Hansy Better Barraza AIA
Co-founder and Principal, Studio Luz Architects, ltd. + Professor Emerita of Architecture, Rhode Island School of Design
MAUD, Harvard Graduate School of Design
BARCH, Cornell University
Embracing a collaborative design approach rooted in explorations of culture, identity and resilient communities.
BSA Board Director
There are so many aspects to our daily lives and our homes that people might ordinarily take for granted or accept as a given, but when crafted intentionally, an eye for the architectural space can elevate the ordinary into the profound, into spaces that are conduits for belonging and possibility. Much of my commitment to equity and social justice stems from the work my mother was engaged in, and her work has ineluctably influenced my own. Even though she might not be familiar with the technical side of my work, she understands my mission and drive to create community through spaces that punctuate our daily lives. When asked, I simply tell her that I organize around the ethics of architecture—in terms of creating spaces that can galvanize healthier community and minimize the impact it has on our environment. At the core of my work is what I like to think of as spaces, places and things.
I’m very inspired by the work of Ruth María Rivera Marín. Unfortunately, her work is often overshadowed by her more famous parents, muralist Diego Rivera and writer/activist Guadalupe Marín Preciado. She was a real trailblazer, the first woman to study at the College of Engineering and Architecture at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico. She did a lot of collaboration with other architects and cultural centers and collaborated with her father.
She really made it her mission to keep up the legacy of her culture and upbringing. She was also an academic and found inspiration in the fine arts, theater, and dance. I admire her and her desire to leave cultural artifacts of where she’s from. I hope that more people can become familiar with her work and legacy.
At Studio Luz, the firm I co-founded and run with my partner, Anthony J. Piermarini, we just completed a project for NOBULL, an athletic CrossFit and apparel company. We designed their new 100,000 SF Boston headquarters. We designed it in such a way as to offer up an idea of what the future of the workplace can be, what it should be, where your health and wellbeing operate in the same space as productivity. All this, while also creating an atmosphere of collaboration and socialization.
With our design, we wanted to remove the idea of fixed places. We like that NOBULL employees can work through the natural movement of the space. We built an indoor track, a climbing wall, meditation room, and outfitted the HQ with movable vertical desks to suit employees’ needs. Our philosophy was that people can have a meeting while going for a walk or taking a pause for rejuvenation when needed. It really was a dream project where we reimagined where the workplace could be.
Have you won any award(s) from the BSA or another establishment? What elements from that project would you like to see shape the future of the profession?
Studio Luz won a 2022 BSA award for our project designing the space for the nonprofit Sociedad Latina in Mission Hill. It won a citation for equitable communities and energy.
I was very grateful to have won that award, but winning in that category surprised me because I thought everyone was designing for equity. To me, being a steward for the environment was already a given. But, being put in that category made me realize that maybe this project forecast the future of where architecture should strive for—prioritizing equity, justice and the environment for every project.
The intent with our design was to create a space that would foster community, mentorship and identity for the next generation of Latine leaders in Boston. We wanted to imbue a sense of flexibility into the design process, so that the users could work within the space for decades to come and could be malleable enough to suit the organization’s future needs.
There are so many hurdles to building equity embedded into our profession from the get-go, from unpaid design work, to getting commissions, to the questions of whether an institution wants to commission a project based on design merits and qualifications alone versus years of experience in a specific project type. A big challenge—one that exists across disciplines—is that project commissions often affirm legacy firms. The playing field is not necessarily level, as younger designers have to do so much extra labor to compete with legacy firms.
On top of that, building equity in the workplace remains a top priority, as many BIPOC, queer and women designers face additional barriers to entry. In early October, the Massachusetts House approved a bill that would require companies to post salary ranges in their job descriptions. A requirement like that would be an important step towards closing the gender pay gap in the workplace.
There have been lots of discussions in Boston about ADU planning policy. California allows for the construction and rental of ADUs and the legislature recently repealed the previous ban on selling ADUs. Passing similar legislation here in Boston would be a real game-changer in terms of making housing more accessible, especially with the high housing costs here.
For me, design begins with questions, or rather, the act of questioning. As designers, we have big questions about fundamental needs like how can we create a space that builds community; what does it mean to build ethically and responsibly?
A question is the first step. Ultimately, I believe that design makes us look at the world differently and it gives us something to react to. When something is interesting, it allows for dialogue, and lets us ask the questions. Good design is responsive, it is the answer to a question that instills even more question marks.
I am re-reading Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts, by Dan Shapiro. I give this book to every leader whom I want to succeed and wish them well. I was listening to a talk he gave for Google, as well, where he discussed the “divisive mindset” that can separate people, at work or other spaces—the me versus you sort of mindset that can make conflict and differences feel insurmountable. “The idea here is to become aware of these underlying forces that create a wall between you and the other side,” he said.
As an architect that works with the community, one of the most important things we can do in our profession is to listen and to be able to take people's feedback and provide successful outcomes. I think everything has a solution if you engage with empathy, that's why I give this book to every leader. I want everyone to know that they have value.