Eric Corey Freed, RA, LEED Fellow, is principal of organicARCHITECT, a licensed architect (California, New Mexico, Arizona), and a recognized pioneer in the tradition of Organic Architecture, first developed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Promoting both an organic and ecological approach to design, Eric wishes to provide an alternative to what he calls the “harsh, style-driven fashions” that are so popular in architecture today.

Eric will speak during 2018 Environmental Awareness Week in our Pittsburgh office. We sat down with him to ask a few questions in anticipation of his talk.

Can you provide a brief overview of your presentation?
It’s a strange time to be alive. Our world is changing rapidly and we know if we continue in this way, we are doomed. That’s never happened before in human history! It’s an even weirder time being an architect, engineer or contractor knowing we’re largely responsible for this impact. So, the talk I’m going to give will look at the past 24 months and the things going on outside of the construction industry that affects us. Whoever thought the State of New York would sue Exxon? Whoever thought the Catholic Church and the World Bank would divest billions of dollars from the oil and gas industry? It’s an incredible time to be alive and there’s a lot of good news on the horizon that’s pointing all of us in the right direction. And we in the building industry need to pay attention to these larger trends going on around us.

As an architect, founder of your firm, organicArchitect, and now a Sustainability Disruptor at Morrison Hershfield, can you explain your approach to sustainable design to deliver the biggest impact?
Early on after starting my firm I discovered I was only impacting the five to 10 projects a year that we had. Over the last 20 years, I’ve looked for ways to increase that impact. So, in 2001, I started speaking, writing, teaching and consulting to reach more people and have more impact. The reason I became VP at Living Future Institute was to reach more people and have more impact, the reason I became Chief Community Officer at EcoDistricts was to reach more people and have more impact and now why I’m working with this wonderful, large engineering firm, Morrison Hershfield, is to do the same thing.

I now work with this army incredible building scientists who can take regular projects and make them net zero energy. We’re also working on deep energy retrofits for existing buildings; we’re helping municipalities craft energy policies. It is a little bittersweet because I am still a designer at heart and love to come up with the perfect floor plan or elevation, but as the urgency as climate change has grown, I realized that was a luxury I couldn’t afford. I had to focus on the things I could impact and effect.

As an educator, what are some interesting trends you are seeing with the student body today?
This generation is quite incredible. I think growing up knowing there are a lot of problems we’re dumping on them has prepared them for the future. What I do know is that the traditional model of the architecture practice is out of date. They are much more open to alternative methods of practice like collaboration with other firms or other people – leveraging the power of the group rather than the individual ego. I think you will see less of the “starchitect” model and more of the collaborative studio model.

How can individuals in a large firm like CannonDesign improve what they might be doing currently to design and build more sustainably?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? I think there are many things people can do within a large firm to improve what you are already doing. On a firm-level, CannonDesign can come up with some standards that can be used on every project such as setting a minimum Energy Usage Intensity (EUI) or committing to stop using a specific list of toxic chemicals in all your buildings. On an individual level, there’s a lot a PM could do to minimize impact. They could have conversations with their clients about how much they are spending on parking lots, air conditioning, electricity, etc. and come up with better, more cost-effective and more sustainable solutions. In the past, sustainable design was presented as the “odd alternative” and the result was a heavily-consuming, wasteful, toxic building. Every single CannonDesign employee can flip that script and say, “the default is a green, high-performance building.” That’s not to say it’s easy, but that’s where it starts.

The idea of “organic architecture” stemmed from Frank Lloyd Wright’s building philosophy and it seems you have many of the same principles in your work. How have his ideas from almost 150 years ago influenced you?
I would argue that Mr. Wright was the first green architect before we even had that term. If you look at his buildings, every single one is passive solar in design, uses natural materials and has passive ventilation and cooling strategies. That’s not to say he was perfect, but he was the first one to show how these principles could inform design in a very beautiful way. For me, it was very appealing to see this natural, romantic, poetic approach to architecture – that really resonated with me first and foremost as a kid when I saw my first Frank Lloyd Wright building at age 10.

As I learned more about him, as I studied his work and as I started communicating with his former apprentices at 16 and working for them at 18, what I realized was he truly was the first sustainable architect. He was able to blend nature and the man-made in a way that was profound. If he were alive today, I’d like to think that he’d be doing cutting edge things with parametric technology, designing every building as net-zero and seamlessly integrating solar panels into his beautiful rooflines. I feel duty-bound to continue that tradition.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I have a 10-year-old daughter and a (40-something-year-old) wife, so first and foremost I love spending time with them. Even more so, we are trying to raise our daughter to be a warrior because when she’s our age, the world is going to be a very different place; we’re trying to prepare her in a way that is hopefully fulfilling and fun. After that, I have a lot of little hobby obsessions. I’m obsessed with technology, especially its impact on the construction industry – looking into how we can use robots, 3D printing, CNC milling, GPS, drones, AI, autonomous vehicles…all of these are going to affect our industry in a profound way.