Q&A: Pliny Fisk III & Gail Vittori

We at Metropolis have a great fondness for Pliny Fisk III. When we first visited him at his nascent experimental compound on the outskirts of Austin, TX there was no USGBC, no LEED, no Energy Star, and only a few of us talked about environmental sustainability and the necessity for great and far-reaching innovation in […]

We at Metropolis have a great fondness for Pliny Fisk III. When we first visited him at his nascent experimental compound on the outskirts of Austin, TX there was no USGBC, no LEED, no Energy Star, and only a few of us talked about environmental sustainability and the necessity for great and far-reaching innovation in everything from building materials to super intelligent software. Now as Pliny’s Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (CMPBS) celebrates its 35th anniversary, we caught up with him and his brilliant partner, Gail Vittori, to talk about their new book, some highlights of their many activities in green building systems, and the generations of creative people they attract to their unique encampment.

Susan S. Szenasy: Let’s start with the book: Its subtitle, 35 years of Serious Commotion, is fabulous. Rather than me explaining it, can you both pipe in about how you interpret this statement?

Pliny Fisk III: To highlight and make obvious what is un-obvious, you have to push boundaries that may seem unreasonable. Serious commotion is a trigger, an angle on what you’re trying to say that gives a deeper meaning  — a kind of Trojan Horse; once you look inside you see many layers that influence how you think and how you do many related tasks in the design process.

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Gail Vittori: Commotion is one of those words that can sound alarming and arbitrary—stirring up the soup.  Serious commotion expresses a more focused and strategic intention to be disruptive with a purpose—to bring attention to unacknowledged facets of strategic issues, and to serve as a convener of dialogue and action, whether it be through protocol, policy or prototype, or a combination. It’s a perfect role for a non-profit organization, and basically what our 35+year track record is about.

SSS: Your work with finding the Maximum Potential of Building Systems was always about collaboration. I know that Pliny draws in thinking people, who also like to make things, by challenging them, getting their hands dirty, never giving up. Is that—the leader’s personality and charisma—your secret for productive collaborations? If yes, how would this way of drawing in willing collaborators translate to benefit other organizations? Or do you see you contribution to collaborative strategies differently altogether?

PF: On any project, maximum potential is anticipatory by nature and tries to draw out of everyone involved their very best, and admit what they don’t know. We often find that enthusiasm is highest when physical creation is the medium because the focus of making a new reality is miraculous. We play with the words “building systems” to get our collaborators to think that we really are building systems not just buildings—so it’s a noun and a verb. As it turns out, we spend considerable time building systems of activities — businesses, groups that work together into worknets.

GV: Collaborations are a significant part of how we work—we’ve always been a small organization so we greatly benefit from engaging others in pulling off the projects we’ve taken on.  We’ve been pretty good at coming up with big “what if” ideas and pulling them off, like a concrete mix with zero Portland cement, or a water balanced building, or a methodical integration of green building practices into the design and construction of healthcare buildings—we seek out people who are the best we know with knowledge that complements and stretches ours, people who share our fundamental belief that embracing the discovery process is essential to transformation.

SSS: Very early on, you were able to influence local policy. How did you start connecting with Austin policy makers?

GV: We’ve always viewed the Center as a gathering place of ideas with big open doors to engage people from the local government, universities, businesses, and the community at large. Public policy is the mechanism to transition an idea from an outlier, exceptional demonstration to standard practice for all, and in that way we view our work as anticipatory and catalytic.

So when we got a call in the summer of 1989 from Doug Seiter with the City of Austin’s Environmental and Conservation Services Department to come up with some ideas for a public-private partnership funding opportunity through the Urban Consortium, we were ready with several—one of these was the idea to extend the then successful City of Austin Energy Star program to include water, materials, and waste—and thus was born what became the first green building program in the world, the City of Austin Green Builder program, developed in collaboration between the City of Austin and CMPBS.

It essentially took a singular-focused program on energy and transitioned it to address the multiple ‘flows’ that define a building’s metabolism. It was the only local environmental program from the U.S. of 12 recognized at the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit in Rio, and significantly influenced the forming of U.S. Green Building Council the following year, and USGBC’s LEED soon thereafter. The rest, as they say, is history.  It’s a great example of how to leverage a basic concept central to CMPBS’ approach to the built environment (heavily influenced by Pliny’s studies under Ian McHarg) and integrate it into an institutional context so it has a policy platform to become the new normal.

