Designing Great Cities & Communities

The Brilliant Careers of History’s Most Influential Eco-oriented Architects and Planners

By Randy Craig, Bicycle City Contributor
May 23, 2007

Green building—the eco-friendly practice of constructing buildings with a dedication to efficient use of energy and materials as well as a reduction of the building’s impact on the environment—has sought to achieve a harmony between structures and their surroundings. Also known as sustainable building or environmental building, the green building movement has been shaped by over the decades by numerous influential practitioners. In America, the beginnings were founded by Frank Lloyd Wright and his “organic architecture,” principles further built upon by R. Buckminster Fuller; Sim Van der Ryn; Edward Mazria; and Tom Bender. Bicycle City is a place that aims to utilize some of the concepts these top thinkers have given our world.

Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright coined the term “organic architecture” to describe his philosophy of creating a building that is harmoniously integrated into its surroundings, so that together they can be seen as a unified composition. His thoughts were a precursor to green building of today. Inspired by his upbringing in rural Wisconsin, Wright consistently preached the beauty of native materials and insisted that buildings grow naturally from their surroundings, according to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. His work inspired more open designs that freed people from the restrictive Victorian layouts of the 19th century.

Wright intuitively sensed the “essential interdependence of architecture and the natural environment,” notes a 2000 National Forum article by Robert Burns. The architect frequently used renewable materials for his residential buildings, built living gardens around them, and designed them to be lit and warmed by the sun. Perhaps his most dramatic demonstration of architecture in harmony with nature is the Pennsylvania house for E.J. Kaufman Sr. commonly known as Fallingwater. Wright’s ecological sensitivity clearly mirrors Green Architecture’s concern with the planet’s limited capacities and resources.

Wright’s “Usonian” style evolved from his famous “prairie style,” according to Jackie Craven, author of “Your Guide to Architecture.” The Usonian homes were designed to control costs and make abundant use of natural materials, Craven notes.. Features in the Usonian designs—open plans, slab-on-grade foundations and simplified construction techniques—led to greater efficiencies in building. The Madison, Wis., house known as Jacobs II best exemplifies the Usonian ideal. The house was a pioneer in passive solar design, according to Don Gunning, keeper of the Oak Park Architectural database. The house was built as a half circle, with the back wall to the north protected from winter winds by a berm that reached nearly to the top of the wall. The south façade, with its large windows and glass doors, was open to catch the winter sun, enhancing the gravity heat inside the floor. An overhanging roof shielded the house from summer sun.

R. Buckminster Fuller
Known as one of the world’s first futurists and global thinkers, R. Buckminster Fuller’s ideas about sustainability and conservation contributed to the green building movement. He is considered one of the fathers of environmental design. Fuller is perhaps best recognized as the creator of the geodesic dome, one of the most “green” structures ever invented. The Buckminster Fuller Institute called the geodesic dome “the lightest, strongest, most cost-effective structure ever devised.” More than 300,000 have been built since Fuller invented the first in 1949, including such recognizable buildings as Epcot Center in Walt Disney World in Florida and the U.S. Pavilion at the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal.

Fuller devised the geodesic dome and his other industrially produced housing prototypes in response to the trend toward expensive, resource-intensive housing, according to BFI. His aim was to make adequate shelter available to all of humanity, the institute said. Part of his drive to achieve this goal is linked to the 1922 death of his four-year-old daughter from polio and spinal meningitis, according to Fuller blamed the child’s illnesses and subsequent death on poor housing conditions; he was bankrupt and jobless in 1922.

In 1927, Fuller founded the 4-D Company in New York to develop design solutions that required a minimal consumption of energy and materials. In addition to the geodesic dome, Fuller designed a mass-produced, prefabricated house that was environmentally sensitive. Dubbed a “Dymaxion” house (for Dynamic Maximum Tension), it was heated and cooled by natural means, generated its own power, was earthquake- and storm-proof, and constructed of materials that needed no maintenance, according to the documentary “Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud”. The design allowed for the floor plan to be changed easily (to accommodate large parties, for instance). Houses were to be leased and paid off within five years—priced much like automobiles, the documentary said. Though 38,000 orders for Dymaxion homes came in, Fuller’s design tinkering led the project to be shelved. By the time Fuller finalized the design, the company that was to build the houses was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Sim Van der Ryn
Fuller was one of the primary influences of Sim Van der Ryn, who met Fuller when he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Michigan. Fuller’s ideas on “creating flexible, sustainable structures by combining technology with models of good design found in nature, like geodesics, were a gestalt to an inquisitive mind,” wrote Cheryl Weber in a 2005 Residential Architect magazine story.

The work of Sim Van der Ryn and his firm, Van der Ryn Architects in Sausalito, Calif., has raised the profile of sustainable architecture. Van der Ryn was born in Holland; his family fled the war-torn country in 1939 and settled in Manhattan. Van der Ryn sought refuge from these unhappy times in nearby deserted marshes, beaches and vacant lots, according to Van der Ryn’s Web site. The war’s impact as well as this communion with nature profoundly influenced his career and he became concerned with social justice, equity and ecology, the site says. With a degree from the University of Michigan, Van der Ryn has applied the principles of physical and social ecology to architecture and environmental design.

