Eric Corey Freed, licensed architect, LEED ap practices a very special brand of architecture called organic architecture out of his firm organicarchitect in San Francisco.  Early in his career, Eric studied under an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, gaining an appreciation for and adopting Wright’s philosophy of organic design.  In his own practice, he has also become deeply involved in ecological and environmentally responsible architecture drawing from ancient design principles and new technological innovations.  He has co-developed the Sustainability Programs at the Academy of Art University and the University of California Berkeley Extension.  Eric is the author of four books including Green Building and Remodeling for Dummies, Sustainable School Architecture, and Green$ense for the Home.  He was named “Best Green Architect” in 2005 and “Best Visionary” in 2007 by San Francisco Magazine and “Green Visionary” by 7×7 Magazine in 2008.

This very accomplished and nationally renown leader in green building design is coming to Phoenix this Thursday to speak at Rogue Green thanks to Stacey Champion!  Don’t miss this amazing (FREE) opportunity to hear Eric speak and ask him questions from 6-9pm at The Duce, 525 S. Central Avenue!

I had the chance to interview Eric last week in anticipation of his coming to Phoenix this Thursday.  Below is our conversation:

Blooming Rock: I read that your firm was started in 1997, long before green building became such a fad.  What influenced you to be a relatively early adopter of green building?

Eric Corey Freed: My interest was purely selfish.  I saw that we were headed off a cliff and I wanted to make sure that that didn’t happen.  It was really as simple as that.  If you woke up one day and you found out that your career, your passion, the thing that you dedicated your whole life to turned out to be the very thing that was poisoning the environment, it would be like waking up tomorrow and realizing you’re a tobacco farmer or a cigarette manufacturer.  That’s what it was like to learn about the impact that buildings have on the climate.  Buildings have the worst impact than any other industry.  Nearly half of all carbon emissions come from our buildings.  Seventy-two percent of our electricity goes into our buildings and 40% of our materials go to our buildings.  So how could you be an architect, and know that and not do something about it?

Blooming Rock: What is your definition of organic architecture?

Eric Corey Freed: Organic architecture is really a reference to Frank Lloyd Wright.  I studied under students of his and he’s really what I’m aspiring to.  To me, organic includes sustainability but it includes so much more.  Sustainability is woven throughout every decision.  But what it (oraganic architecture) really means is that we’re building the way nature would build, similar to the biomimicry movement you see today.  Organic architecture would be buildings that almost appear to grow from the site.  They use natural materials, they respond to the conditions around the site, and they respond to the needs of the people who would inhabit the building.  That’s truly organic architecture.  Sustainability is only half of that issue.  There’s still a whole other half to go.  But unfortunately, most architects aren’t even practicing sustainable design.  So I spend most of my time educating them about that.  But I imagine in the future, I’ll be lecturing as much about the importance of design, and ways to influence creative design, as I do now about sustainability.

Blooming Rock: As a follow up to that, I noticed you use the word ecological alongside organic, what distinguishes one from the other?

Eric Corey Freed: The way I’m looking at it (organic architecture) is the way Frank Lloyd Wright looked at it, which is the way nature builds.  We plant a seed as an idea, it grows, it responds, it adapts and adjusts to the environment.  (The words) sustainability and ecological are really two sides of the same coin.  They’re addressing what I’m referring to as responsibility.  So if you’re an architect, if you’re a builder, if you’re a contractor, if you’re a developer and you create a building that wastes energy and wastes water and wastes resources and line the inside walls with known cancer-causing chemicals, that’s not ecological, nor is it sustainable.  In fact, it’s quite irresponsible.  To me, sustainability is about responsibility.  It’s about taking responsibility for the things we bring into the world. Simply because the building codes don’t prevent you from using cancer-causing chemicals in your building doesn’t mean that you should still use them.  Simply because the building codes only require a minimum amount of energy efficiency doesn’t mean that we can’t surpass that.  It’s really about taking responsibility.  And more and more builders need to take responsibility for how they build a building.

