Profile: Eric Corey Freed, organicARCHITECT

This San Francisco-based architect talks about green design and the importance of acting now
By Alice Liao
December 15, 2010

Principal of organicArchitect in San Francisco, Eric Corey Freed was 8 when he knew he wanted to be an architect and 10 when he attended a service at Beth Sholom Synagogue and discovered Frank Lloyd Wright: “I’m sitting in the seat and as birds are flying overhead, their shadows are passing along the floor, because it’s a translucent palace. It was the most beautiful thing you could imagine.” Following the experience, Freed spent his junior high and high school years researching Wright and tracking down former apprentices, some of whom became his first mentors. Wright’s work, which “put nature as the most revered source and inspiration,” helped inform Freed’s belief that sustainability and architecture go “hand in hand” and had a lasting impact on his career. And what a career it has been. Cited by Philip Johnson as “one of the real brains of his generation,” Freed founded his firm in 1997, co-developed the Sustainable Design programs at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and the University of California Berkeley Extension. He sits on the boards of Architects, Designers & Planners for Social Responsibility, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Home Guide and West Coast Green. He was the founding Chair of Architecture for The San Francisco Design Museum and is a regular contributor to a variety of publications. Freed has also written several books, including more recently Green$ense for the Home.

What are the most common misconceptions consumers still have about sustainable design?
The two main ones are: All green buildings must be modern and the second one is still—to this day—that we can’t afford green building because it costs more. To the people who continue to insist on the latter, I ask a very simple question, which diffuses the situation: “Well, how many green buildings have you built?” And they always say, “None, I haven’t built any.”

But people do continue to think that…?
And we’ve now seen nearly 200 years of the extension of that thinking. Which is we’ll build buildings any way we want and we’ll externalize the costs on the end user or someone else. We’ve made buildings that are dependent on oil, which we no longer have; electricity, which we can no longer afford to produce because of carbon emissions; and natural gas, which makes us sick. So you pick your poison. We can’t afford to keep building buildings this way, because we’re going bankrupt—emotionally bankrupt, physically bankrupt and even biologically bankrupt. I’ve spent the last 18 to 20 years telling people, “You’re looking at it from the wrong direction.” We’re not taking a traditional, toxic building and adding green stuff to it. Of course that’s going to cost more. What we need to do is rethink it from the start as a green building. When you do that, you immediately find the opportunities.

So where does the audience of K+BB fall in this?
Your audience is perfect for this because what they don’t understand, but need to, is that you can still design beautiful buildings that are inspirational, joyful and made of luxurious materials, but you can design them responsibly so they don’t consume materials to their extinction and waste energy or water. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Sustainability is just another aspect of the design solution.

What aspects of green design should kitchen and bath designers be paying more attention to, but aren’t?
There are things you should do automatically in a kitchen or bath, such as picking appliances that save energy and save water. Then there’s this other layer of considerations, such as picking formaldehyde-free cabinets, or allowing daylight in—and not just because daylight is proven to make you feel better, but just because it’s more beautiful and it reduces the amount of time you run the lights. A third layer relates to things we do out of habit or tradition. It’s always useful to take a step back and question some of these things. For example, why are we still flushing the toilet with clean water when we can use gray water?

What “words of wisdom” can you share with designers interested in “going green”?
Start now. Stop waiting. So many designers, architects and even students say they’re taking this class, getting this certification, saving up money to become a LEED AP and then they’ll start. That’s not the way it works. If you see something you believe in, you shouldn’t wait. You’ll make mistakes and missteps, but it doesn’t matter, because at least you’ll be moving in the right direction.

Any tips for designers on how to persuade their clients to “go green”?
First, health is the biggest pain point you can push on a client, especially a residential one. So when a client brings in a sample of something inexpensive they bought at Home Depot, for example, you can have a conversation about its toxicity and its impact on the environment and their health. Push the health of it. With some products, you don’t even discuss the green aspects. IceStone is a perfect example. I just set a piece of IceStone in front of a client and they always love it. What’s not to love? It’s gorgeous. I don’t have to mention to them that it’s made from recycled glass. They don’t care. In the initial design, they’re looking at the appearance and the cost, so let’s sell them on the appearance.
This kitchen by Eric Corey Freed features PaperStone countertops and metal laths that highlight the ceiling. Photo: RJ Smith & Co.