PF: From a systems perspective the entire idea was based on a very simple model, created by the cybernetic guru Ross Ashby in his book Design for a Brain. The city (ie the public good), was represented by environmental, economic, and social issues through 42 existing City of Austin commissions that would measure performance. Feedback resulting from the interaction of the City Council with these commissions showed performance. Once policy was initiated the city would introduce certain conditions and guidelines that the private sector would be required to follow – once performance was measured again, along with the ease or difficulty of implementation, a new level of policy would be proposed. The whole represented all participants in a dynamic model that was diagramed and became part of the Earth Summit award.

We acknowledged, though didn’t emphasize, the origins of this model because of concern that it would seem too disconnected from what we were up to– so it was affirming that the Earth Summit award recognized this very model within their award that people began to think – “wow, maybe there is something there” – cybernetics meets green building — but most important was Gail’s capacity to work with city officials, developers, etc. to see this high level thinking implemented.

SSS: You like to say the your encampment–for the lack of better word that describes the indoor/outdoor lab of many parts which have been built on your property through the years–is “a place where interns are asked to think”. Is this thinking by doing? Documenting? Researching?  In other words, can you describe the secret behind what inspires the kind of thinking that made you, both, such key figures in the sustainability movement?

PF + GV: As our book shows, there is always a high level thinking process that goes on here. This is often simultaneously accomplished with actual, physical testing, constructing and, importantly, we ourselves living it. This is a key distinction; so much is learned by actually having the first hand experience of living it—what’s it like to work everyday in a water-balanced building? For an intern or a young staffer, this dynamic at first catches them off guard (life is the experiment as much as anything else), and that the experience in living what I am professing might be  the most valuable part of the experience.

At the moment we are seeking funding for our ecoBalanced community building system as a demonstration for Haiti and other island nations to be built as an ecoBalanced, off-grid village. Water, food-waste energy, materials in a steep-slope flood zone part of our “ “encampment”  – a kind of really relevant Biosphere II, if you will.

SSS: Who is your ideal intern? What enduring qualities does he or she have that enrich the dialogue you are so expert at fostering?

PF + GV: We have been very surprised by who and from where a successful intern comes from and have tried to keep our assumptions minimal in the selection process.  Because for some reason we find in almost every case some level of genius and discovery on both their part and our part that moves the thinking about projects forward.

We have had many types of people come to us from the fields of mathematics, chemistry, industrial design, planning, political science, architecture, landscape architecture—and what becomes so exciting to us is when the biologist talking to the chemist discovers that their medium of expression becomes embedded in something called industrial ecology. Or that the architect who thinks that life cycle is a scientific analysis becomes aware that the cycle of everyday events is just as important, if not more important, than just looking at national LCA impact. Which, as Metropolis knows, we have worked at both scales — we created, for example, the first IO/ LCA model of the US years ago that represented the flow of environmental and economic impact created by 12.5 million businesses so we could spec a green building according to this impact model for greenhouse gases, criteria air pollutants and toxic releases anywhere in the U. S. and relate this human-created metabolics to nature’s capacity and resilience.

SSS: In your book, Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems: 35 Years of Serious Commotion, your documentation of Texas resources–be these local and traditional building materials/techniques or water catchment/storage/conservation—shows how a deep knowledge of the local can lead to much larger, systems thinking. Can you deconstruct, maybe one example, of how this local knowledge can lead to some constructive global conclusions?

PF: Great question!  We have become particularly immersed, recently, in global patterns via our mapping where a confluence of coastal issues has emerged. A series of projects as seemingly different as Galveston, the Baja in Mexico, parts of Morocco and Haiti, show certain patterns that   signal the need to look at a new ecology in terms where the next step of the evolution of these systems might take us.

Our work on brine-based cements, brine-based hydrogen energy—reflecting the enormous amount of brine that’s a by-product of many pervasive human activities on coasts, such as petroleum extraction and water treatment, suggest a new series of eco-dynamics responses that effect how we live to the point of transportation fuel.