Blooming Rock: What are the 3 most important universal and timeless sustainable building principles in your opinion?

Eric Corey Freed: Principle number 1:  Passive solar orientation.  We orient every building, every project according to where the sun is and control the sun.  Do we want the sun to come into the building? Do we want it reflected away from the building?  Do we want it to heat the building?  Or do we want to keep the building cool?  Every building should be a passive solar building. The best part about it is, if you’re smart about it, it doesn’t cost you anything.  And it saves you money on your air conditioning and your heating system needs.

Principle number 2:  Passive cooling. A good designer will understand the site and will know where the wind is coming from and be able to harness and utilize that wind to keep the building cool when you want it to be.  It means being smarter about the placement of the windows and the skylights to not only let in the natural light, but to allow the breezes to move throughout the spaces and keep them cool naturally all without mechanical needs.  And again, if you do it right, not only does it not cost you money, it saves you money.

And Principle number 3:  You don’t take an entire landscape, flatten it out, cover it with asphalt,  plunk a big box on the center of it and call it architecture.  That’s not architecture, that’s destruction.  Instead, what you do is you build something on the site the way that nature would.  You embrace the landscape, you let the water go back into the ground where it belongs, you try to keep the site comfortable and cool, and use natural materials wherever possible.

Those are the big three (principles) I think. If every building did those three, it would solve almost all our problems in terms of the environment.

Blooming Rock: What are the top 3 technological innovations in green building you believe are going to have a real, long-lasting impact?

Eric Corey Freed: Even in the last 5 years, we’ve seen a lot of progress in 3 main areas.  And you’ll see a lot of movement in the next 10.

The first one is monitoring.  Every building will start to have dashboards.  They’ll show up at the lobby, then they’ll start to show up on computer screens for anyone who logs in and wants to see the progress.  It’ll be similar to the dashboard you see on a Prius.  It shows you how much energy is coming in, how much energy is going out, how much energy is being produced, and not just energy, also water and gas and any other thing that’s measurable, it’ll measure.  You see a lot of buildings doing that now.  Having this type of feedback has an immediate 20% reduction in energy and water use.  So you’ll see more and more of these dashboard systems not only become available, but become inexpensive.

Number 2 would be solar.  You have to remember that solar panels have been commercially available for 60 years.  They’re not a new technology.  So solar isn’t the future of green building, it’s the present.  Every building could have solar on it now, the trouble is that most of the incentives are not quite there.  If you factor in all the tax breaks and incentives that oil and coal get and solar doesn’t, those subsidies keep the system going the way it is.  So we’re still not there yet, but inspite of that lots of people do solar. What we’re seeing now is where the panels are becoming more efficient, becoming cheaper to produce, and now they’re using concentrated solar, where mirrors are focusing the light onto a single solar panel and boosting the efficiency, sometimes 10 or 20 fold.  You’re going to see a lot more of that.

And the third innovation is public policy.  This one is a little harder to define.  What you’re seeing is small towns, large cities, entire counties, and in the case of California, entire states, saying we want every building to be a green building. So by mandate, we’re requiring you to build every building as a green building.  And you’re seeing that in places all over the country.  And you’re going to see more of that.  Especially when communities are saying, we can’t afford to be building wasteful, irresponsible buildings.  We just can’t afford it. It’s not a political issue, it’s not a hippie issue, it’s a survivability issue.  In order to meet the the carbon goals we need to meet just to survive, in order to cut our carbon levels to 1990 or pre-1990 levels, and just survive, we need to take drastic steps in terms of mandating green building across the board.  It’s for this reason that you see the city of San Francisco requiring all new buildings to be LEED Gold or above.  It’s why you’re seeing the state of California adopt a new green building code going into effect in January called CALGreen that is requiring that every building be a green building in terms of energy, water, indoor air quality and materials.  We have to, just to survive.  When more and more states realize that, they’ll jump on board.

