Urbanist Cowboys

June 1, 2004

Making the connection between new urbanism and environmentally conscious architecture, Farr Associates designs to create places that enrich human life while minimizing negative environmental impacts.

When Doug Farr was in high school in Detroit, MI, he was, in his own words, a "paid rabble-rouser." His job was to walk the picket line for labor unions. As he beat a path on the sidewalk, he learned a lot about organizational dynamics. Later, while in college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he volunteered on the university's suicide hotline. Needless to say, his interpersonal skills grew stronger with each call.

Today, Farr is putting those organizational skills and interpersonal talents he honed long ago to good use as he works to synchronize the efforts of two vital schools of thought: green urbanism and green building. What is the difference? Good question, says Farr.

"Green urbanism is concerned with the environment, the neighborhood," he explains. "Its tenets call for work, shopping, schools and mass transit all to be within walking distance of home. Green building, on the other hand, deals with architectural issues, such as recyclable materials, low VOC compounds, energy efficiency, lighting and water conservation."

Farr's firm, Farr Associates Architecture and Urban Design, Chicago, IL, practices sustainable architecture, urban design and planning and historic preservation. His mission, for himself and the firm, is to design sustainable human environments at both urban and architectural scales. With this goal in mind, Farr is working to initiate a new rating system and policy: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Neighborhood Development, or LEED-ND. Hoping to build on the LEED franchise, Farr is coordinating this effort with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Here is where those previously-acquired organizational and interpersonal skills have come in handy.

As the founding principal and president of a firm that practices both green building and green urbanism, Farr knows that the tenets of each can be used to strengthen the other. The problem, according to Farr, is that many professionals who consider themselves card-carrying members of the green building movement do not know green urbanism exists and visa-versa. Therefore, dialogue is critical now.

The USGBC administers LEED and oversees its standards and certification. The NRDC is a watchdog organization looking out for—as its name implies—natural resources. The CNU is a practical rebuttal to the Athens Charter, a manifesto written by European modernists in 1943, calling for the segregation of work, school, housing and shopping zones within cities. (CNU's charter project is Seaside, FL, where the principles of New Urbanism are designed into the city plan so residents can walk, rather than drive, to work, school and shopping.)

"All three of these organizations are doing outstanding work," says Farr. "My job is to get them interacting and understanding one another. As I look at it, the whole is no better than the sum of its parts and visa-versa. In other words, you may have a green building, but if there is no way to reach it other than by car, is it green? Likewise, there may be an urban development closely linked to mass transit, shopping, jobs and schools, but if its buildings waste energy, water and materials, what is gained?"

Farr admits that his reasons for wanting to see LEED-ND standards established and certification given are at once altruistic and selfish. Yes, the environment will certainly fare better with more developers adhering to the precepts of green urbanism, but so will Farr Associates.

"Whenever we talked to clients about sustainable choices before LEED, their eyes would glaze over," he says. "LEED defined green. With LEED, we had something solid in hand, something to promote. LEED certification helped build the sustainable design market and I expect LEED-ND will do the same for green urbanism."

While Farr is working to make LEED-ND official, Farr Associates is not about to wait. When it comes to green urbanism, the firm already has an impressive list of projects. In fact, Farr forged a relationship with the City of Chicago to link his firm's practices to Mayor Richard Daley's campaign to make Chicago the "greenest city in America." One example of this campaign is the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT). As a transit-oriented design project, CNT is located only two blocks from the Chicago Transit Authority's Damen Ave. stop. (Most of CNT's 60 employees ride mass transit or, in nice weather, bike to work.) Formerly a weaving factory, the 15,000-square-foot space is now loft offices for CNT, a not-for-profit research group that provides environmental and energy efficiency information to community groups. A green building, therefore, was imperative for CNT.

The project, which has been submitted for a LEED Platinum rating, includes a number of innovative technologies. First, is the rain garden.

"Despite being in a dense urban setting, CNT has set aside 4,212 square feet of open space for a native plant garden adjacent to its newly renovated building," says Jonathan Boyer, principal, Farr Associates. "The eastern portion of CNT's roof empties its storm
water directly into the garden, which has swales and vegetated areas that allow the water to be filtered and naturally percolated into the aquifer below. The rain garden reduces both floodwater and water purification loads on the municipal water purification systems."

