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People of Industry – Richard Briginshaw

November 2, 2015

by Bernie Desjardins

Richard Briginshaw has been designing for the construction industry for the past 35 years. Principal at Richard Briginshaw Architect, he also currently coordinates the Green Architecture Program at Algonquin College, where he has taught architecture since 2008. In recognition of his contributions to architectural design and education, such organizations as Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the University of Texas and Algonquin College have honoured Richard with numerous prestigious awards in recent years. Richard supports using new technologies in the design and production of buildings to make them more eco-friendly than those of the past. But more than that, he is making it happen.

When Richard Briginshaw became involved in building design, he developed a particular interest in prefabricated construction. He was attracted to the efficiencies that manufactured building offered, and saw an enormous potential for facilitating customization and streamlining construction processes in the factory environment.

Thirty-five years later, Richard still appreciates the quality assurance and control that characterizes factory-based construction, inevitably resulting in a superior product. “It is easier to produce a good air barrier under controlled conditions,” he says, adding that “workers are safer and more comfortable, and the lighting is better; advantages such as these allow you to build a better envelope.

Richard says, “the precise attention to detail afforded by indoor construction is the best way to ensure the consistency of the thermal envelope.” This is paramount when designing and constructing energy-efficient buildings, he says, pointing out that even in Canada, very minimal heating system capacity is required for highly insulated, airtight buildings—a recent net-zero home design called for small electric heaters operated using photovoltaic panels.

Beyond the opportunities to reduce a home’s energy consumption, Richard likes the fact that, thanks to process control, there is little or no material waste when building indoors—”every cut is pre-planned,” he says. He also appreciates that prefabricated construction significantly minimizes disturbance to the building site. He notes that sediment wash—something that is potentially harmful to the surrounding environment—can be caused by vehicles transporting materials and workers to build a home onsite over an extended period of time, and the disturbance to the area around a site-built house under construction can cause the soil to be carried away by rainfall into the surrounding drainage basin. Since manufactured buildings are delivered to the building site in a state of near completion, there is little disturbance to the local landscape.

So why doesn’t everybody build this way? “There is a need for education about newer methods,” Richard says. Population growth, especially in cities, is putting pressure on the industry to efficiently provide high-quality housing that is nonetheless affordable. “Ultimately, builders must be brought on board.”

“There is some resistance to change within the construction industry,” Richard explains, “and converting from building onsite to manufacturing buildings could be disruptive for some builders. “We should make efforts towards transition to increased manufacture of buildings by starting with the prefabrication of some components while continuing with site-based construction.” He points out that onsite builders already “prefabricate” in a manner of speaking—they assemble the stud walls of a site-built house before standing them up and joining them together, for example, and trusses arrive at the site already assembled. There is much potential, in Richard’s view, for using prefabricated components in all types of buildings. “Repetition is the name of the game. When processes are established, they can be reused, but modified. The designer’s challenge is to assemble prefabricated components in unique ways— commercial, retail, offices, etc.”

Professor Briginshaw’s work within the Green Architecture Program at Algonquin College has produced some impressive results. In the past several years, his students have participated in such sustainable design initiatives as the Home Sweet Home Student Challenge, the Ottawa Eco-Logical Student Green Building Competition, and the U.S. Solar Decathlon. “Public perception can be influenced,” Richard says, and his efforts to increase awareness of the necessity for sustainability at the design stage are accomplishing just that. In 2015, Algonquin students worked with Abbeyfield Houses Society of Canada to develop a prototype modular design for seniors’ housing that could be built across Canada, and they worked with the Canada Aviation and Space Museum to design a modular infill building for classroom and training space for students in Algonquin’s Aviation Technical Training program. They also designed a home for the “Race to Zero” net-zero energy home design competition.

Richard Briginshaw and his students are taking theories of sustainability and putting them into practice with environmentally friendly, prefabricated design and construction. Meet the next generation of Canada’s construction industry.