Kelly Haigh AIA LEED
Partner, President, designLAB architects
Bachelor of Design in Architecture, Master of Architecture, Master of Science in Architecture Pedagogy, University of Florida
Mission-driven community, education, and arts work; Critical Stewardship of spaces and places
It has been really fun explaining to my boys what I do for a living, because their understanding deepens with time. As toddlers, they saw my career through the eyes of Iggy Peck and Rosie Revere (must-have children’s books for all architects) which was a delightful way to introduce them to the profession. As they got older, I brought them to openings, performances, and photoshoots at quite a few buildings “I helped make.” Now, with them aged 5 and 7, the conversations are more focused on the process of design and construction itself: how we work with people, how we draw and share our ideas, how we protect the planet with the choices we make. I also try to bring them into the office fairly regularly so that they have a more personal understanding of the people I work with, the fun things we make (they’re huge fans of the laser cutter) and the fact that my work is a place that brings me a lot of joy. I want them to see that for themselves.
I would tell myself to trust my voice and intuition. I joined
designLAB immediately after graduate school and will celebrate 15 years
next summer, which means I have faced all major milestones—in work and
life—within a single professional space. I know that is fairly unique in
this field, and I believe the reason my work continues to be fulfilling
is that the firm is continuously evolving. Along the way, my voice and
intuition have been a part of that evolution, as have my really
incredible partners and colleagues.
My career made me a Bostonian, which I had never expected. I grew up in Okeechobee, a small ranching town in the interior of Florida. After college I decided to move to Boston, imagining a few years of city living before moving closer to home. I had no idea I’d make a life here—that I’d raise my children here.
My career has also allowed me to visit so many places I likely would not have otherwise seen, from revived urban environments like Corktown, Detroit and Little Rock, Arkansas, to endless cornfields in Iowa and the Mad River Valley in Vermont. I love to see the many diverse ways that people craft a lifestyle, and of course the culture of architecture and design that is unique to each place.
My first building opening remains one of my most surreal and profound moments as an architect. I led the design of the Emery Community Arts Center in Maine from conceptual sketches through construction. It is the project that quite literally made me an architect.
On the night of the opening, I remember seeing this space—which I’d lived and breathed in for years in its theoretical, virtual incarnation—alive with people, music, art, and performances. And a surprising (and very humbling) thing happened: I was completely anonymous, without a single person knowing they were in “my building," which made me realize it was not, in fact, mine at all. It was theirs, and it belonged to the people in that community.
That experience fundamentally changed my outlook on this profession, and I think of it often. We can have love and pride for the things we make, but the moment we give these spaces over to the people, they become real. Stepping away can sometimes be bittersweet, but to me it’s the most beautiful moment in any project.
I believe complacency is one of the most challenging barriers to equity. Completely re-designing the systems that created today’s inequities is an immense task, but not an insurmountable one. We need to urgently and creatively find ways to tackle inequities, even if that means that the full benefit may take decades to come to fruition. For example, issues that affect the professional pipeline, design education, and professional leadership may take many years to fix, but solving them requires total commitment right now, in this moment. And while the time scale for creating a wholly equitable profession can feel daunting, it can also be empowering, because there is something every single person can do to move the needle.
So while we can celebrate incremental change, I hope we never become
complacent with it, because each small win is momentum toward our next,
even greater aspiration.
What is the most effective step you’ve taken in your work toward a more sustainable built environment?
We spent many years collaborating with the Hitchcock Center for the Environment to create a Living Building that reflected their values and instilled a love of nature in all users. In 2019, their new headquarters was named the 23rd Certified Living Building by the ILFI, which was a profound achievement for both Hitchcock and designLAB. And while the LBC process was an invaluable deep dive into all facets of sustainable practice, upon reflection we’ve found that the subject of biophilia has been the greatest value-add to our ongoing design work.
The majority of our clients come to us with sustainable aspirations, so energy reductions, healthy materials, and reduced carbon tends to be an easy pitch. However, as Hitchcock taught us, humans are not outside of nature; we are part of it, so it’s not enough to simply have no adverse impact. Instead, every building we make has the potential to help people fall in love with their natural environment and to teach them how to care for their buildings in a way that is sustainable and transformative.
Biophilia is something we advocate for in every project, and it can
manifest in many ways that are unique to the users, program, and place.
To us, integrating it into buildings is one of the most exciting opportunities we have as designers,
because people who love nature will be more thoughtful stewards of it.
The greatest potential for architecture is for the community to feel ownership of it, to see themselves as agents and stewards of the space. I believe to get there you need two fundamental steps. First, making sure that you’re engaging the community with the sincere purpose of knowing them. That might take neighborhood liaisons, creative data collection, historical research, and even challenging meetings and outreach—but you cannot reflect what you do not truly see. The second step is trusting that community to contribute to the project, and leaving space for this.
We often feel compelled to solve all problems in the name of
efficiency, but we need to prioritize spaces for the community to bring
something unexpected or adapt over time. To me, nothing is more exciting
than revisiting a project years later and seeing people use the space
in ways we designers could have never imagined, which only happens if they are
given space to adapt and grow, like galleries, community rooms, mixing
zones, and plazas—the often-overlooked in-between spaces. Buildings
should live and change with time and the people who inhabit them, so
trusting the community to do that well is a really beautiful thing.
One of the things I appreciate most about my design education from University of Florida is that it taught me to draw inspiration from things both profound and mundane. Most projects began with a conceptual study rooted in a specific source. Music, movies, graffiti, environments, artists, artifacts, and decay are just a few examples of what laid the groundwork for my favorite projects. A unique narrative that grew from each source ultimately underpinned the designs.
Now in my professional work, I try to initiate projects in a similar way, often looking at the people, culture, context, history, and sometimes even pre-history of a place to inspire the design investigation. At designLAB, we call this Critical Stewardship, a process during which we dig deeply and leverage the past for the future.
To me, finding inspiration is the easy part. The greater challenge is giving yourself the time to wander about in it, developing the discipline to revisit it throughout the design process, and holding yourself accountable to embedding it within the built work. We try to be very mindful of returning frequently to the question of inspiration in all phases, not only just to benefit the work, but to make the process of design much more enriching and professionally fulfilling.
The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking and My Moment: 106 Women on Fighting for Themselves, collected by Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Najimy, Linda Perry, Chely Wright, and Lauren Blitzer. I find myself going back and forth between them as a nice balance of joy and power.
Read them both, and while you’re at it also read Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. It is my most recent favorite and often cited.