ISA Q&A: Development With Values

Explore how design is solving problems and finding value in the most unexpected places

Grace Pickering
October 25, 2021

Anyone who has seen “The Goonies” knows that real estate development often has nefarious intentions, like tearing down homes to build shopping malls. Brian Phillips knows that building development has often been used for evil, that's why he is now using it to create good. Phillips founded Interface Studio Architects (ISA) in 2005 with the mission of creating designs that address the changing lifestyles, technologies, urban environments and climate. ISA views design as a way to problem solve with the intention of creating flexible solutions rather than static constructions. 

Why did you start ISA?

There’s this phrase in the architecture industry called "service firm" which goes toward doing what the client tells you, meaning you’re sort of a tool. I was motivated by the power of architecture as a leadership pursuit, not just being an artist or a pure creative but actually being a thinker and pragmatist. There wasn’t a business model, there was just a desire to do the work I wanted to do and that a lot of other people wanted to be involved in.

Brian Phillips | Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design | Brian Phillips earned his M. Arch from the University of Pennsylvania. He founded his Philadelphia based company, Interface Studio Architects LLC (ISA), in 2004.
ISA prides itself on "strategy over style." What does that mean?

There’s a history of architects being trained to really obsess over the object or the way that something looks. For us the way the building looks is a reflection of the parameters such as the regulatory framework, what the client thinks they need and the budget. There’s designing and aesthetic quality but there are some very deep functions like providing affordable housing or saving energy, so it’s letting the building be a natural result of those parameters.

Your firm has a focus on environmentally conscious designs. How did that come about?

Housing is a great place to be environmentally conscious. If houses save energy, they cost less money to run. For everyday people it’s just unbelievably impactful. To be environmentally conscious it’s not been through technology like investing in geothermal heating or solar panels, we’ve historically taken more of the passive house route. It’s not the moving parts of the technology, it's super insulated walls, good windows, the right orientation to the sun which admittedly in cities you don’t always have that choice. It doesn’t break and it doesn’t have to be used in a certain way by the person living there. We think about the proximity to transit, how easy it would be to use a bicycle, how easy and comfortable it is to walk around the block to go shopping. 

Resilient Rockaways | Queens, New York | Courtesy of ISA Website |Resilient Rockaways is a neighborhood in Queens, New York. The neighborhood is making changes to its zoning to reduce the risk of flooding. ISA is currently working with the neighborhood with its zoning.

What is something you’ve learned through starting your own firm?

We did spend some time the first few years saying no to a lot of stuff. If we took projects to get by, those would be the projects that would define the office. If you start doing kitchen and bathroom renovations as a small office because you think that’s gonna get you to other things, it may not ever get you to other things.

What kinds of projects do you enjoy the most? 

We are working for Habitat Philadelphia right now on a 20-unit, deeply affordable housing initiative on a very interesting site with lots of architectural history. We’re trying to figure out how to dial in the right amount of character and expression with a shoestring budget, which we always find very interesting and challenging. Working with developers that have a lot to learn and who don’t have the right motivations is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Helping them produce a project that they never knew would be so good and having them learn about the power of design and how real estate development can be used for good.

What’s the future of ISA?

We are interested in bringing this brand of thinking to other places. It’s amazing to arrive at a new place thinking about how you’re going to do a project that’s going to connect with the local conditions.

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