Blooming Rock: What are some of the biggest misconceptions right now about green building?

Eric Corey Freed: There are two main misconceptions that are persisting and won’t go away.  They’ve both been proven false, but they’re still around and I deal with them on a daily basis.

The first one is that green buildings cost more.  Now we have data showing, decades of data, showing what can be done.  But more to the point, if you’re smart about it, a green building saves you money. The bulk of the impact of a building, the bulk of the cost of a building is in the operation of a building.  We get so fixated on the first two years of construction when they’re building the building, in truth that’s only 15% of the impact.  The other 85% comes in the operation.  When you think about it, it makes sense. Think about people living and working in a building, all that electricity, all that natural gas, all that effort, all those materials, all those resources going into the building, that’s what we need to focus on.  By making buildings that are efficient and inexpensive to operate, we save incredible amounts of money, some say 10 fold return on your investment.  So in other words, we can’t afford not to build green buildings.

But even on the up front cost level, what we’re finding is if I take a passive solar building, that utilizes the wind to keep cool, and uses the sun to keep warm, and I’m smart about it, not only did I not spend money on that, but I’ve immediately been able to reduce the size of the mechanical systems and I’ve immediately been able to reduce the size of the big asphalt parking lot around it.  In doing so, I don’t need all these other crazy things like retention ponds, swails and drainage that the code requires.  If I build more in terms of what the landscape would build, and in a more natural way, I can eliminate things that previously I would have been required to put in.  And this saves money.

The second misconception is that global warming isn’t real and if it is real, it’s not humans causing it. And maybe it is humans causing it but it’s not a threat.  Well, maybe it is a threat, but it’s not a threat in my lifetime.  It’s always some variation of that and it’s always given to me in that kind of order.

I was just giving a presentation to the city council and I probably shouldn’t say which city, but it was a pretty typical experience.  I explained why they need green buildings, how to make green buildings and how to mandate them. And there’s always at least one guy that stands up, and he’s always a white guy usually, and says, the science is still not there on global warming.  Global warming is happening, but it’s not manmade. So I go in my normal rebuttal mode and I say here, I have data and here’s the story, here’s the reality and actually, the jury is in.  In fact, it’s been in for a while.  The US panel of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change) released their final report in 2005 that says unequivocally that climate change is real, it is man made, it is happening because of our man made carbon emissions, and we need to do something about it.  That’s a scientific concensus across the entire globe.  There’s no debate.  The debate occurs in terms of politicians who don’t want to believe it, or don’t want to act or don’t want to put their necks on the line.  And the debate occurs in the media, which is reporting on the public perception and doing a bad job of it.

So he says that, and I rebut him.  And he usually ends up being frustrated and the guy today said, oh yes, you’ve got all these facts, you’ve got a zillion more facts than me, so I can’t debate you.  And I said, actually you can. That’s what a debate means, I’ve got the facts, so I win the debate.  That’s how it works. And he left angry, and I didn’t change his mind.  But at least everybody else in city council heard that and understood that his opinion was wrong.  We need to stop letting these old people bully us around just because they don’t want to believe that something is true.  You have to remember, physics doesn’t care if people believe in it or not.  It’s physics, it’s not my opinion.  It’s just science.  You could choose not to believe in gravity and you could go around telling everybody, I don’t believe in gravity, I don’t buy it, people are still debating it.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s still going to affect you and it’s going to affect all of us.  The sooner we realize that, the sooner we take action, the better off we’ll be.

Blooming Rock: How has being so open about your values and your strong stance on sustainability impacted your bottom line as an architect?

Eric Corey Freed: I can specifically recall many many times where I go into a meeting to meet with a potential client and I discuss my views on building where I did not get that job.  You could say it was because I said this (sustainability) was important and it’s going to be important to you and they got scared by that.  I can think of many more times where I did get the job but I probably would have gotten it anyway because I was so headstrong in my views.  To me, it’s not just a zero-sum game.