While his work has earned numerous of awards—including the Goff Chair of Innovative Architecture at the University of Oklahoma, the President’s Award for Planning from the American Society of Landscape Architects, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971—it is Van der Ryn’s tireless work promoting sustainability and conservation that established his reputation.

He taught for more than 30 years as a professor of architecture at the University of California-Berkeley (starting in 1961) and was key in establishing the school’s reputation as a leader in socially responsible and environmentally-friendly design. In 1975, then-Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Van der Ryn California’s state architect. In this capacity, Van der Ryn he developed the first government-initiated energy efficient office building program. He also led adoption of energy standards for construction in the state.

Van der Ryn founded the Farallones Institute in 1969. The institute served as a teaching and research center for sustainable design integrating architecture, agriculture, waste recycling, water conservation, and renewable energy, according to its Web site. The Farallones Institute’s resource conserving systems, solar dwellings, and organic gardens have been used extensively as teaching tools. The institute later evolved into the Ecological Design Institute, which serves as Van der Ryn Architects’ non-profit partner. It works to create innovative design solutions that link nature, culture and technology to reintegrate the needs of human society within the balance of nature, according to the EDI Web site. It also provides training and research services in ecological design to businesses and organizations.

Edward Mazria
Nature also clearly inspired Edward Mazria, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based architect known for his work with passive solar energy. Mazria has patterned his sustainable design strategies after nature to achieve energy efficiencies. He earned a bachelors degree in architecture from Pratt Institute in 1963, then spent two years working as a Peace Corps architect in Peru. He joined the New York-based Edward Larabee Barnes firm before starting his career in teaching at the University of New Mexico in 1973. It was the research he conducted there and at the University of Oregon that established his reputation as a leader in resource conservation and innovative design. He has been awarded such notable architecture honors as the American Institute of Architects Design Award, the AIA Design Innovation Award, and the Pioneer Award from the American Solar Energy Society.

What shapes Mazria’s lifework is the possible effect of the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. In the November/December 2004 issue of Solar Today, Mazria said if the United States continues with its current policy of oil, natural gas and coal consumption, “we will be keeping our troops in the Middle East for a long, long time and pushing the world toward a full-blown climate catastrophe.”

His designs incorporate many energy-saving features. One of his most well-known buildings, the Rio Grande Botanic Garden Conservatory in Albuquerque, features Sonoran desert and Mediterranean pavilions suitable for plant growth with little to no outside energy input, according to the Mazria Inc. website. The conservatory produces only a tenth of the pollutants generated by a typical conservatory heated by natural gas and lit through electrical power, according to AIArchitect magazine.

Another famous design, that of the Mt. Airy Public Library in North Carolina, resulted in a building that uses one-sixth as much energy per square foot as a nearby municipal building, according to Mazria Inc.. In this building, Mazria showed the dramatic effects of “passive cooling.” Shade trees, a light-colored roof membrane, and white masonry greatly reduce the effect of the summer sun’s rays.

Tom Bender
Tom Bender helped found the “green architecture” and sustainability movements, particularly as a leader in solar architecture design. His importance goes beyond design, as he embraced economic and even spiritual solutions to the challenges of sustainability.

Bender’s influence began quietly in 1971 with the publication of “Living Lightly,” a study that showed how the United States could dramatically reduce energy consumption while simultaneously improving the quality of life, according to In Context, a quarterly devoted to humane sustainable culture.

As professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota, Bender launched “Project Ouroboros,” a groundbreaking experiment in “resource-self-reliant houses.” After moving to Oregon, he served as an energy researcher for Gov. Tom McCall during the oil crisis in the 1970s. During this time he served as co-editor of RAIN: A Journal of Appropriate Technology.

Bender’s technical work in areas such as solar design provided practical tools to improve sustainability. His work also involved looking at other parts of the equation, according to In Context. In a column he wrote for the Spring 2007 Green Money Journal. Bender said the core of sustainability is spiritual. Most intractable social problems, he wrote, were the result of a lack of self worth, lack of respect by and for others, and a lack of opportunity to be of value to family and society. “What is made with love becomes loved, and what is loved endures and is sustained,” he wrote. Bender has written several books that deal with nature as sacred and analyzes how this view affects our personal health, home design and the universe as a whole, including “Building with the Breath of Life”

Starting in the 1970s, Bender developed what he called “Factor 10” economics. This theory lists principles of design and planning that generate “order of magnitude” improvements in productivity and sustainability, according to Bender’s Web site. These principles drew the interest of many European nations and have been adopted as public policy in Austria and the Netherlands. They have also been endorsed by the European Union and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. His 2002 book, “Learning to Count what REALLY Counts,” explores these principles in depth.

Bender has earned such prestigious awards as the California Affordable Housing Award in 1981. This award honored Bender’s outline for reducing housing costs by as much as 90 percent though increased durability, energy conservation and financing efficiency, according to In Context. In 1993, Bender was honored again for his research into sustainable communities with one of the nine top awards in the Sustainable Community Solutions international competition run by the American Institute of Architects and International Union of Architects.

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