K+BB Collective | The Designers' Corner

Eric Corey Freed

Eric Corey Freed

Eric Corey Freed is executive director of Urban Re:Vision and principal of organicARCHITECT, an architecture and consulting firm in San Francisco with nearly 20 years of experience in green building. Freed currently teaches the Sustainable Design program he developed at the Academy of Art University and University of California Berkeley Extension and sits on the boards of Architects, Designers & Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), Green Home Guide and West Coast Green, as well as the advisory boards of several other organizations. He was the founding Chair of Architecture for The San Francisco Design Museum and a cofounder of ecoTECTURE: The Online Journal of Ecological Design. His column at GreenerBuildings.com is syndicated to more than a dozen other publications, and his quarterly column in Luxe Magazine is seen by thousands around the country. Freed lectures frequently, has appeared on HGTV, The Sundance Channel and PBS, and is the author of Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies, Sustainable School Architecture and Green$ense for Your Home. His work has been featured in Dwell, Metropolis, Town & Country, Natural Home and Newsweek. Architect and critic Philip Johnson once described Freed as "one of the real brains of his generation."

Nov 06 2012

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What Hurricane Sandy teaches us about our built environment

The profession of Design is about to drastically change. If you’re an architect, engineer, planner or builder, the way you build is about to undergo some radical new transformations.

2012 is on track to become the warmest year on record, with some 40,000 temperature records broken in the United States this year alone. In addition, Arctic sea ice melted to a record low this year, further adding to a grim list of milestones and warning signs that most people are ignoring.

Both candidates running for President failed to once mention Climate Change during the 4-1/2 hours of debates. This is the first time since 1984 that has happened, and a sign that the carnival that has become our election process is unable to focus on what is truly important.

In short, President Obama admits climate change is real and raised minimum fuel efficiency standards in August 2012. Governor Romney isn’t sure if climate change is manmade or not and changes his views on whether it exists at all. His energy policy advisor is oil baron Harold Hamm, so he wants to eliminate foreign oil, pushing for “North American” sources of oil. Romney stated “there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue—on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution and the severity of the risk—and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.”

[For the record, you can view President Obama’s stance on Climate Change hereGovernor Romney’s stance here.]

In spite of this silence, most environmentalists have been waiting for a tragedy to occur to wake up our policy makers. I tend to think it follows Winston Churchill’s famous indictment of Americans: “I always count on Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted every other possible option.”

Hurricane Sandy, the storm that has crippled New York and Philadelphia (and leveled Atlantic City), has left our largest cities without power, transportation and most fundamental services. Some in the media have called it a “Frankenstorm,” which may be appropriate both because it hit on Halloween week and because of how unprecedented and powerful it is. But more importantly, it is a sign of storms to come and a brutal introduction to what is now the “new normal.”

Hurricane Sandy highlights the extreme vulnerability of our transportation and electricity infrastructure. To millions, climate change suddenly just became very real and very expensive. The Atlantic has a wonderful map showing the (still) flooded areas of New York as a grim predictor of things to come.

With economic losses of up to $20 billion, Hurricane Sandy is the disaster that could finally wake everyone up from their stupor. This would make it the costliest hurricane to ever hit the Northeast and perhaps what is needed to change our policies to address our climate. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, power outages in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have “shattered records” with over 3 million without power.

In New York City, the transit system carrying 5.2 million passengers a day and essential to the city’s economy is flooded. The Wall Street Journal reported on the corrosive effect of flooding salt water on subway tracks and tunnels. Thanks to an already rising water table, the MTA’s 300 pumping rooms daily remove around 13 million gallons of water from its network of tunnels, and that’s on a dry day. The flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy could take up to four days to to pump out, according to MTA officials.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday morning that the city and the state may have to consider building a levee to protect lower Manhattan, where waters rose 10 feet above flood stage. “It is something we’re going to have to start thinking about.” Mr. Cuomo said. “Anyone who thinks that there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality,” Mr. Cuomo said. “We have a new reality, and old infrastructures and old systems.”

A week before the Hurricane, the Center for Biological Diversity awarded their “Rubber Dodo” award to Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe. This award is given annually to those who have done the most to drive endangered species extinct. The Oklahoma Republican has done more to push the “anti-science” climate denial than any other member of Congress. Kierán Suckling, the Center’s executive director said, “Senator Inhofe gets the 2012 Rubber Dodo Award for being at the vanguard of the retrograde climate-denier movement.” Suckling continued, “Deniers like Inhofe, in positions of leadership, are dooming future generations of people to a far more difficult world.”

