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filling in the gaps: ISA’s Brian Phillips and Daryn Edwards

  • The 100K House offered a totally new option to urban homebuyers. Photo by Sam Oberter.

2013 - Brian Phillips and Daryn Edwards are principals of Interface Studio Architects (ISA), a small architectural firm that is nationally recognized as an innovator in urban infill housing.

Brian, a founding principal of ISA, participated in the Collaborative’s Affordable Infill Housing Design Challenge, where he designed the prototype for APM’s Sheridan Street Housing.  Brian was a 2011 Pew Fellow in the Arts. Since moving to Philly in 1998, Daryn has made community design a focus of his career and volunteerism. He’s currently serving on the Collaborative’s board and has served as a board member and president of Habitat of Humanity Philadelphia. 

Kacie Comly Liss interviewed Brian and Daryn at their studio in the Crane Arts Building this spring.

KC: Urban infill is something your firm has been working on for a while. What do you see on the horizon?

BP: Cities around the world have seen a good decade of spectacular reinvestment, and I think that many of us forget what it was like. I recently had someone walk up to me—we were talking about the 90’s, and we were talking about cities and somebody actually said, “Oh, that was before people liked cities again.”

We’re in a very recent period of people thinking cities are very cool, and that Philadelphia is very cool. Infill as a retrofit strategy, for coming back to a city that somehow was abandoned or saw disinvestment, is clearly a trend that is going to continue.

That said, Philadelphia may be the most vibrant infill city because it has two extremes going on. On the one hand, it lost 25% of its population. So there’s tons of vacancy. On the other hand, there’s the Center City engine and there’s tons of young people who want to live here.

I can’t think of too many other cities like that. You have cities like Detroit, where they’re having more of the “we have a lot of vacant land but we don’t know what to do with it” issue. And you’ve got cities like Boston or New York City that have the magnet for a lot of young people but there’s not a lot of opportunity in vacant land. So Philadelphia is unusually positioned to bring those two things together—and when you bring those two things together, there is experimentation and innovation.

KC: Can you describe a recent project that demonstrates what you do?

BP: The 100K House is kind of a seminal project for us in the sense that many of our other projects have learned from it, and are kind of based in the approach. Instead of assuming [the project] needs to be a certain kind of building, you look at what the performance parameters are—whether it’s economic, social, or construction material—and use those as the thing that drives the building. Because the 100K House is small and extremely definable, the parameters are really obvious. It’s just a great case study for how we like to work.

KC: Daryn, do you have a favorite project?

DE: Well, I think that the Sheridan Street Housing is probably one that is nearest and dearest to my heart. I saw Brian give a presentation about it… when [ISA] was just getting through schematic design at that point. Probably six months later the client was able to get funding and was starting to move it forward… just as I was starting with the firm. It was great to get in at that point and do all the construction documentation and see it through construction administration and now watch the homeowners take over.


  • APM's Sheridan Street Housing, sustainable and affordable! Photo by Sam Oberter.

KC: ISA participated in both the Collaborative’s Affordable Infill Housing Design Challenge and Infill Philadelphia: Food Access. Describe your experience working on these projects.

BP: The great fun of the Infill projects is that they’re quite challenging. Both of the projects… had intense challenges, like lot conditions or economic goals… really incredible challenges that are relevant to the current urban conversation, but where there’s still a lot of space to experiment and think about new ideas. [Infill Philadelphia] is a fantastic instrument for exploration.

DE: There is an opportunity to work at a bigger scale and look at things at more of a theoretical level… With Sheridan, we were working with a client who really gave us a lot of latitude to say, “What if we look at the site in this interesting way?” … some of these early green strategies now seem kind of commonplace, but they weren’t five or six years ago, especially in community design… stormwater management, the performance of the envelope, sun shading.

We also appreciated working with the community. They certainly went outside of their comfort zone and allowed more of a modern design for Sheridan Street than some of their previous projects. If it wasn’t for this sort of design challenge, I am not sure that they would have been willing to take that risk.

KC: How do you feel the architecture profession has changed since you started working?

BP: It has changed a lot. Obviously the economy has created incredible challenges for the profession… something that we have really taken to heart on all fronts of our practice is to use that as an opportunity—as a way to question what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and I think that we really believe that the profession needs to evolve. Pragmatically, there’s less work, fees are lower… but, in a way—being a young firm—it is a good time because we can take risks and it is a good time to take risks. [The profession’s] changed in the sense that it has destabilized, but that is an interesting opportunity.

KC: Has volunteering changed the way you practice?

BP: I think so… this goes back to your question about how the profession is changing. We’re extremely interested in how one institutionalizes pursuits that go beyond what I’d broadly define as work that pays and volunteer work. Something we are really interested in is hybrid work; while it might pay something, you’re putting more effort into the project because you believe that there’s a higher purpose—whether that’s motivated through some social intent or whether it is simply that you recognize that project has the chance to have a bigger impact.

Sheridan Street went on to become a paying job. What’s so beautiful about that project for us is that the Collaborative facilitated research and development, which is the toughest thing to get paid for in architecture, and it eventually became a more traditional paying job.

DE: Brian and I have been talking about for a number of years. I think that there is an interest in doing research. The question is how you operate as an architecture firm and still manage to have a research arm.

BP: We’re beginning to look at grants and other sorts of special project funding resources and we’re finding that there are opportunities for this sort of hybrid project. The Collaborative really introduced us to that way of working.


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