On the cusp of organic architecture
Even as a young child, Eric Corey Freed knew he wanted to be an architect. After growing up in Philadelphia and attending Temple University, he left for the west coast where he would open his own firm, become the Vice President of the International Living Future Institute, and be known as a leader in organic architecture.
Q. What sparked your interest in ecological architecture?
It wasn’t a spark as much as it was an answer. When I was in Architecture school, I started asking questions (pretty simple questions, really) about the reasons why we build the way we do. Many of the things we do don’t make much sense, so I asked “Why do we build like this when we know it wastes energy?” and similar type questions. I was probably the professors’ worst nightmare, but I was curious and confused. This was back in the 1980’s remember, during the height of Post Modernism and all of that crap, so no one but me seemed interested in taking responsibility for what we design.
Luckily, I stumbled upon a group of amazing architects who were doing amazing things. I reached out to them and they became my first mentors. People like Malcolm Wells, Bart Prince, Daniel Liebermann, and others gave me my secondary education in what I call “Organic Architecture.”
Q. While studying architecture in college, did you envision yourself becoming a leader in green architecture or opening your own firm in California?
I think I always knew I would have my own firm someday, if only because I worried I would not be able to find the right firm to call home. What I didn’t expect was that I would have to be such an effusive spokesperson for sustainability and smarter design.
California also wasn’t on my radar. I hated the idea of earthquakes. I grew up in Philadelphia, and longed to be in Seattle, Portland or Santa Fe. I ended up living in two of those places (so far).
I never thought I’d speak around the world, instead thinking I’d be hunched over a drafting table surrounded by crumpled up pieces of trace. In school, I probably never considered I would dedicate so much of my time to non-profit activities either. Today, most of my time is focused on my work with the (non profit) International Living Future Institute and our Living Building Challenge program.
Q. How do you define organic architecture? How does it differ from traditional architecture?
The term originally comes from Frank Lloyd Wright and he had an ever evolving definition of it. My own thoughts on it continue to change over the years, but to me “Organic Architecture” describes a way of designing the way Nature does, using materials, forms, and systems to mimic and respond to the Nature around the site, but also designing to work in tandem and harmony with Nature. Remember, Mr. Wright lived at a time where we didn’t realize or understand mankind’s impact on our planet, so the concept of “green building” didn’t exist. He was unaware of building related issues, like climate change, indoor air quality, drought, endocrine disruption, carcinogenic materials, deforestation, or resource depletion. I often wonder how he would design if he were still with us, and I aspire to that.
Q. What has been your inspiration or motivation to try to help the environment through your work?
You mean other than the very selfish idea of protecting the air I want to breathe, the water I want to drink?! My motivations actually go back to a much larger idea I have about professional responsibility of the things I bring into the world. Imagine dedicating your life to a noble and artistic pursuit, such as Architecture, and then finding out that your profession is responsible for half of the carbon emissions causing climate change. It’s like waking up to learn you’ve been making cigarettes! Knowing all that we know about how buildings impact the planet, how can anyone in the building profession continue with our old fashioned and toxic methods?
Q. What project or projects are you most proud of?
On every project, I look for a special connection to the site and the client. Whether it is a window that frames a special view, a room that connects to the surrounding site, or an odd idiosyncratic quirk of the client that shapes the design… I want something special that transcends the walls and roof.
I get obsessed with my current projects, and once they are done, I don’t spend much time thinking about them. If I did, I would drive myself crazy thinking about the things I would change or do differently this time.
Q. What inspires you to write and educate people on green architecture?
The thought of getting out and impacting more people really started in 2001. I was getting impatient with affecting only my clients (2-4 people at a time) and wanted to reach more people, more quickly. After September 11th, I made a conscious decision to step away from the day to day of managing the projects and to start teaching, writing, speaking and consulting. I didn’t know if I would make any money doing those things, or even if I would enjoy them, but I wanted to try and see if it could reach more people. In that first year, I taught 100 people, lectured to over 1000 and wrote articles read by thousands more. After that, I was hooked.
Q. What advice do you give to people who want to make their homes more environmentally friendly?
There are opportunities at every scale to do things to improve your home’s energy, water and health. Most of them are things that even make sense for renters. I even wrote a book covering these exact things (“Green$ense for the Home: Rating the Real Payoff from 50 Green Home Projects”). Some are projects you can do over a weekend or pay for themselves in a matter of weeks. These are things you’ve heard about for decades: update your light bulbs, seal and insulate, wrap your water heater. Others are more obscure: lower the temperature on the water heater, use healthy paints, install a programmable thermostat. You could easily cut your energy and water use in half with a little effort, and that translates into real dollar savings too.
Q. In your opinion, what are both the personal and environmental benefits to green architecture? What are some of the challenges?
Buildings are bad. They consume 40 of all of our energy and materials and require incredible effort to maintain and keep comfortable. Just changes to the building sector alone could prevent the worst impacts of climate change (note: we are already feeling the effects of climate change, so now it’s just a question of how bad will the next century be for us.)
There are only two main challenges: first, the building codes can often be huge roadblocks to installing smart ideas like recycling water (called greywater) or avoiding toxic chemicals (like vinyl). The second one is fear. People are afraid of new ideas, afraid of change, and afraid they will lose whatever monopoly they currently have. The oil and coal companies spend millions each year lobbying Congress to not take any action on climate change. They are afraid they will lose their stranglehold on the economy.
Q. Over your 20 years of experience, how would you describe the changes you’ve seen in the green building movement?
It’s gotten to the point where you can no longer make excuses. Twenty years ago it was hard to find and source these green materials. It was hard to find contractors familiar with installing these things, and it was difficult to get people to pay attention to these issues. None of that is still the case, so we have no excuse. We have stalled and procrastinated and dragged our feet for decades and the time for living, regenerative, healthy buildings is NOW. Anyone still working on toxic (traditional) buildings is a dinosaur and missing out on a huge opportunity.
Q. How do you foresee the future of green architecture?
In the near future, we won’t distinguish. There won’t be “green architecture” and “architecture.” All buildings will be green. A combination of financial incentives, building codes, lease requirements, manufacturing requirements, consumer demand and the urgency of climate change will drive every building to account for the energy, water and materials it uses. This is inevitable. The smart ones will embrace it now to stay ahead of the curve.