My friends over at Sensible City recently offered me the opportunity to interview Eric Corey Freed. It’s not everyday I get to interview someone who was just interviewed by the New York Times so I jumped at the chance. Even better, Eric is an "organic architect" and studied under a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright. I am getting married in October at Wright’s Arizona home, Taliesin West, so I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. Eric is involved in a tremendous design competition called Urban Re:Vision, and he describes how Dallas was chosen as the site for the competition: "The mayor, Tom Leppert, was fantastic. He’s got 30 years in the building industry and he understood Urban Re:Vision right off the bat. So the City of Dallas gave us this block next door to city hall and said ‘Here, this would be perfect,’ and everything kind of came together. Now we have what we always wanted, a real city block, with real stakeholders behind it and the winning entry will really get built." In Part I of the interview, Eric and I discuss "organic architecture" and the Urban Re:Vision competition in some detail. Eric also provides insight into liability concerns surrounding the competition. On Wednesday, we will discuss broader legal issues surrounding the green building industry and a controversy that arose over Eric’s New York Times interview.
Chris: Can you explain organic architecture?
Eric: Organic architecture comes from Frank Lloyd Wright. That was his term to describe what I am trying to do, which is to design buildings that don’t just assume; to seek out more creative and maybe unusual solutions, to kind of question everything in the building, and then to do this with an eye to nature and sustainability. I studied under students of Frank Lloyd Wright – the second generation of that lineage. Although Mr. Wright didn’t describe sustainability in his buildings, nobody did, we didn’t use those words back then. Mr. Wright’s buildings are among the greenest buildings we have. They were passively heated and cooled, they used natural materials and they used innovative thermal systems and building structural systems. So I really think of Mr. Wright as one of the first green architects.
Chris: How and why did you get involved with Urban Re:Vision ?
Eric: I got involved several years ago through founder Stacy Frost. Stacy really had a great vision of identifying problems she saw around our cities and urban areas and finding ways to make them more sustainable. Stacy also saw the need for an independent organization to come along and be an incubator for innovation and creative ideas because the normal system of planning codes, building codes and developer-led decisions doesn’t do that and it almost has the opposite effect of insuring a boring, run of the mill approach to design. Given the extensive problems we have, what we need most is some innovation. Stacey envisioned a series of design competitions open to everybody. Eventually we designed the competitions so that they focused on individual areas. The first five competitions were focused on things like alternative energy – we called that Re:Volt – and then alternative transportation – we called that Re:Route. We played with the names and the branding of it to encourage people to be more creative and we also wrote the rules in such a way so that people saw we did not want run of the mill ideas, we wanted innovation, that was the purpose of the competition.
Chris: Urban Re:Vision is going to result in the design and construction of an entire city block in Dallas?
Eric: After the first five, which were focused on really small things, we thought we would do these to facilitate ideas for specific green areas with the idea that the sixth competition would be for a real place. For the last two years we have talked to mayors and city councils all over the country and in those talks we realized what we wanted in a city and where we wanted it to be. We wanted it to be a place where you wouldn’t have expected. When the opportunity for Dallas came along it just seemed perfect. Dallas is a Midwestern city, it represents America in a certain sense. I liked it geographically because it is kind of in the center of the United States. Dallas is not where you would expect a sustainable city block to be located. The mayor, Tom Leppert, was fantastic. He’s got 30 years in the building industry and he understood Urban Re:Vision right off the bat. So the City of Dallas gave us this block next door to city hall and said "Here, this would be perfect," and everything kind of came together. Now we have what we always wanted, a real city block, with real stakeholders behind it and the winning entry will really get built.
Chris: If someone wants to submit an entry, what do they do?
Eric: Go to urbanrevision.com or revision-dallas.com, either one. Anyone can enter and the deadline is May 8, 2009. I recommend that people go to the site first and read the requirements. We spent a lot of time putting together background information on the site and the city, all of which would be useful to anyone approaching this. Really that’s it. The more ideas the better.
Chris: Are there certain criteria you are looking for in the winning project?
Eric: We broke up the criteria into four categories weighted equally. The first one is "Reality of Intent." In a certain sense, is it buildable? It is nice to daydream about floating buildings, but we are not there yet. We want something that pushes the envelope but is buildable. The second is affordability and constructability. We can’t have a gold plated building, its very important for this competition to serve as a model for other cities so that they can look at it and learn from it. We are making all the information available to other cities so they can use it in their own town or city.
The third one is on innovation and this is where we are really looking for you to push the envelope. We don’t want the typical developer block building that goes up three stories, sets back, and then goes up 15 stories and has windows all the same on all four sides. We have seen it before and there is nothing exciting and interesting about it. It is also the kind of thinking that has got us into this mess in the first place. The fourth and final criteria is on sustainability: use of sustainable energy, sustainable alternative transportation, sustainable community and sustainable construction. I think those criteria are a good balance of reality and fantasy that we want. Chris: Do you have specific liability concerns regarding the Urban Re:Vision design competition?
Eric: We do, obviously. We have an advisory board made up people that are in the field doing this everyday, and I am going on 20 years now of building unusual green buildings. The liabilities in sustainability go back to the same liabilities in any construction project. The one that kept coming up a lot was the green roof and that a green roof is prone to leaks. Another one that came up was the idea of using unusual structural systems. We are only going to be able to use what the building department will allow us to use so it probably won’t be made of twigs. I’m assuming the winning entry would be made of some structural system that could hold itself up. Otherwise, with all the people involved, the project wouldn’t get that far. So although we saw liability was an issue, we built it into the checks and balances down the road, to ensure what we build is buildable and approvable. Quite frankly, I personally think the biggest liability issue will be ADA and accessibility issue. I have a feeling that will be the thing that will end up haunting us. I am envisioning entries that are covered with plants that don’t have any ramps or walkways.