The Keller Center - Harris School of Public Policy
Based on sustainable architect Doug Farr’s jaunty appearance and upbeat personality alone, you can surmise he uses the former to educate both fellow architects and the public about the connection between sustainable building design, energy conservation and better personal energy use habits. His informative, accessible and eye-catching website follows suit.
Although Farr is a coveted speaker at high-profile conferences around the globe, he says one of his main goals is to help the general public grasp the notion that the world needs to change, and they are the ones to initiate it.
Farr’s Chicago sustainable, green architecture design practice has transformed his vision for smarter architecture into tangible results, and yet he sees his firm’s successes as a mere starting point.
Early landmark achievements from his pioneering sustainable design practice fill the pages of his 2008 bestseller “Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature,” while much of what he’s done since is chronicled and detailed in his new follow-up, “Sustainable Nation: Urban Design Patterns for the Future.”
Not surprisingly, he’s hailed as Planetizin’s 100 most influential sustainable urbanist developers of all time, co-chaired the development of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) and served on boards of numerous urban sustainability organizations—Congress for the New Urbanism, Bioregional, EcoDistricts and Elevate Energy.
It takes accountability to change habits, and Farr says we need to see our world differently.
As a kid, “revolution was in the air.” He recalled how coming of age in Detroit during the 1960s shaped him. “My dad was in the auto industry, which was under attack for making energy-inefficient cars, so I knew by age 16 that public concerns about energy efficiency and the environment were going to be big things.”
Fast forward a few years, a few degrees and a few books later. The fragile balance he observed in a “trinity of energy, environment and community” during his formative years became the defining principle of his sustainable urban development practice.
More than 30 years on, he runs it as a process-oriented “R&D oriented shop,” bringing to its clients and projects cutting-edge thinking. A prolific portfolio of completed projects and buildings, and designs for future projects includes several industry “firsts,” including the re-design of the Midwest’s first LEED/green platinum certified buildings built out of the shell of a much older structure.
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Normal, IL Renewal Court
“We always strive to create more firsts for our clients, as well as get away from the familiar business-as-usual approaches of the average architectural firm—the crippling stasis of status quo where the staff will only do things a certain way,” Farr affirms.
“People enter relationships with us with the expectation there will be cutting-edge green ideas involved.” As Farr explains it, the firm has a “force field” that weeds out any prospective client not genuinely interested in green, sustainable architectural improvements.
“It’s an ongoing conversation we constantly have to have about the necessity for change,” says Farr. “
Jazz at Walter Circle
“It’s an ongoing conversation we constantly have to have about the necessity for change,” says Farr. “One important word I use in these conversations is ‘culture,’ with a definition offered by Jane Goodall that it was, ‘learned behavior passed on through observation from one generation down to the next generation.’”
Farr and his team are currently involved in a sustainable urban development public campaign, “Carbon-Free Chicago,” which he plans to rename “Carbon-Free Cities” to accomplish something similar on a larger scale generating awareness about urban living solutions leading to the cessation of fossil fuel use by 2050.
Carbon-Free Chicago’s agenda starts with public buildings, with Farr pointing out that more than 70 percent of a city’s carbon footprint comes from public buildings. As the majority of public buildings are still powered by fossil fuel now, he urges everybody to ask themselves how they can do their part to transition to more environmentally sound and sustainable energy sources.
“CFC Chicago focused on the process of systemic change, as we had to move the target year from 2030 to 2050, which is still slower than it should have been,” he says. “We are applying the ‘Community of Practice Principle’ to AIA Chicago, the American Institute of Architects’ Chicago Chapter.
In sustainable architecture and urban planning, we want those people and groups with common goals in common fields to get together and discuss their progress and approach on projects…sort of like a quilting bee where participants exchange ideas, hold themselves accountable for errors and call out the ideas that work best.
‘The 2030 Challenge’ is our local Chicago version of this, and we’re tracking varying results in a database. We are also using social standing as a motivator, with participants gaining status and recognition based on their willingness to be active in the process. This motivation works, as our numbers have increased from 12 to more than 30 percent of the architecture firms in Chicago.”
Harper Court in Hyde Park
Providing additional incentive to architecture and urban development professionals, AIA Chicago will launch an annual award for the best Net Zero buildings, which is as much a challenge as it is a motivator.
In another campaign, “The First 100 Architects,” Farr encourages his peers to speak out about this commitment, especially those who say making a difference in the world was a big reason why they entered this field. However, he also stresses that everybody else—no matter their walk of life—take a more in-depth look at how they can do their part to change habits to create a cleaner, safer environment for the next generations.
“Sustainability is something that people can stick to when it relates to their life in an emotional way,” he explains, using the start of his family’s journey towards a sustainable home five years ago.
“As any spiritual journey starts with a declaration of intention, mine started when I went to the hardware store and bought blood red paint to highlight my gas lines in the basement. I chose that color as it equated wasting energy to bleeding the planet. I mapped my journey and the decarbonization of my house, which provides me a visual way of seeing what would happen next.”
Once Farr and his wife tracked their savings and liked what they saw, they began the process of replacing natural gas-powered appliances with electric ones using newer technology.
While there’s typically investment involved up front with sustainable home improvements, he insists the savings add up. And while there is no emotion involved in the act of heating water or drying clothes with electricity instead of gas, saving money and knowing your family is breathing in cleaner air will make you happy.
The Keller Center - Harris School of Public Policy
“With natural gas, the byproducts of the fire make up 43 percent of the indoor air pollutants that will travel into the rest of the house and be breathed in by the occupants of the house,” he continues. “There are also studies that show that if we switched from gas to a cleaner heat source for cooking, our lungs would be better off for it.
As for my household, we started to cook with the new induction cooktop we bought in early 2020. On that score, our green, sustainable architecture journey continues with work towards installing solar panels and having an electric car in the garage.”
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Generating awareness and action have to be grass roots in both a figurative and literal sense. For example, if whomever you are talking to argues shifting the problem from natural gas to electricity is not enough, you can be proactive and direct them to results from recent studies from the Rocky Mountain Institute or the Center for Maximum Building Potential Systems in Austin, TX that provide quantitative evidence that many households trading familiar energy-generating systems with more sustainable ones saves the environment and money in the long run.
In conversation, Farr points to a new sustainable urban development project: a tiered pricing system for water usage in Phoenix that’s based on how much different households use per day. Heavy users who fill their pools and water their elaborate gardens will pay a surcharge to be fair to families living in smaller homes and using less water.
The surcharge would also remind them to rethink how much they use under certain circumstances or consider installing more innovative water purification technologies or modern cisterns—collecting rainwater off the roof—and others to use water more efficiently overall.
“I am old enough to remember that back in 1976, I voted for Jimmy Carter as president based on his promise of adopting a gas tax,” he points out. “Forty-four years later, with no gas tax in place, I have learned waiting for the government to act first is a stalling tactic. While you still should vote and write letters to your congressmen, doing that alone is the slowest path to change.
The reality is that every individual needs to take personal responsibility and be their own leader in finding ways to move away from fossil fuels. Some of these things take extra thought and extra money, but everybody has to take some kind of action.”