A Conversation With Rob Harrison, Sustainable Designer and Architect

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RobHarrison-Post.jpgIt was the toilets that changed everything. In the '80s, Rob Harrison was working in New York City as a successful architect and designer when a couple of investment bankers renovating their apartment on the Lower Fifth Avenue asked him to install $5,000 carved marble toilets. That was the end of that. Harrison packed his bags and moved to Seattle where, he says, he started a practice based on his values, values that revolve around sustainability. For more than 20 years now, Harrison has been principal of Harrison Architects, a firm that specializes in "lyrical sustainable design," a phrase Harrison coined that means his work focuses on conserving energy and resources, reducing costs, and incorporating healthier finishes and materials.

Here, Harrison discusses the time he spent as an avant-garde musician in New York's East Village, why he's losing patience with incrementalism, and how he thinks that finding way to participate in the water cycle more intelligently will become even more important than demand-side conservation of energy.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I say "lyrical sustainable design." I coined the term in 1992 to counter what I felt at the time was an overemphasis on technos to the exclusion of eros in sustainable design. Or if I know I'm not going to have a chance to elaborate, I say I'm a green architect and I do Passive House design and consulting.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

There are two I'd like to mention. The first idea is that cities are our best hope for mitigating the impending effects of climate change. That is, creating vibrant, walkable, transit- and bicycle-friendly cities. Even here in Seattle where unicorns pick up our recycling (as Alex Steffen says) there are serious differences of opinion on how those kinds of cities should be made, but the intense push-back we're seeing against pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements and more density around our new Link Light Rail stations suggests that new deep green ways of thinking about the city are making enough inroads to be taken seriously by the status quo.

The other currently blossoming idea would be performance-based codes like Passive House and Living Building Challenge. We'll see performance standards for indoor air quality soon too, according to my friend Dan Morris of Healthy Buildings Associates. Performance standards take sustainability out of rote points systems like LEED and BuiltGreen and bring creativity and innovation back into the design and building process.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

This falls into the category of "things that hardly ever occur to people but are almost immediately obvious once they think of it:" The idea that beauty is absolutely essential to any thing that aspires to sustainability. If it's not beautiful, it's not green. If it's beautiful, we will love it, and we will take care of it. I'm also a big fan of eccentricity.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Now, it's all about energy. Soon, finding ways to participate in the water cycle more intelligently will become even more important than demand-side conservation of energy. Water is the new energy.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

I'm losing patience with incrementalism -- the idea that to give governments, businesses, contractors, and architects time to adjust their approaches, we need to gradually make energy codes more stringent, until by a certain date (usually 2030, sometimes 2050) energy codes will require carbon neutrality. Guess what: If we don't go 100 percent of the way available to us starting day after tomorrow, we're not going to make it. The economic and social costs of climate change will be increasingly, staggeringly huge, and the longer we wait to begin the fewer resources we will have to work with as time goes on. With Passive House, we have the tools today to reduce energy used for heating and cooling to 10 percent of typical, without active systems or photovoltaics. Let's stop fooling around, and do it.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

In the '80s in New York I had the opportunity to do a lot of high-end work for investment bankers. I made some beautiful places and worked with a lot of lovely materials. The end of that line was reached in 1989 however, when clients requested $5,000 carved marble Corinthian-column-looking toilets for their apartment on Lower Fifth Avenue. That, I decided -- or recalled, more like -- was not why I went to architecture school. I moved to Seattle shortly after that to start a practice based on my values.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

All three of my nominees have successfully combined a passionate commitment to changing the world with an abiding love of it, excellent craft with honorable intention, and technical mastery with unselfconscious and modest humanism.

Peter Prangnell developed what I still think is the absolute best pedagogy for architecture ever, and implemented it in an experimental curriculum at the University of Toronto in the '70s, when I was there. His teachings on values-based (rather than form-based) architecture infuse my work. (My manifesto of lyrical sustainable design was a revisiting of what we did in school before each project.) His notion of "friendly objects" is the basis of a heroically unpretentious modernism.

My mentor and friend David Rousseau combines a deep knowledge of the technical aspects of green buildings and the design of sustainable communities, with an understated spirituality. I met David shortly after I moved to Seattle as I was shifting my practice to solely green work, and he has deftly guided me in that transition.

My third nominee would be Kentucky author and farmer Wendell Berry. I've shared many copies of his collection of essays What Are PEOPLE For? His essay in it, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer," contains a brilliant set of criteria for technical innovation, applicable to any field. Berry remains an example of principled and articulate strength: "What I stand for, is what I stand on." That quote always brings tears to my eyes. It expresses his position so clearly, and it's one I share.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

I spent the early '80s living in the East Village playing rather dense noise music and punk jazz with friends Peter Zajonc and Philip Beesley, among others. I sang with Sussan Deyhim, the Iranian-born vocalist, performed with Glenn Branca in his first two multi-guitar symphonies, and played guitar in a band with Christian Marclay, the artist and phonographer. According to New York Rocker, Mon Ton Son was "the most talked about and least heard band in New York City." In retrospect, sticking with avant-garde music might have been more financially rewarding than becoming an early adopter of green architecture....

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

I visit GreenBuildingAdvisor.com often. I enjoy the technical discussions there, and Martin Holladay is a welcome gadfly in the Passive House movement.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"Two Little Boys," a poignant Civil War song with lyrics by Edward Madden. When my wife was a baby in far north Queensland her father sang it to her, and when our son was a baby we sang it to him.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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