In 2008, architect and educator Billie Faircloth left a career in academia to assume the newly formed role of research director at Philadelphia-based practice KieranTimberlake. In the years since, she has not only formed a transdisciplinary team of researchers, but also spearheaded a number of the firm’s landmark projects. From the Revit plug-in Tally and the app Roast (which allow architects to measure the embodied carbon of their structures during the design process and conduct post-occupancy surveys, respectively) to her 2015 book on the complicated history of plastics in the building industry and her ongoing development of design tools for Mongolia, these achievements, as Faircloth told Azure, are part of a simple yet effective approach: Ask important questions, but be prepared to do the hard work of responding. After more than a decade of exploration, here are a few of her answers.
My team’s role involves the continuous building of our research culture and practically incorporating this message to ensure that people are asking questions, answering these questions and applying rigour when necessary. Every project engages this. Everyone here, not just the research group, is absolutely aware of the larger culture of inquiry and the kinds of questions that can be asked as well as answered.
After we developed Tally, we could have easily kept the tool to ourselves. Once our team realized what we were able to accomplish and noticed the huge gap in the industry, however, we felt that this was a really important piece for advocacy. We needed to be in a position to advocate for designers having the means to calculate embodied carbon and bring this information into design decision-making. It couldn’t be separate. It couldn’t be post-mortem. We felt we had an ethical obligation to deliver something that was accessible.
Mass timber is not recent; it has always been with us. If you look at the history of plastic, it originated from cellulose. Wood actually began plastics. I think what is important about the conversation around this material now is its connection to a much larger discourse on the function of landscape and ecology, the way that buildings and land are coupled. It brings these materials into a much more direct relationship through cycles of growth and extraction.
There has never been a greater time to exercise design agency. We are desperate to have conversations around what materials we should be using, especially from a carbon perspective. We need to take up serious programs of work, look deeply at how we design, and ask questions about how we shape the materials that we use and how that shapes actual buildings. How do we exercise agency with this in mind?
I think that we absolutely have a responsibility to be activists. We are in a position where we can use design as part of some larger team to help look at what’s happening in a place and to create meaningful interventions or redirections. I feel strongly that this isn’t about the architect’s intelligence alone. We also have an obligation to build knowledge across many different disciplines and many perspectives, engaging people where they are and learning from those around us.
Ask questions, be an advocate and other tips from the KieranTimberlake partner.