Profiles in design: Sustainability specialist Tiffany Broyles Yost

Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.

Tiffany Broyles Yost recently joined the sustainability team in Arup’s New York office. I spoke with her about Paris, weaving, and standing the test of time.

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You’re an architect by training. How did you end up in that field?

I really like making things for people, so when I started college it seemed obvious I was going to be an architect. It combined my creative and practical interests.

A lot of people come to architecture from art. For me it was much more about problem solving — today we have a really good phrase, “people-centered design.” Eventually that’s what led me to sustainability. I wanted to understand the connection between nature, what we build, how we live, and the impact that has on people.

So college was a really formative time for you, professionally.

Definitely. I did a fair amount of traveling in college. I spent a summer in Paris; Paris was my first love. I hadn’t been outside the US before that trip, and traveling domestically with your family is not the same as being a college student on your own. I remember the professor saying our assignment was to become a citizen of Paris. We just filled our sketchbooks and made collages; we did all these things you do to really immerse yourself in a place and a culture because you’re young and ambitious.

Paris street as photographed by Broyles Yost

I learned a lot there, so it will always be one of my favorite places, but eventually I realized I’d actually just fallen in love with cities in general — the intensity and walkability and all the things you find in a major city. So that’s what brought me to New York.

How long have you been here?

I grew up in Kentucky and Indiana, but I’ve been in New York almost 16 years. I moved here just ten days after the towers fell. I woke up that morning, September 11, to call architecture firms — I had sent a bunch of resumes out and wanted to follow up because at that time there were just so many jobs, the industry was booming. And then everything changed that day.

But I came anyway. The airport was very, very quiet when I arrived. I moved into an apartment in Brooklyn and we had ashes on the roof of our building. It was very surreal.

And you’ve stayed, so I guess you love it here?

I do. I have two daughters; the older one is six and the younger is three. It feels weird sometimes, having kids in the city. My husband and I both grew up in very suburban places, so we really try to get out into the city a lot with our daughters. Sometimes when we visit family members who have big backyards we feel slightly jealous for a minute, but then we realize we might not have a big backyard, but we have one giant playground.

I have a cargo bike and that’s how I take them to school. It’s a really great way to see the city, and it’s just something that they think is normal. I ride over the Brooklyn Bridge to work, and you get that view of the city, you’re active, you’re engaged. There’s this whole movement towards mindfulness and engagement that I think can sometimes feel forced, so I try to find ways to be naturally engaged with my environment.

A lot of people come to architecture from art. For me it was much more about problem solving.

Do you see your curiosity or creativity in your kids?

When I was in architecture school I took a fiber arts studio and learned to weave. While that’s creative, one of the things that really drew me to it was the mechanics: this part does this and this thing does that, and then you put all those pieces together and create something that’s really unknown and beautiful. There’s a process and it’s very meditative. But it’s different than most arts — painting, for example, which to me was always a little intimidating, starting with this blank canvas. I actually own a loom — it’s in storage in Kentucky — but I had it in New York City for a while. I had a studio apartment and didn’t have room for a couch, but I made room for the weaving loom.

With my older daughter it’s a bit different. She really loves to draw; to her the blank canvas is great. I’m clearly biased, but I think she’s fantastic at it. It’s not just that she makes pretty pictures, but she clearly really enjoys the process of drawing. Her drawings are complete stories, so there’s a lot of conceptualization going on there that is really fun and fascinating to see.

My younger daughter likes to draw too. Inevitably I start to think, “Is she holding her pencil correctly?”— and then I remember she’s only three.

What do you see as the most interesting opportunities today in terms of sustainable design?

I think as an architect the challenge is how to give people something that sets up opportunities. Instead of prescriptive spaces, how do you create something that’s adaptable and can be used in ways you might not be able to foresee? It’s fascinating what people do with the spaces you give them — it’s like design from an anthropological perspective.

The most sustainable thing is generally something that is continuously used. You can create a building that’s very good on paper, but if people don’t take care of it and don’t want to use it, it really doesn’t matter how practical, high-tech, or efficient it is, because it isn’t serving its main function.

Broyles Yost’s sketch of a sustainable design concept for a mixed-use project

One of the most impressive interior spaces I’ve seen is the Pantheon in Rome. That building has really stood the test of time. It has been used in so many ways by so many people. If we could build buildings that last like that, that would be amazing.

So with sustainable architecture, is durability the primary goal for you?

Sometimes, but sometimes it’s not about how long things last. Now we talk about designing for disassembly, or circular design, but our buildings are much more complicated than they were in the past.

I spent three months in Arizona at the Ecosa Institute, which is an intensive sustainability program. We did some camping; we explored a lot of the Native American building sites. Prior to that I was more interested in mechanical solutions and more traditional modernist architecture, like Le Corbusier and the stuff that you learn when you study in Paris. This really gave me a new set of options to apply to my work, especially from a sustainability perspective. Sustainability can often be measured by how long something’s life cycle is, but different cultures think about it in different ways — some buildings stay, some are meant to disappear, and this can also be very sustainable.

Later, when I was in grad school, we were assigned a project on an island in Dubai. My partner and I proposed an invisible house, because most buildings on the island were vacation homes. It would exist for the one month that people were there, then collapse and deteriorate. The professor thought we had this brilliant idea and we were all pumped about it, but it turns out it’s very difficult to make a disappearing house. So I’m still working on that. Maybe Arup is the place to help me solve it!

 

Questions or comments for Kelsey Eichhorn or Tiffany Broyles Yost? Contact kelsey.eichhorn@arup.com or tiffany.broylesyost@arup.com.

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