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An interview with architect Douglas Farr

Before Green was Green

   Cities, not the suburbs, are the future of sustainable architecture, according to Douglas Farr, architect, urban planner and founder of Farr Associates in Chicago..He is a pioneer in the emerging field of sustainable urbanism, “an integration of walkable and transit-served urbanism with high performance buildings and high performance infrastructure.” He is far more interested in creating sustainable communities rather than single buildings.
    The case for sustainable urbanism is covered in Farr’s book, Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature. He cites evidence that the American middle class lifestyle resulted in a serious deterioration of public health since the 19th century, when residential walk-up buildings were commonplace and most Americans traveled by foot. A third of U.S. adults are obese.
   A baby born today in the United States will spend close to 87 percent of his or her lifetime indoors and another 4 percent in enclosed transit, thanks to air conditioning. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that indoor air is five times more polluted than outdoor air because of smoking, indoor combustion, material off-gassing and mold. The physical and mental benefits of walking, outdoor exercise and time immersed in nature are vital, according to Farr.
    His passion for this revolutionary new field started in the ’70s. He attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where the legacy of the anti-war movement, environmentalism and futurist thinking flourished. He heard Buckminster Fuller speak in downtown Detroit about the state of the city’s future and became influenced by his work.  He eventually decided to go into architecture. Then the Reagan administration came and progress on the environmental front came to a halt. It wasn’t until the Obama administration that government once again understood what the ’70’s movement was about, according to Farr.
    Farr spent the ’80s first working for Vinci-Hamp Architects in Chicago and then attended graduate school at Columbia University. His stint at Vinci-Hamp, working on historical restorations, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the lobby of the Monadnock Building, had taught him a lot about building forensics. “There’s a virtue to having the original rather than a replica,” Farr says. “You have more of a story and history. You know what fails.” He also worked with Paul Rudolph in New York, a leader in the architectural movement called brutalism, which originated from the modernist movement.
    He returned to Chicago in 1990 and opened up his own firm out of his second bedroom a year later. At the same time he became active in the AIA Committee on the Environment. He said he worked with a bunch of friends who were active before “green was green.” It grew into an award-winning downtown firm. By 2009, Farr Associates had completed major projects in the area including:

    Bethel Commercial Center: The LEED Gold-rated transit center was designed for a low-income neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. It is equipped with retail space, employment offices, a bank and daycare center. Residents can use daycare facilities and get to and from work, all without the use of a car.
    Whistler Crossing: The mixed-use project in Riverdale consists of rehabilitated historic townhomes and two new buildings in a walkable neighborhood. The development meets advanced energy efficiency standards and energy savings strategies, including the use of a solar water heating system, Energy Star appliances, energy-efficient fixtures and highly insulated and sealed building envelopes. Upper floors of each building have affordable and handicapped-
accessible apartments.

    Charles Shaw Technology and Learning Center: Farr
Associates turned the 90,000-square-foot former Sears Roebuck and Co. power supply house into a sustainable charter school. The Shaw Technology and Learning Center enables faculty and students the opportunity to learn from and live with sustainable design.
XOCO: Rick Bayless opened XOCO last year in a Farr Associates LEED Gold-designed restaurant. Green features reduce energy and take-out waste by 30 percent.

    Farr says he’s optimistic about the greening of Chicago. “Chicago owes its greenness to Mayor Daley,” he says. “He has [used] his authority to advance a greening agenda. In other places, the rank and file demands it and the mayor guides it. Here, the mayor’s leadership has taught people how to do it. You can’t erase that.”

Published: April 09, 2010
Issue: 2010 Spring Green Issue