By Brandon G. Sprague, Brightworks Communications Team
We at Brightworks are frequently in conversation with clients, partners and the media about what’s new and what’s next in sustainability. Heading into 2012, we sat down with architect, innovator and thought leader Eric Corey Freed of organicARCHITECT to get his perspective on the future of green building. A frequent speaker and author of four books on sustainable design, Eric shared his views on the limits of “sustainable design”, the three most critical issues for the building industry in 2012, and the next waves of innovation.
Brandon G. Sprague: Organic Architecture is an approach to the design of buildings that has guided your career. How do you describe Organic Architecture?
Eric Corey Freed: For decades now, we’ve had this thing called “green building” or “sustainable design” which dictates that the designers, builders, owners, and operators of buildings orient them in certain ways and take responsibility for the energy, water, and materials used in them. Defined this way, sustainable buildings are pretty straightforward. Make “better” siting and material and building system choices and you make a “better” building by focusing on the nuts and bolts of the building’s assembly. Organic Architecture – which is the term Frank Lloyd Wright used for designing the way nature designs – looks beyond that, into how the form and structure is shaped by these natural principles.
Brandon: What are the similarities and differences between Organic Architecture and sustainable design as practiced today?
Eric: The way sustainable design is practiced today takes us only halfway toward where our built environment needs to go. Like a green building, an organic building would include passive solar design, natural materials, and innovative mechanical systems, but it would also look to nature to inspire the form of the building – the way the space is used to solve a problem. As a result, Organic Architecture often has unexpected forms derived from those found in nature.
Most buildings are built a certain way if only out of tradition. As members of the design and construction community, architects and builders often accept these customs without questioning them. Our buildings are inefficient not because we thought very hard and set out to intentionally create energy inefficient buildings. Instead, we’re simply mindlessly following old habits and doing what we’ve done before. Only later do we realize that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner. What we need is to step back and question the reasons we do the things that make our buildings inefficient.
Why do we seal off all the windows in buildings? Why do we ignore the fact that the southern exposure of a building will get much hotter than the other sides? Why do we design buildings that need lights on all day even when the sun is out? Because it’s always been done that way, we are told. Organic Architecture gives us an opportunity to be innovative not just for the sake of innovation but out of necessity, because we need to find smarter ways to manage our built environment and operate our buildings.
Brandon: A lot of innovation can seem hard to imagine, sometimes even hard to understand. But eventually the practical implications of the innovation become so clear as to make it commonplace. Can you give some examples of this from your work?
Eric: Solar panels are a 60-year-old technology. They’ve been around for a long time. They were available before I was born! We’re just now at a point where people think of solar panels as commonplace. We have solar panels now that are so integrated into the building that you aren’t even aware that they’re there – solar panels woven into the façade or part of a skylight or shading system, so that you don’t notice the panel. Instead you notice the architectural element. And how wonderful that it also generates electricity. The only thing that has changed is the awareness that they exist, the awareness of what they do, and the awareness of why they matter. Many of the things deemed “innovative” today will be commonplace in the near future. This is inevitable.
Brandon: What are the new frontiers in sustainable design innovation?
Eric: There are innovations in development that would freak people out. These seem far out, but they are the next logical step in which to take our buildings. We are working on self-healing materials that repair themselves when damaged or worn. We are working on biological materials based on plant material that literally grows. Soon, you will be able to grow your floor tiles or grow the insulation for your building. Over time, we’ll become more comfortable with these technologies and they too will become second nature.
Brandon: In the next 12 months, what are the three most critical things for people in the building industry to do to reduce the environmental impacts of buildings?
Eric: 2012 is a turning point for humanity. In the last 18 months, we’ve discovered that we’ve reached a point of no turning back on climate change. It’s here, and now we’ve run out of time. Here in the United States, we’ve seen some of the most unpredictable and erratic weather ever recorded. 2010 and 2011 were the hottest years on record. Some 2,500 different weather records were broken in this period. This crazy weather is just going to get worse. It is the “new normal.” This is just the way it’s going to be now on planet Earth.
Although we’ve been dragging our feet for 30 years, 2012 is a rise-to-greatness moment for all of us. Everyone is going to have to start looking at their energy footprint in terms of carbon emissions. Everyone is going to start looking at their building footprint in terms of resources. Our buildings will have to adapt to this quicker than ever before. So you’re going to see widespread retrofit technology in terms of heating and cooling as a response to this crazy weather. This is just how it’s going to be and it will force us to adapt whether we like it or not, because we’re out of time.
Click here for Part Two of my conversation with Eric, exploring the limits and potentials of technology, and why it’s easier to change a person than to change a building.