GV: There is so much that we don’t see because it is beyond our discipline. So by going “out of boundary” we are astonished at what we discover. Pliny’s long-standing pursuit of ecology/metabolic flow opportunities enabled, by asking simple questions and creating a visibility through mapping is powerful—and brine is a perfect example of this. His analysis shows that there’s enough brine generated as by-product from both petroleum extraction on the Texas coast and water processing inland to potentially replace the amount of Portland cement currently used in Texas by 110 %!  That has dramatic consequences to lower concrete’s carbon footprint and preserves jobs – possibly creates more jobs by driving new innovative opportunities.

And more recently we are exploring how to comprehensively ‘unlock’ the concrete formulae to radically reduce the carbon and water footprints—by identifying a range of low carbon, by-product cements, aggregates and sand, non-potable water mixes, and reduced cement percentages.  Concrete is the second most commonly used construction material on the planet, so changing business as usual will, we hope, cause serious commotion.

SSS: There’s a phrase you use, “from prototype evolve protocols”. Can you give an example of how this works?

PF: Our Advanced Green Builder Demonstration building—now our offices–is a prototype on many materials fronts (like 100% flyash cement, caliche soils, Open Building System protocols and more). It has been instrumental in establishing and reinforcing how we build into projects a series of procedures  that have involved everything from resource balancing—what we call ecoBalance—to design for disassembly, design for manufacturing, as well as open building. This has resulted in how we have approached large scale planning from the Mueller Redevelopment project in Austin—the 700 acre former Austin Municipal Airport to our proposed green city in Morocco and the 1.1 million square foot Block 21 project in downtown Austin, by introducing protocols as underpinnings and aligning cyclical resource balancing in planning and  design.

SSS: I remember seeing a Solar Decathlon house, built by the UT Austin Architecture School, as part of the experimental buildings on your property. When was that house built and what has your ongoing tinkering and observation yielded for our understanding of solar power?

PF: UT had us involved because of our experience with the theory and practice of building systems especially of an open flexible nature. We also were able to offer shop space for fabrication and land to build the prototype, and years of experience with solar design and systems, so it was a great partnership to recognize the complementary design expertise and to guide the students along with UT Professor Michael Garrison. Part of the experiment was the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction while retaining building performance. Not easy. But as with other prototypes, we now use the building as office and guest housing for interns or other visitors and have a continuous learning process going on.

What needs to be done in the future? What would we have done differently? Many things both macro and micro like insisting that a university that does this kind of project has a course or two on the theory of systems (open, closed, evolutionary etc.) and in particular building  systems, from the work of the CIB In Paris  to EPAs Design for Environment DfEnv’t and DfD (Design for Disassembly) so that these kinds of  design-build exercises  are actually relevant (as far as I can tell, unfortunately few that I visit are ) – getting out of the  singular  building  syndrome, thinking in business AND design terms and  bringing the student into the realm of  understanding a world that is the  future of our profession not an isolated, disconnected off-to-the-side exercise but systems of building and community.

SSS: And, finally, when you think about how far the LEED system has evolved since you first started to lay down the tracks for it, do you see it evolving into self-sustaining, energy-producing, restorative buildings? Or will something else have to be invented for that to happen?

GV: LEED has been a remarkable market transformation tool—and because it is intentionally designed to change and evolve it has the potential to become a framework—a tool—that pushes the boundaries towards regenerative, resilient, and restorative buildings and communities and can incorporate concepts like ecoBalance being developed at the Center. I think that’s the direction it’s moving. That said, it’s also important to keep the ground floor door wide open.

Often the ‘something else’ becomes a catalyst that sparks a new direction, reveals blind spots and inspires new thinking. Rather than positioning one as ‘good’ and the other as ‘bad’ – I like to think of this time as embracing the concept of ‘the big we’. There’s a lot to be done and we’ll make great strides relying on honest dialogue, transparent information, and collective engagement on common ground towards common goals.

Related: Sam Martin profiled Vittori and Fisk for our 2006 Visionaries Issue, and here on the blog, Martin C. Pedersen spoke to Gail Vittori about sustainable healthcare.

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