Another unique feature of the project is the thermal energy storage system. In simple terms, there is tank buried in the rain garden containing plastic balls filled with a non-toxic liquid that freezes. During the evening and at night when electricity rates generally are lower, the building's cooling system runs chilled water through the tank to freeze the stored balls. Then, during the day when electric rates are higher, the chiller is turned off and the heat exchange process runs in reverse; the chilled energy from the stored plastic balls is taken to a heat exchange in the HVAC to cool the building. The benefits of the system are at least two-fold: reduced energy charges to the building and reduced "peaking" loads on local electrical generating systems.

Another transit-oriented project is the Bethel Commercial Center, a project of Bethel New Life, Inc., a not-for-profit organization in Chicago offering services such as job training and housing assistance. Farr Associates' initial connection to this project began with the firm's involvement in saving the Chicago Transit Authority's Greenline train route. The architects contributed a land use plan that helped save the train line.

From this beginning, the partnership between Farr Associates and Bethel New Life resulted in a Neighborhood Center plan that created a pedestrian neighborhood anchored by a new park. As one part of this plan, Farr Associates also designed a 22,000-square-foot, two-story transit center equipped with retail space, employment offices and a daycare center. According to Kevin Pierce, principal and director of architecture, Farr Associates, a bridge connects the center to the elevated train station. Thus, the facility allows residents in this low-income neighborhood to drop off and pick-up children from daycare and travel to and from work, all without the use of a car. In addition, the center's retail space is helping to re-build the neighborhood.

Farr Associates designed this commercial center to achieve a LEED Gold rating. Green elements of the building include photovoltaic panels on the roof and a photovoltaic cornice that will shade the façade to reduce cooling loads; a water-based heating system; light shelves and sunlight shafts to harvest daylight and daylight-responsive lighting controls; a 9,000-square-foot vegetated roof to reduce heat gain and manage storm water run-off; and low emission paint, carpet, finishes and adhesives. Because of these and other green innovations, the building is expected to use 50 percent less energy than conventional construction.

Working with the City of Chicago's Department of Environment, Farr Associates served as the lead architect on the 34,000-square-foot Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT), a comfortable, energy efficient and environmentally responsible building. In recognition of this achievement, the building has received a LEED Platinum rating, the USGBC's highest rating. It was also awarded an AIA Top Ten Green award in 2003.

Constructed as a flagship building to complement Chicago's green agenda and to serve as a lab for sustainable design (tours are available), CCGT demonstrates a variety of innovative yet proven technologies. Some of these are solar panel electrical generation;
bio-swale filtered parking lot run-off; high-reflectance hardscape to reduce the "urban heat island" effect; high performance insulation; low-VOC paints and sealants; high-performance HVAC using ground source heat technology; and reclaimed wood from either pickle barrels or water towers.

Beyond Chicago, Farr Associates is currently working on creating a new plan for the aging downtown in Normal, IL.

"Normal is a quiet college town in the farm belt and is one of the most normal places in the country," says Farr. "However, our plan for downtown is anything but normal. The city is set to become the first municipality in the United States to require LEED certification for private sector buildings of more than 3,000 square feet. As such, Normal will jump beyond cities considered hotbeds of green design like Austin, TX, and Portland, OR."

Furthermore, in considering what could make downtown Normal a place that would prosper economically, environmentally and socially, Farr Associates introduced the concept of green urbanism to city planners. With its landscaped sidewalks, urban gathering greens and gardens, enhanced shopping districts and mixed-use lifestyle, the new downtown will be a place where people want to work, live and play.

Farr's dedication to all things environmental is rooted in the years he spent growing up in Detroit and going to college in Ann Arbor. In the early '70s while Farr was in high school, that decade's oil crisis hit the Motor City hard. Gas-guzzling cars became virtually obsolete, and as a result, Farr recalls that unemployment climbed to 22 percent.

"Detroit was the poster child for America's decaying cities," Farr says. "Then along comes Alex Pollock, the city planner. He had no money, but with a lot of chutzpah, he developed Detroit's Eastern Market and sold the idea of a trolley line through downtown, both of which were designed to get people walking around the city again. Through design and innovation, he redirected people to the city center. So, that was my world: cars were no longer efficient and people were once again walking around downtown."

At Ann Arbor, Farr jumped from economics to political science to pre-med to botany, before realizing that architecture was his place. He spent the summer of 1977 on a field study in northern Michigan examining the eco-systems of lakes. Clean air, natural beauty—but with too few people. Farr concluded that he was, after all, a city guy. Back at school, he enrolled in the School of Architecture.

After graduating, Farr moved to Chicago and found work with John Vinci whose practice focused on historic preservation. After four years of learning about green building from the perspective of historic architecture ("Years ago paint was made from chalk and water, so terms like non-toxic and low VOC were unheard of," Farr informs.), he enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. No surprise, the emphasis there was on urban design.