Do you encounter resistance in your own practice?
All the time and I don’t win every battle. Not every project will have solar panels because quite frankly, the cost is quite prohibitive. But every project has had an evaluation of it if the client can afford it. And that’s what we need to do, because clients need the facts, and they certainly need to get them from their designers.

What is the best development/innovation in the past five years?
The best potential innovation is BIM (Building Information Modeling), because for the last 10 years, normal 2- and 3-D CAD seemed to be sucking the life out of the profession. We were raising a whole generation of designers who didn’t know how to draw and didn’t understand scale. With BIM, we’re working in four dimensions—we’re building a 3D model, but it has physical characteristics. My hope is that BIM will enable true sustainable buildings. Imagine five years from now, you’ll model a kitchen in BIM, all of your appliances will be there, and with a push of a button, it will ask you some questions and you’ll be able to get real-time estimates of your utility bills or see what the room will look like at a certain time of the year. Things like that will restore some of the romance of design to computers that we lost.

What do you predict for the future of sustainable design?
First, there’s a great convergence going on that will lead to every building being a green building. It will occur through the building codes, the manufacturers’ need for transparency and larger federal regulations for chemicals and toxic products. The convergence is already happening. If you look at CalGreen, the new building code going into effect this January in California, it’s essentially set up so that every building will be green to the point where there’s no distinction between “green” and “non-green” and we’ll need a new word for it. That word will probably be “living building”—named after the Living Building challenge by the Cascadia GBC—which is a building that is truly regenerative of its environment.

Secondly, there’s a whole new wave of monitoring systems that use inexpensive technology to enable everyone to measure how much water, electricity and gas they consume and will change their behavior. Then there’s the way we’ve been fighting for green design over the past 30 years, which is by consumer demand. It’s the slowest way to get anyone to do anything. If you think about it, nobody ever went around to every consumer—which is a terrible word, by the way—and asked them, “How would you like to be able to access information from you computer any time and it’s called the Internet and you’ll love it?” Innovations don’t work that way and that’s not how innovators think. It doesn’t matter what the public wants; it just matters what they need.

Only 35 percent of Republicans believe that global warming is real, but physics doesn’t care about what the other 65 percent believes. It’s physics and whether they believe it or not, I can’t wait for them to get to 60 percent; I certainly can’t wait until they get to 100 percent. We have to act now. But a lot of environmentalists still spend their time trying to convince consumers of the reality of global warming and the need for green building. My tact has always been to approach it as if it’s assumed: Of course, we’re going to make it a green building; I’m not asking your permission, because frankly, it’s foolish and stupid to do it any other way. This is the way it has to be. I’m not debating it anymore.

What is the most intriguing aspect of your job?
From going around the country and lecturing, I’ve learned that everyone thinks the problems they’re facing are unique to them. They all want buildings that are energy-efficient and beautiful, and cities that are striving, full of community and full of life. And yet they seem depressed because all they’re getting is developer-driven mega blocks of nothingness. What’s most intriguing is that we’re not so alone, and we could potentially develop solutions.

What do you hate about it?
Oh, that’s easy—billing. There’s no contest there.

Do you have any professional pet peeves?
In terms of kitchens and baths, I hate things that are off center, but not on purpose. I hate when tiles get cut because it shows a lack of poor planning. I hate when the grout color is not chosen, so they default to white because no one bothered to take the extra step to think about it. I hate when there’s standard anything simply because no one bothered to question it. That shows a failure on the part of the designer. I hate missed opportunities in design. I hate the 36-in. countertop because it’s just an assumed standard when we all know that clients certainly come in all shapes and sizes.