Just this past July, Bill McKibben of 350.org wrote an incredible piece in Rolling Stone highlighting that it way already be too late. Scientists agree that 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide is the limit we can release into the atmosphere. Yet, the oil in reserves (already sucked out of the ground and slated for burning) will pump 2,795 gigatons into your air, crushing the limit by almost five times what is acceptable. Even if we could magically stop this fuel from being consumed, it would send shockwaves throughout the economy. As Thomas Friedman of The New York Times puts it, “We can either have a hard decade or a bad century.”

Architects, designers and planners can no longer sit by and think this does not apply to them. We need to redesign and rebuild our infrastructure. This is no longer a matter of simply adapting to a warmer planet. Hurricane Sandy has shown we must re-engineer the country and do it right away. For a glimpse of the future of the profession, take a look at the incredible work of Architecture for Humanity (and donate or volunteer while you’re there.)

If you want to help the millions affected by Hurricane Sandy, I urge you to sign this petition and also donate to the American Red Cross.

—Eric Corey Freed is principal of organicARCHITECT, an architecture and consulting firm in California, and author of four books including “Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies.”


Oct 25 2011

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GreenBuild 2011: Report from Toronto (Part 2 of a series)

Eric Corey Freed continues his report from the trenches of the largest Green Building Conference in the world


(BE SURE to read Part 1.) Despite the milestone, there was almost no mention of this being the 10th anniversary of the GreenBuild Conference & Expo. With the exception of a single display (at the top of the escalators between the halls), there was no other mention of a decade of impact. The focus of the show was clearly on the future, not lingering in the past. Besides, the 23,000 plus attendees had just barely survived the worst recession in 80 years, a recession that continues to pummel the building industry. This 10th anniversary would pass with little fanfare.

The mood in the halls was upbeat, optimistic and generally positive. (You may say that is because we really have no place to go but up.) In talking with hundreds of attendees, the real reason is more exciting. The source of this hope and confidence comes from a simple place: The built environment is a mess and it needs to be redesigned. It needs to be redesigned now. For a convention hall full of designers, this is cause for excitement. It was setting in that the world is going to need their services.

SOURCE: GreenBuild Expo

And so it was that practically the entire Green Building movement gathered in Toronto in the first week of October to share their knowledge, connect with colleagues and discover the latest innovations. The opening plenary session of the conference was held in the vast Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Within the stadium crowd you’ll find green building pioneers, such as Lynn Simon, Rob Watson and Alex Wilson.

The plenary began with customary remarks by USGBC CEO and president Rick Fedrizzi in an unsurprising introduction. This was followed by a shameful product plug by the sponsor of the plenary, David Kohler. The audience was patiently waiting for the main event.

rick opening

As keynote speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman seemed the perfect fit for the forward-looking theme of this years conference. At first his talk started off badly, reading from his new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. It was rigid, poorly delivered and incredibly depressing. Everyone in the room knows all too well how screwed up the Earth is, and his reading wasn’t helping. But then, something changed. Friedman stopped reading and came to life.

He morphed into a tent revival preacher, and the result was incredibly effective. The crowd reacted and perked up. “Our future doesn’t have to be used up,” Friedman announced, “provided we fix what needs fixing today.” In a matter of minutes, he connected the 1979 film The China Syndrome and the Three Mile Island nuclear incident (occurring just 12 days after the film’s release) to 30 years of failed energy policy. “[These events] had a huge effect on America’s energy future,” he said, “and we didn’t compensate with energy efficiency. Instead we furthered our dependence on fossil fuels.”

He continued to connect recent events, such as the failure of the banking industry in 2008, with decisions we made three decades ago. “It’s not an accident that the Bear Stearns and Polar Bears faced extinction at the same time,” he proclaimed. Friedman points to what he calls a “distorted growth loop,” in which a faulty accounting in both the markets and in Mother Nature under-priced risk, privatized all of the gains and socialized the losses. Causing, as he said, for “our children to pay for it down the road.”

SOURCE: GreenBuild Expo

Though there were many gems within the speech, his big call to action came when he asked the audience to take back this Green Revolution. As he pointed out, “Have you ever been to a revolution where no one gets hurt? This isn’t a revolution, it’s a party!” To explain, Friedman noted, “How can it be a revolution where BP causes the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and gets off without punishment; or Exxon has the highest profits of any corporation? That’s not a revolution, that’s a party!”