In his last semester, Farr chose Dan Solomon, a visiting architect from San Francisco, as his studio professor. Solomon's examples of affordable housing and design that was respectful of the street and pedestrians spoke to Farr. The semester was a turning point in Farr's career plans, which he directed toward city planning and efficient design.

Furthermore, Farr maintains a close working relationship with Solomon who is one of the founders of the Congress for New Urbanism.

Upon leaving New York, Farr moved to western Massachusetts and, with a fellow Columbia graduate, set up practice. In 1988, he met his future wife at a friend's wedding in Chicago. Two years later, he moved back to the Windy City and has been happily a married Chicagoan ever since.

Farr spent a short time working at Perkins & Will before opening Farr Associates in 1991. Committed to the practices he preaches, Farr and his 16 colleagues all ride public transportation to work. The firm recently moved into newly renovated offices in the Monadnock Building downtown, designed according to LEED-CI. Constructed in 1889, the 17-story building is the world's tallest masonry bearing wall building. Green elements of the work space include daylight triggers, wallboard and carpet with recycled content, true linoleum and non-toxic or low-VOC paints, finishes and adhesives.

Farr brings his work home with him, too. He and his family live in a transit-oriented design neighborhood. The family car sits in the garage most of the year waiting for drives to Detroit and St. Louis to visit family. Farr claims that if he puts 9,000 miles on the car in a year, then he has done a lot of driving.

The house Farr and his family enjoy was built around the turn-of-the-century, like the rest of the neighborhood. While the house is old, new furnaces and water boilers make it more energy-efficient.

As a proponent and practitioner of green building and green urbanism, Farr has discovered that he needs to be conversant in a variety of topics ranging from bricks to breathing. Moreover, he has learned that there are points at which the concerns of architects, developers and city planners conveniently intersect. The key, of course, is getting all of the players to recognize those intersections, as well. Which brings him full circle back to those organizational and interpersonal skills. The effort, says Farr, is well worth it.

"For our time, for our country, sustainable human environments are a necessity."

  • Farr Associates Architecture and Urban Design
    The Monadnock Building
    53 W. Jackson, Ste. 650
    Chicago, IL 60604
    (312) 408-1661


    Jonathan Boyer, AIA

    Jonathan Boyer joined Farr Associates as principal in 2004. He has been practicing architecture in Chicago since 1974. Boyer's work has focused on environmentally sustainable design standards combined with the aesthetics of a healthy and aesthetically compelling living environment. Environmentally sensitive designs have included community planning in Michigan, Colorado and New Jersey; earth sheltered designs; innovative technologies and transit-oriented design renovated buildings, including the Center for Neighborhood Technology offices in Chicago, which is applying for LEED certification. Projects range from daycare facilities, schools, theaters, office renovations and retail designs and include daycare facilities
    for the Illinois Facilities Fund (IFF) throughout Illinois; the Marillac House social care facility; the Sears Tower Sky Deck; streetscape renovation of Wacker Dr., and the creation of river design ordinances for the City of Chicago.

    Douglas Farr, AIA
    Founding Principal

  • President

    Identified by Architectural Record as one of five "Second Generation" New Urbanists, Farr established his firm in 1990. He has received recognition in Farr Associates' three areas of practice: sustainable architecture, urban design and planning, and historic preservation, as well as honors on a national level for making the connection between well-designed urbanism and environmentally conscious architecture. Farr implements the green urbanism agenda in national, regional and local forums, advocating the inherent ecological value of well-designed urban environments and its direct impact on our future quality of life. Committed to energy efficient and environmentally conscious design at both urban and architectural scales, Farr forged a relationship with the City of Chicago to link his firm's practices to Mayor Richard Daley's campaign to make Chicago the "greenest city in America."

    Kevin Pierce, AIA

  • Director of Architecture

    Kevin Pierce has 20 years of experience in architecture and urban design and has taught at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois, Chicago. A LEED Accredited Professional, he has participated in the design of over 20 environmentally directed buildings and urban plans in the past three years including six LEED-rated projects. He was a principal designer for the award-winning Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT) for the City of Chicago, which is the first and only Midwestern Platinum LEED building and just the third nationwide. Pierce is on the board of the Resource Center, a Chicago-based non-profit focused on urban agriculture and extreme recycling. He joined Farr Associates in 1998 after three years as an architect and director of planning for Lohan Associates. He spent the previous 10 years with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as an architect and senior urban designer.
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