Let’s say I took a job, against my better judgement, a job that I knew was not a green building, and I said, alright, it’s just this one building.  But it’s not just the one building.  I wouldn’t be able to use it in my portfolio.  In fact, I would be embarrassed of it.  If I did use it in my portfolio, or worse, someone else saw it, it would attract more clients of the same type.  I’d get more clients that want to build wasteful, inefficient, toxic buildings which is not what I want but I’d be faced with more of that dilemma.

You’re asking the question whether it effects my bottom line.  It IS my bottom line.  It’s not like I go into these meetings saying this is an all or nothing proposition.  What I do is go into these meetings saying, you’re missing an opportunity.  You’re leaving money on the table.  You’re wasting money because you’re building buildings the wrong way.  And you’re building it that way simply out of tradition and because you don’t know a better way.  And I’m offering them a better way.

I can’t take those other (unsustainable) buildings.  Not just because of my bottom line, but I can’t take them because it would end up pulling me in the wrong direction, the direction I see a lot of my peers going in.  Where (they say), well, we’re going to take this one building and see what happens.  The same is true with the style.  I don’t like building traditional-looking buildings, buildings that copy the past.  So even those, if I took one, I’d end up getting more of them.

Martin Luther King said “There’s no wrong time to do the right thing.”  So in terms of your values, your ethics and your principles, as a business person, there’s not wrong time to start doing what you know is right.  You don’t have to wait until you have the right degree, or you’re certified, or you have enough classes or courses and you’re waiting for the right project to come along.  That project is never going to come along.  You’re never going to have a client that comes to you and says, “Oh please, I know you’ve never done this before, design me an innovative, completely green, off-the-grid building. I know your portfolio is filled with toxic, non-green buildings, but I think you can do it.”  This doesn’t happen.  That’s not reality.  The reality is you start doing the best you can and you’re very vocal about what you want to do and you try to do it.  And each time, you get closer and closer to what you want.

Now, 18 years into the practice, it’s much easier for me now.  Everyday it gets easier because I’ve got more experience, more credibility and more of a track record on what I want to do.  I didn’t spend those 18 years building things that I’ve regretted and then tried to overcome them.  I’d be screwed (if I did that).  So that’s why everybody needs to start immediately, right now, today moving down the path that they want to go on.  You can’t wait anymore.  You can’t wait until you’re confident or comfortable or have the (right) certifications.  Just start now, go now.  We’ve got a lot of problems now.  The sooner you start, the better off we all are.

Blooming Rock: What would you like all the architects out there to know about green building?

Eric Corey Freed: I’d like every architect to realize that every building should be a green building, that its not up to them to make that choice.  They’re professionals and as professionals, they have a service to provide.  They have a duty to provide that service well.  And they’re failing in that duty by providing toxic, inefficient, irresponsible buildings.  The sooner they (architects) realize that, the better.  They can’t keep waiting for clients to come and demand green buildings.  They already know that that is the way they should be going so let’s go in that direction, now.

Don’t be bullied around by your clients.  Don’t be bullied around by developers.  Insist that as a professional, this (green building) is the responsible thing to do.  Clients come to architects and say things all the time like can you make the hallway three feet wide?  Well yeah, that’s the building code. Do I really need to put in an elevator?  Well yeah, that’s required by the building code.  Do I really need to put in sprinklers?  Yeah, it’s a safety issue and it’s required by the building code.  So why then are we saying to clients that cancer-causing chemicals are fine, put those right in.  Are we really going to wait until the building code tells us what to do, to do the thing we already know is the right thing to do?  But that’s what most of the profession is doing and that irresponsible behavior has to change.  You have to realize that in the future, every building will be a green building whether you like it or not and you might as well embrace it now.

Blooming Rock: What would you like all the non-architects, all the lay people not in the building industry to know about green building?