Friedman said it will be a true revolution once we can take back the name. For example, instead of “green buildings,” they will simply be called “buildings.” He added, you won’t be able to build a building “unless it meets the highest levels of efficiency.” That is when we know it will be a true revolution.

Friedman explained how oil, coal and gas are fossil fuels and therefore are vanishing commodities. On the other hand, solar and wind are technologies. Commodities always go up in price with demand. Technologies always go down in price with demand. The first cell phones were expensive, but as they reached ubiquity, they plummeted in price. These “price signals,” as Friedman put it, will be the final sign that our revolution is underway.

He brought the crowd to its feet with his closing comment. “You didn’t get the word that everything is hopeless and that our government is paralyzed,” he explained. “You continued and kept going. Be too dumb to quit; don’t get the word!” Friedman ended by saying that our “not getting the word” gives him hope.

Watch the entire opening plenary session here (http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=2543″ target=”_blank”>here (you’ll have to log in or create an account).

As the applause faded, Friedman was joined on stage by Dr. Paul Farmer, Chair of the Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard and author of USGBC’s Project Haiti, and the role of industry in the rebuilding efforts. But no one was really listening. Energized by Friedman’s talk, the crowd was already getting restless when it was announced that Apple founder Steve Jobs had just passed away.

Now to set the scene for you: Picture thousands of conference-goers packed into this Canadian hockey rink, their heads swimming with the insightful ramblings of a Pulitzer Prize winner and all desperately trying in vain to get their American cell phones to work to confirm the grim news (at international roaming rates).

I’d like to comment on the panel discussion, but it was nearly impossible to hear over the din of the crowd. (Watch the video above.) The sad news left everyone distracted. Instead, I went out into the concourse to toast to the memory of Steve Jobs with everyone else.

The plenary was coming to a close, but not before Rick Fedrizzi re-took the stage for his final remarks. Rick surprised us all with a moving, heartfelt and passionate presentation of his “news story from the future.” Set as a New York Times article from the year 2036, it imagines a cover story announcing the closure of the U.S. Green Building Council due to the completion of its mission: where every building was now a green building. The graphics were beautifully produced, perfectly timed to his speech and sent chills through the audience. “The mission of the USGBC has been accomplished,” he proclaimed (but speaking from the future.)

(At press time, the video of the graphical part of his presentation was unavailable, but you can watch Rick’s talking head portion of it in the video above at time code 1:58.)


Next up, Grammy award winners Maroon 5 took to the stage. Oddly enough, there are six of them, not five, but it continues the GreenBuild tradition of hiring eco-minded performers (rock goddess Sheryl Crow took to the GreenBuild stage in Phoenix in 2009). The band is supporting the fight against climate change with their bio-diesel buses and support of Environmental Media Association and Global Cool.

In my life, I have climbed pyramids, broken into castles and bribed Egyptian policemen, but I can tell you that you have not known fear until you’ve been smashed against the stage by a horde of screaming, crying women at a Maroon 5 concert. Judging by the crowd reaction, lead singer Adam Levine is very popular among female environmentalists, aged 22-62. His tight pants were the topic of much of the conversation.

The following day, everyone had a Maroon 5 song stuck in their head (it doesn’t matter which, as they kind of all sound the same). Here is one I think you’ll enjoy:

IN PART THREE: I’ll be discussing the show logistics and Closing Plenary session, including a talk from the “John Wayne” of the Green Building movement.


—Eric Corey Freed (www.organicarchitect.com ) is an architect and author of four books, including “Green$ense for the Home”). You can follow him on Twitter @ericcoreyfreed.

Oct 24 2011

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GreenBuild 2011: Report from Toronto (Part 1 of a series)

An insider view of the largest green building conference in the World


Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the GreenBuild Conference & Expo, is the largest gathering of architects, engineers, developers, contractors and builders involved in the greening of the built environment. With a hundred educational sessions and more than 1,000 exhibitors, GreenBuild is overwhelming, exhausting and exhilarating. Given the sheer size, it is the Olympics of conferences.

My own preparation starts weeks before by scheduling every minute with meetings, classes, interviews and parties. If done right, the show is a marathon, both physically and intellectually. Cards are exchanged, deals are made and strategic partnerships are formed. Every industry has its premier events, and GreenBuild is it for those of us in Green Building.