When you walk into a kitchen or bath you didn’t design, what do you tend to notice first?
I usually look up at the ceiling height. The proportions of the room are usually wrong. They either overlight it with fixtures or the natural light is from one source and it’s glaring. It’s always good to get natural light from two directions. Then I notice all the finishes. I look at whether the palette’s working or not, or if there’s a missed opportunity given the color of the light coming into the room. Some finishes are great, but if the room isn’t big enough, you don’t have enough distance to appreciate them. The third thing I notice is the details, like which knobs they chose.

Who are your role models?
I’m a big fan of Cameron Sinclair, who’s a friend of mine. He provides hospitals, libraries and shelter to people all over the world through his efforts with Architecture for Humanity. I help him as much as I can, but I couldn’t do what he does. Very few people could. He’s amazing and it’s all genuine. He’s driven by something far greater.

Whom do you consider to be the most inspirational architects?
Do you mean living or dead? Let’s do living: Michelle Kaufmann, who’s also a friend. Every time we have a conversation, I walk away inspired. (Don’t tell her I said that because it will go to her head.) Most people don’t realize she’s got a design pedigree. She’s worked for Frank Gehry and Michael Graves. She could be making money as a senior design associate in some firm doing high-end design and have nothing to do with green at all, but she’s not. She’s truly brilliant. Another would be Bart Prince, my old mentor in New Mexico, who’s just genius. Renzo Piano is someone who really impresses me in every aspect, including how restrained he is. I’ve never met him but he seems like he would be almost egoless because his buildings completely synthesize green and form.

Are there any examples of architecture that move or motivate you to design?
The way I get inspired is to look at what nature is doing. I’ll often lose hours studying books on biology and photographs of microscopic things in nature. If anyone’s interested, they can look up a book from 1890, “Art Forms in Nature,” by Ernst Haeckel, who was a German biologist and an artist. He drew what he saw under the microscope. I could spend hours on just this book—and have.
Plates from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature).

Obviously you're passionate about green design. What are some other issues that you’re passionate about?
Outside of sustainability and design, I’m a closet sculptor, but I’m no good. I just love doing it.

What do you sculpt?
I make these little organic things out of Sculpee, which is probably pretty awful. They’re small because I wouldn’t know how to make them big. They’re my way of being unencumbered by things like gravity. I also sketch all the time. I have sketchbooks all over the house that I fill with geometric studies or studies of form.

Tell us about your favorite/ideal customer.
I like clients who are weird to the point where they apologize for themselves when you first meet them. Someone who’ll say, “You’ve probably never gotten this before, but I really want a slide from my bedroom down to the kitchen.” The funny thing is every client is strange, but I like the ones who admit to it.

So what is the strangest request you’ve gotten?
A fire pole from the master bedroom down to the basement home theater. That was fun.

What is your favorite color?
I’m a big fan of purple, but it’s a very specific purple that occurs in nature, like eggplant, but not as dark. I love that it goes really well with green.

If you could have a five-minute conversation with anyone dead or living, who would it be and why?
Well, if it’s someone live, I could probably make it happen. It would have to be one or two people. It would be either Thomas Jefferson or Antonio Gaudi.

What would you ask Thomas Jefferson?
I’d want to get into the specifics on the formation of the government and ask him if he ever anticipated things like bipartisanship and a two-party system. I’d also about balance between life and work. Jefferson was prolific in a time when the average lifespan was only in the 40s and they didn’t have the Internet. And “new books” were ones that came out years ago. Yet he was prolific beyond imagination and just brilliant.

And what about Gaudi?
So much about Gaudi is still a mystery. There are still some people alive who had worked with him yet even they can’t seem to answer seemingly basic questions. He didn’t do a lot of drawings. There were a lot of models, and a lot of them were destroyed. All of my questions would be technical.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in your current profession?
Lately, I’ve been thinking that I would like to be a lobbyist for the good side. I’d lobby Washington for what we need, which is sustainability, healthy schools and a healthy environment.

What’s the one thing that keeps you up at night?
A two-year-old.

People would be surprised to find out that you…?
Cut my own hair.

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