Eric Corey Freed: I would like them to realize that they have a role to play.  Everybody has some say in how buildings are operated.  They have a say in how their homes are operated.  They have a say in how their workplaces are operated.  They have a say in how their schools or how their children’s schools are operated.  And in doing so, they can find opportunities to save energy, to save water, to save materials, to save resources and elimate toxins.  And you do this across the board.  And you have to do it by making smarter choices.  But, you don’t have to do it alone.  That’s the best part. You can team up with everybody else and we can all do it together.

And now there are hundreds and hundreds of case studies of people all over the world that have done it (made changes towards sustainability) and you can copy them.  You don’t have to reinvent the wheel at all.  If you want to green your office, we have on our website a free pdf where people can read about all the things they can do to green their office.  You can even go to officedepot.com and they have a list of things you can do.  There’s no excuse not to do it.  We’re all in this boat together and we can’t keep waiting for somebody else to take action.  We all have to do stuff now.  Twenty years ago, I remember saying to people, in 5 years everything will be different and every building will be a green building.  That was 20 years ago.  I didn’t realize how slow everybody would be, how they would drag their feet, how they would stall at every opportunity.  And in the mean time, we’ve run out of time.  Twenty years have gone by and we still have no comprehensive energy policy,  we still have no mandate for green buildings everywhere and we still have the same addiction to oil.  In fact, all three of those things are now worse than they were.  In order for them to get better, we can’t wait anymore.  We’ve run out of time, we need to act, now.

Blooming Rock: What are the most important things we need to change in our current building practices to ensure a healthy planet for future generations?

Eric Corey Freed: There’s not just one thing.  That’s the trouble.  Let’s break them down by category.  First, there’s energy. Most of our energy is made in inefficient ways producing a lot of carbon emissions.  So either we stop using carbon-emitting energy resources, like coal and petroleum, or switch over to clean energy and it really doesn’t matter how much energy you use.  If every bit of energy came from renewable resources, I wouldn’t care if you let your lights on all the time. So pick one.  In the mean time, we’ve got to go after both because we don’t know how it’s going to turn out.  So we’ve got to target energy efficiency and we’ve got to target renewable energy.

Then we have to do that very same thing with water efficiency.  Because afterall, all of us are flushing our toilets with clean drinking water while every 15 seconds, a child dies of thirst somewhere in the world.  And that, to me, is corrupt.  And we have to do it a third time for indoor air quality because we spend 80 or 90% of our time indoors.  We don’t get fresh air because we never go outside and we fill our buildings with known cancer-causing, harmful, toxic chemicals.  We know that they’re toxic, you know why?  Because they have a label that says, “Warning! Toxic”.  And we paint the wall with them and build our cabinets with formaldehyde and we glue down the floors with toxic glues and varnish them with more harmful chemicals.  And we wonder why the asthma rates have tripled in the last 20 years. So all three of those fronts (energy, water, indoor air quality) we need to attack and we need to defend ourselves really.

The trouble is, everybody is thinking, it can’t be that bad.  Yeah.  It’s that bad.

Notes:  Don’t miss hearing Eric Corey Freed speak about sustainability at this Thursday’s Rogue Green event at The Duce. Click here for more details.

Photo Credit:  An artistic rendition of using biomimicry in solar panel technology.  Photo from nanobioart.com.

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3 Responses

  1. Larry Cush says:

    Thats exactly it. We must recognize the total benefit of living in a healthy environment free from cancer causing materials. Factor the quality of life into the building and were light years ahead economically.
    Thanks for standing your ground building codes are not ethical.

  2. Philip Scott says:

    Eric gave a presentation at our showroom in Dallas a few weeks ago and it was electric. Amazing reactions happen when you lay out the unvarnished truth to a group (mostly) of Interior Designers who thought they’d signed up to get an easy CEU credit. He definitely stirred the waters. Brilliant stuff and worth checking out.

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