Held this year in Toronto, this was the first time the conference was held outside of U.S. borders (last year it was hosted in Chicago; the 2012 show is in San Francisco). Judging by the buzz among the many I spoke with, Toronto seemed to charm everyone. More than 23,000 attendees from 108 countries were in attendance (down from 27,000 last year, due more to the foreign venue than the economy, I believe.)

This years’ conference theme was simply “Next.” It seems quite appropriate. The field of Green Building has reached a certain critical mass over the past decade, prompting many new recruits to ask, “What’s next?” Even the USGBC’s own green building rating system, called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), has itself leveled off a bit.


As part of this idea of NEXT, several clear memes were present this year throughout the lectures and exhibitors:

Living Buildings: The idea of simply being “less bad” with our buildings is not enough. We need regenerative buildings to restore the environment from the damage we cause. The idea of “living” buildings and, more specifically, the Living Building Challenge rating system (http://www.ilbi.org) was all the rage this year.

Biomimicry: Popularized by the 2002 book by Janine Benyus, Biomimicry seeks to study Nature to learn her design secrets. A long time favorite among design students, Biomimicry is finally being applied to real-world applications in our built environment. Remember, human beings are not the first to build things. Nature has 3.8 billion years of research and development on us and knows how to build sustainably.

Green Schools: With more than one in five people working in a school building every day, the idea of green schools has emerged as one of the best places to start changing how we design our buildings. The USGBC’s 2010 spin-off, The Center for Green Schools, was represented at the conference, as was the great work of Brian Dunbar from the Institute for the Built Environment, Colorado State University, among others.

Eco Districts: Appropriately launched in Portland, Eco Districts are a new strategy to develop livable, walkable, sustainable neighborhoods. As an example, take a look at Pringle Creek, a growing sustainable community in Salem, Oregon. The ideas have taken hold and are starting to spread across the country. It’s also no coincidence that the EcoDistricts Summit is being held a couple of weeks after GreenBuild.

Benchmarking and Metrics: With this being the 10th GreenBuild, it is fitting that many are taking a decades’ worth of valuable data and putting it to good use. Many of the talks and exhibitors showed off various forms of benchmarking tools and case studies. Building dashboards were a clear standout at the show, with dozens of different versions. My two favorite systems came from Lucid Design Group and Schneider Electric. Such systems will be standard issue in a few years.

Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs): Ushering in a new wave of manufacturer transparency, an EPD is a complete lifecycle assessment (LCA) of any material, product or even a system. It goes beyond a mere Material Safety and Data Sheet (MSDS) and provides the full picture of the impacts, risks and environmental responsibility. It is no surprise that carpet maker InterfaceFLOR would be leading the charge on the EPD movement given its long history and commitment to sustainability. Expect most other manufacturers to follow suit, if only out of fear of being left behind. In 2009, UL (the safety company famous for ensuring our electrical devices won’t start a fire) spun off a subsidiary called UL Environment that is pioneering an EPD program for manufacturers. Much of the buzz on the show floor was about the possibilities of manufacturers embracing these EPDs.


Of course, there were dozens of topics outside of these categories, but these six concepts give a glimpse into what really is next for Green Building.

(NOTE: I was scheduled to speak on the topic of Innovative Green Residential, but that seemed too dry and I decided instead to present a new talk entitled “Dodo-Sapiens,” my rant on how our way of life is killing us and the need for living, bio-based buildings. The audience didn’t seem to mind. More on that later.)

The real conference occurs between the sessions in the hallways. Over the past decade, GreenBuild has become the place for networking, to see and been seen by the greatest minds in our sustainability movement. Seen roaming the conference halls are such visionaries as Amory Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute), Bill Browning (Terrapin Bright Green), Jerry Yudelson (Author & Consultant), and Gail Vittori (Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems). Or as I overheard: “If a bomb dropped [on the Toronto Convention Centre], the Green Building movement would be set back 30 years.”

IN PART TWO: I’ll be discussing the Opening Plenary sessions, including the fantastic keynote by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times.


—Eric Corey Freed www.organicarchitect.com) is an architect and author of four books, including “Green$ense for the Home”. (http://www.greensensebook.com )

Sep 21 2011

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The University as the True Hub of Green Innovation?

