Eric Corey Freed, lead architect at organicARCHITECT, is a pioneer in Frank Lloyd Wright’s tradition of Organic Architecture. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Eric has worked around the United States designing some of the country’s most beautiful buildings. He has been named San Francisco Magazine’s “Best Green Architect” and “Best Visionary”, 7x7 Magazine’s “Green Visionary”, and listed both as one of the 25 “Best Green Architecture Firms” and the “Top 10 Most Influential Green Architects”. He has authored four books, gives regular talks around the country, made numerous TV appearances, and sits as chairman on multiple boards. More about Eric here! But above all, Eric Corey Freed is a Face of Sustainability regularly involved with Spaces of Sustainability, a perfect subject for our blog. I had the opportunity to interview Eric this past week and here are some excerpts from our interview:
Austin: If you had to sum up the slogan you work by, what would it be?
Eric: Designing a building that takes responsibility for its impact, expresses itself beautifully, and seeks to be in harmony with nature. It's aspirational. It's a goal. We reach for it and fail, but it's a goal and it's a much different goal than most or pretty much all buildings are built towards.
A: What led you to your ideology? Was there a moment that brought you to your philosophy?
E: There was a lifetime of moments. I grew up in Philadelphia on the west side in a pretty concrete, urban landscape. But there was this golf course behind my house. My house is literally on City Line Avenue. My house is Philadelphia and if you cross this fence it was no longer Philadelphia, it was Pelican Woods. I was on the border of the city and my side was very concrete, but the other side was this lush, green natural landscape. So it just became where we would all explore. That kind of started it off.
And then the next big moment was when I went with my parents to see the Beth Sholom Synagogue by Frank Lloyd Wright, the only Frank Lloyd Wright building in Philadelphia. It was the first time that I saw that a building could connect to something bigger than ourselves, it could connect to nature. And that was the moment when I realized, oh I can connect these interests together and there was an opportunity to be a type of architect I didn't know was possible.
A: Have you had a favorite project or experience in your career?
E: It doesn't really work like that. When you get a project, first there's a design process, which involves a lot of questions and interviews with the client and you design the project once, in your head. Then you put it to paper and design it a second time. And then you put it into construction documents and you design it a third time. And then you build the thing and you're designing it a fourth time. So when I'm done with it, I'm kind of sick of it, by that point. You're a different person by the end of it, you've come out of it changed because of what you learned. I look at the old ones and look at them fondly, but the new ones, all I think now, if I had to do it again, how would I do it better? But whatever I'm working on now is what I've most interested in.
A: Do you have a favorite or most inspiring place?
E: Oh yeah, well there's a lot of those. Whenever I travel to a city, I do a little research, and see what I should check out. Probably my favorite of all time, and one I go back to all the time, is Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright.
A: How do you address those who see sustainable building as too expensive?
E: Well usually the people who say that have no experience with sustainability. "Green buildings cost more", well have you ever built a green building, "no", then how do you know they cost more? The reality of it is that it's complicated, like everything else. Like the word “costs”. Costs when? The green buildings I build have no utility costs. They generate their own power, so we don't get an electric bill. So it's not more expensive. What you're really saying, is the upfront cost is cheaper. But it isn't. For example, if I design a house to be oriented towards the sun and have the windows open so we can get air moving in and out when we want, I can reduce the size of the mechanical systems, the size of the heater and air conditioning system. I immediately save you money. And then I take that money and use it for better windows, more energy efficient walls. So really the reality of it is the building costs what it costs. The client gives you a budget and that's all you have to spend. They can't magically make more money.
So whenever I talk green features, I immediately look for what other features we are eliminating for these green features, so we can save money, and what are the long-term life-cycle cost-benefits. Could I build a bigger building if I used the cheapest, toxic nastiest materials? Yeah, I probably could. Wouldn't be prettier, just cheaper. And bigger. But would you really want to live in a building like that? Or what about a well-designed building that won't cost you as much to operate and has long term health, energy, and water benefits? So the idea of cost is the critical part. In truth, the buildings don't cost more, they cost less.
A: Your views on the future of the city? On urban development and sustainability?
E: Well the trouble is that most of the big thinking has been if you could build a new city. But the truth is we don't build new cities. We don't go to the middle of nowhere and say, let's build a city here. The real work is how do you transform existing cities, especially in the suburbs, into something more sustainable. And that's a lot harder because you're dealing with the existing realities and sometimes those realities aren't very conducive to what needs to be done. So I'm obsessed with ideas like that. How do you take a typical American suburb and transform that into something walkable and community-focused? And the way you do it is like any design problem. You look at what you've got, what you have to work with, and what are the opportunities to generate output. So if you take a typical big store parking lot, like Home Depot’s, usually it's about 15 acres and it's way bigger than it needs to be. They buy these huge parking lots, way bigger than they need to be, and they're never full. They don't fill up at Christmas time like a mall does. So Home Depot's parking lot is only ever half-full, even at it's busiest time which is Saturdays. But what if instead that 15 acres was used to generate electricity or produce oxygen or produce food? Suddenly there's an asset being produced on the property, the property has more value, and you're creating something beautiful at the same time.
A: How can we change attitudes towards sustainability?
E: (laughter) Well it depends on the person, right? Is it the consumer, the developer, the building code official? The stakeholders are all different. But maybe you don't need to convince them. Maybe if we change the building codes or get the neighborhood involved, then anybody coming in to build something will have to comply. On the one hand we do need to get everybody to want to do these things, but that can take a lot of time. In fact that has taken a lot of time. The entire environmental movement has been dedicated to that approach. It's too slow, it doesn't work. We need a multi-pronged approach. We need everybody to want to do it, but we also need to change perceptions about it, change the building codes, and then we need to change the manufacturing industry to make sure all these products are available to them. All these things are going on at once. That's basically what's happened in the last ten years, how we've shifted our focus from winning everyone over to a nuanced approach from all directions.
A: What role does space play for sustainability? How do spaces impact us consciously or unconsciously?
E: I think most people are kind of unaware of how it affects them. They have these many experiences if they go to something special like the theater to see a broadway play or something. That's an experience. The architecture is contributing to that experience, how you walk into the building, what you see, dealing with the crowd. I don't think those experiences need to be reserved for those special occasions. I think that you can have them everyday, in your house, in your office. It doesn't have to be relegated to the special few. Plus there's interaction with space you don't even realize. The next time you're on an elevator...the doors open, someone walks in, don't move. Just stay where you are. See how uncomfortable you make everybody. Normally you step to the side, you don't even realize it, but someone walks in and you step to the side. Don't move, just stand there, and then they come in and be uncomfortably close for a while. And they won't say anything because people are too polite. But it's fun to mess with people in that way.
A: Any upcoming events you’d like to share?