An Interview With Eric Corey Freed, Organic Architect
Eric Corey Freed is the founder of San Francisco-based sustainable architecture firm OrganicARCHITECT. Eric is also in high demand as a consultant and educator, and we were delighted that he found the time to answer some questions for The Switch Report.
When did you become aware of the need for a sustainable approach to building? Where do you think your affinity for sustainability comes from?
My awareness of sustainability paralleled my awareness of construction in general. As I learned more about materials and how we build, I was asking basic questions. When looking at wood framing I asked, “Where does all of that wood come from?” When presented with steel I asked, “Doesn’t that need a lot of energy?” It didn’t make sense to me, and the answers I received were unfulfilling. So my interest in sustainability really just grew out of a need for buildings to make sense. Sustainability is a very logical concept, since it is logical to not pollute the air, to not use up the last bits of a material. Everything else is just stupid.
In Australia the major housing industry associations generally oppose any attempts to raise energy efficiency standards on new homes. Is it the same in the US and, if so, what do you think the reasons behind that opposition are?
Here in the US, we have a number of vested interests whose job it is to make sure things do not change. Their industry relies on our consuming massive amounts of energy and resources. So they use a number of childish tactics to try to convince people that sustainability is a threat. My favorite of these are their scare tactics. Without really thinking, they say things like, “You know, green buildings cost more.” They say it like a given fact. The way to deal with it is to just call them on it. ”Really?” I ask, “How many green buildings have you worked on?” When they reply, “None.” then you can really start digging into their argument.
Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” We have to break them out of their narrow view to see the long term consequences of their actions. That is why I am so in favor of mandatory energy efficiency codes. This creates a level playing field for everyone and drops the cost of these efficiency measures to be at parity with the inefficient methods.
Is there enough growth in consumer demand for greener homes to offset the demand for cheap, inefficient homes?
Well, inefficient homes are not cheap. The cost to operate these buildings is more than many families can afford. The market is already driving demand for greener homes if only because the cost of traditional forms of fossil fuel energy keeps rising. Remember, fossil fuels are commodities, and like any commodity, they just keep going up. Solar and wind are technologies, and like any technology, they will just keep dropping in price.
With a fairly slow physical turnover in housing stock, how feasible is it to upgrade the energy efficiency of existing dwellings in a cost-effective way? What are your top five tips on this front?
Upgrading our existing buildings is the most important part to making change. We don’t build enough new buildings to make a big enough difference. In order to make the type of change we need in the time we need, we must retrofit our existing housing stock. Plus doing this will create jobs, foster competition and encourage innovation. The trouble is that many of these upgrades are pretty boring. While most people get excited about installing solar panels, nobody is going to jump up and down over caulking around windows or weatherstripping around doors. But these small things add up to a big savings.
In every remodeling project we have, we do these types of things automatically. Solar panels are the last thing we do, not the first. Once we can cut the base energy load by 30 to 40%, then we are ready to size the solar panel system on the roof.
You take a highly individual approach to design. Does this compromise the ability to achieve economies of scale in green building technologies? Is there a place for “off the rack” housing that can potentially reduce the cost of green building?
I love designing unique spaces perfectly suited to my clients, but I am obsessed with the idea of bringing design to the masses through pre-fabrication, mass production and new technologies. But one does not have to be mutually exclusive of the other. We can make inexpensive, standardized housing that is also deeply green and beautifully designed.
For example, let’s say you are building 200 homes. Using a computer controlled laser, we can mass produce a custom railing. So each home can have a custom railing, but the cost is the same since the materials and cutting are the same. If we avoid wood framing and instead use prefabricated structural sandwich panels, we can design each to fit the standard width of the panels. Instead of making the wall 21 feet long, we make it 20 feet and eliminate all of the extra labor, cutting and waste. By designing to the module we can be smarter with our materials.
With increasing evidence that climate change is leading to more extreme weather events, do we need to go beyond energy and water efficiency and design resilient buildings that can cope with such extremes? Are you already doing this?
Although people may not want to believe it, climate change is real and already affecting us. Proof of that is the jump in spending by oil and coal companies trying to convince you that climate change is not real. Exxon spent more than $80 million last year funding climate denier groups. We have really pushed ourselves to the brink and no amount of energy efficiency will help. What we need are drastic, massive cuts in our emissions.
That really means we must stop burning oil and coal immediately and power our buildings and vehicles with something else. We’ve been told that for 30 years but didn’t want to do what it takes. Now we’ve really run out of time. Cutting your energy use by 30% is simple. Converting your home to a net zero building (producing more energy than you consume) – that is exciting and that is what is needed.
What proportion of your business comes from homeowners as opposed to businesses?
I am fortunate to have an incredibly diverse range of projects. I choose the client, not the project, allowing me to work on small little homes, to medium sized schools, to large hotels. This is about a third of my work.
Another third is consulting – helping other architects with their projects; and this enables me to consult on things all over the world.
The final third of my work is education. I lecture at 40 to 50 conferences a year, conduct workshops for universities and trainings for municipalities. Any given week I could be in Los Angeles teaching their planning staff about LEED, in Wichita lecturing about sustainable planning, or in San Francisco choosing recycled tiles for a kitchen.
Are there notable differences in the enthusiasm with which your homeowner and business clients embrace sustainable design?
Most of my homeowner clients are incredibly enthusiastic and informed about green materials and systems. Many walk in asking for things like water catchment or solar panels. But this is not a requirement. In fact, there are many things that I do automatically on every project that the client might not even be aware of. These “no-brainers” include smart things like formaldehyde free insulation and non-toxic paint.
Generally speaking, the residential clients are most interested in health; the commercial clients are most interested in return on their investment. It’s the same conversation but with different points to focus on.
You say that you force green building on all of your clients equally. How do they respond to that?
Well, no one complains! My clients are just like any clients. They have strict (often tight) budgets, and a wish list of things they want in their project. That is what I want to focus on. It seems silly to ask for permission to do the right thing. ”May I please not put cancer causing chemicals into your bedroom?” I feel dumb just asking it. So I don’t. I force these things on the clients so we can keep the focus on their design and budget.
Overall, do you think that progress is being made towards more sustainable ways of living, or are any gains offset by “business as usual”? Why?
We need to stop looking at sustainability as an alternative to the “normal.” We need to realize that everything needs to change. Every building must be a green building. To that end, great progress is made daily and I find I am more excited about the future than ever. At the same time, change is hard for people. It’s easy to keep doing what we’re doing. You can ignore physics, but it won’t change the truth. This is a great opportunity to redesign the world.
How optimistic do you feel about the prospects of achieving truly sustainable lifestyles with a reasonably high standard of living?
I have to feel optimistic or I’d spend all day sitting in a corner rocking in the fetal position! At the same time, I know that human beings don’t change unless they have to. Winston Churchill famously said of Americans, “I always count on Americans to do the right thing, but only after they’ve exhausted every other possible option.”
We’ve exhausted our options, so now is the time.