able to leverage different abilities and the skill of the designer. we have the ability to do the research and creative thinking, but we are not developers or city planners. They bring their knowledge of cities and finance that’s critical to move things forward. The collaboration holds the promise of changing the way builders now work.



           I think architecture is continuously evolving. My definition of architecture is first and foremost answering human and ecological needs. But it’s only architecture when it goes beyond functional needs and produces an arrangement of space and phenomena that has impact. We don’t always do that. We have to slow down in order to do things better. At the same time, I woke up this morning and thought we are not doing enough! The discipline can contribute to mitigating the clear climate and social crises we face and do this while creating beautiful lasting structures. We need to change on a dime but the architectural, engineering and construction industry is a big train that has serious momentum behind it. We have to interrogate the impact of architecture both formally in the city and in the environment. The combination of materials and used can affect that. It’s almost like alchemy. We know how to do it, but as a society we haven’t transformed enough to be able to build better as a whole. The field is changing, we need do what we can to make change happen faster. 

          Michael Maltzan, recently spoke at RISD and he had a wonderful way of describing the public nature of architecture during his lecture. Architecture is in the world. In order for it to be effective, you need to assert it. He has created amazing projects for different situations, and he’s also done affordable housing in an inventive, creative way. He created these noble spaces and in order to do that he needed to assert the power of design. It was great to see him doing this work which is for so many. 



           One of the interesting things about RISD is you learn how to learn. You learn how to ask questions. My thesis was a beginning point not an end. I have continued to focus on similar topics that came up through that initial crude research.  Now it’s the project is finding situations and people who are partners in pursuing those questions. In addition, I cherish the continuity and community of individuals. Recently, I had the pleasure of being able to work with Warren Schwartz on a set of studios. I had met him many years ago at my first job out of school. The feedback between the two of us was wonderful and engaging. 

           It’s not so much about a dialogue or debate, but rather having partnerships where you have an idea of what needs to be done collectively. There are different expertise, talents, etc. you can’t do work with a client who is thinking differently than you. You have to have a shared vision. How do we understand a shared vision? I think that is a collective project. It’s through sharing reading, sharing conversation, shared analysis, understanding our situations, you have to understand the contemporary moment and see it in relation to cultural production. I think those thoughts can range from reading philosophy, to natural science, to having great teachers. When I was a student here Yuriko Sato, was my teacher. She was really impactful for me. She did a class on the philosophy of nature. That course allowed me to see the different ways to perceive nature. For instance, we looked at original texts by pilgrims coming to America through to the first American ecologist at the turn of the century. It was a moment where I could see that my interpretation is as important as the experience around you. It creates a flexibility of mind that allowed me to formulate my own perspective.

          I am interested in moving our society forward to a more ecological future. I try not to worry about things that hold us back. I often think if one way didn’t work let’s keep moving to the next idea until it does. I tend to be optimistic. We can change things even if it’s a huge problem. It’s important to focus on that goal of change. I feel like that helps me to try and want to understand problems from an essential question. I can see myself falling into a situation where I learn from existing conventions, for instance how do you build a wall, how do you structure items, there are ways people have done it already. I fall into learning the system and not always getting to why it’s working. So I try to expand myself to ask other questions. For instance I try to think not only how to create a wall but how to think about the principles of physics that form the wall and the consequences that come with it like energy flows or gravitational forces.



Question from Nicole Merola

"Which little-known U.S. architect of color should we be paying attention to and what makes his/her work compelling?"

          I’m going to be projective. Emanuel Admassu, he’s an architect who is just becoming known and is joining our faculty at RISD architecture. He is starting to get his work seen in the public realm. He is doing amazing research, looking at building systems and the architectural language of “informal” settlements that have not been considered part of the western canon. He’s showing the power of construction for the actors using the urban market by dissecting the development over time and helping us to see and understand it. In addition to looking at the subject matter the way he is, he also has an ability that we try to focus on here at RISD, to make spectacular drawings and develop new ways of visualizing information. He understands the power of beauty. 



Question for David Katz

           What have you learned through the interaction with the design discipline in architecture? How are you influencing what we are doing in architecture?


Hosted and edited by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio


Look out next Monday May 16th

RISD Hot Seat with David Katz from Ceramics!


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RISD Hot Seat is a new, student-led interview getting to know individuals at RISD found by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio in Graduate Student Alliance.

Through understanding the unique perspectives and interests each individual contributes, and asking about the ins and outs of different programs, our goal is to bridge conversations between graduate students, faculty, and staff to build a stronger, interdisciplinary graduate community in RISD.