Stanford University has long held a tradition of innovation. The legendary tech startups, such as Yahoo and Google, that were founded by Stanford students in its hallowed halls is now the stuff of legend in SIlicon Valley. (In fact, Sun Microsystems got its original name as an acronym for Stanford University Network.) Billions of dollars have literally walked off campus, yet this atmosphere of innovation continues today. Other universities share in this tradition. At MIT, for example, alumni have founded 25,800 companies, which generate revenues of about $1.9 trillion a year.

While you could argue that if Stanford had an agreement that gave them even one-tenth of one percent of anything created by its students—it would have an endless endowment worth billions. But perhaps this would scare off the future tech billionaires from ever matriculating in the first place. Instead, what if a university could utilize its students as an in-house R&D (research and development) laboratory? Students would still be free to profit from their inventions, but the institution could benefit from the ideas in some way.

At a symposium for The Earth Institute at Columbia University, I met Sam Harrington, marketing director for Ecovative Design. It turns out that a similar innovation is currently happening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York. Instead of tech companies, it’s developing a new wave of innovative materials. Ecovative was started by RPI students who developed an innovative foam material derived from mycelium (a.k.a. mushroom fungi) called EcoCradle. In its current state, EcoCradle is a surprisingly affordable and effective alternative to oil-based Styrofoam. This “mushroom foam” could have thousands of potential uses.

Sam and I discussed the possibilities of eventually utilizing the foam as a natural, non-toxic and biodegradable alternative for building insulation. It could replace traditional, formaldehyde-based fiberglass. Imagine improving the indoor air and eliminating a known carcinogen from our buildings. Such bio-based materials will (eventually) radically improve the health and impact of our buildings. The challenge for Sam and small companies like his is finding real-world projects in which to test their creations.

Another type of innovation is happening at the Engineering department of Arizona State University (ASU) through a program called EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service). Begun in 1995, the EPICS program takes engineering students into real communities to design and build solutions.

Led by Richard Filley, EPICS has mentored hundreds of students over the past 16 years to develop sustainable projects in over a dozen countries. EPICS reminds me of a student version of Architecture for Humanity, one of my favorite nonprofits, which provides design services to people in need around the world. In its 12-year history, AfH has constructed hundreds of projects in 25 countries, from Haiti to New Orleans. Such models of community design are helping to redefine the modern architectural practice.

Now imagine a hybrid of all of these ideas: students applying an innovative approach to developing new materials to tackle our biggest sustainability challenges and applying them to real projects.

Engineering students develop new insulation or finish materials that Architecture students design into a real on-campus project. Business students crunch the pro forma financials to test out new types of financing for sustainable buildings. Policy students could explore new avenues in Public/Private partnerships for the projects. Construction Management students could assist with the construction, after which marketing students could conduct post-occupancy analysis of the finished project. Not only would the students earn a beautiful image for their portfolios and get to work in a truly interdisciplinary environment, but invaluable practical experience as well.

All of this was swimming around my head when I met with Doug Garofolo recently. Doug is part of the Facilities and Real Estate Services group at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn currently has several projects under development, from a new nanotechnology center designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architects to a new Law Building by KVA Architects. At any time, a couple of dozen other, small improvement projects are also underway, many done without the need of a permit. To me, all of these projects could serve as a testing and proving ground for the students. Who else but the University could absorb minor added risk and write it off as college credit? Students could take a class in this type of independent study, helping to offset any delays to the project spent on stopping to teach the students.

Virtually every large university has a department like Doug’s at Penn. They act as the liaison between the University and their architect (or as the architect themselves for smaller projects.) This idea would be a formalized internship. As it turns out, a University may be the only place left for students to get such experience.

Traditionally, a University is a great neighbor. It creates jobs, spurs development and attracts talent and a young workforce. It is invaluable to a city and should be part of any long-term redevelopment plans a city hopes to achieve. A building developed by (and for) a University is much better than anything even the greenest developer could create. Think about it: Universities are long-term tenants, have a great interest in the energy performance of their buildings, understand the value of design to attract students and maintain their facilities to last for generations. In addition, the modern-day University is the last group that is still as concerned with the exterior spaces around their buildings as they are in the buildings themselves.

Universities are the only clients in the development industry that still create anything resembling a “piazza” (public plaza) or address true walkability and livability around their projects. Traditional developers do the bare minimum to meet code and minimize costs. A University understands the long-term benefits of a well-designed campus.

So perhaps the University of the 21st Century can continue the tradition of innovation through bold. New projects that connect their greatest asset, their students, to the realities they address each day.

Eric Corey Freed