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Visionaries

The future of sustainability according to Austin’s most influential green thinkers.

Four decades in, the co-directors of Austin’s Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems are still blowing minds and breaking new ground.

Vittori and Fisk at the center's East Austin headquarters.

It’s difficult to convey all the many, positive ways Gail Vittori and Pliny Fisk III have influenced Austin and the broader world beyond its borders. Collectively, as co-directors of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, they work as architects, designers, researchers, prototype developers, consultants to governments and industry, teachers, authors and mentors to many. Their focus is sustainability. In 1989, Vittori and Fisk helped develop the conceptual framework for the world’s first green-building program, giving birth to a movement that continues to sweep the planet. At once visionaries of the highest order and giving, caring, down-to-earth people, they ground all their work in the local community.

A CNN reporter once exclaimed that spending a day at the center’s 18-acre East Austin research and development laboratory “is like riding a rocket blast into the future.” We caught up with Vittori and Fisk and strapped in for a ride.

“We need to be bolder about pointing out relationships between building materials and human health.”

The center hosts a monthly open house.

...TreeHouse: More than 25 years ago, the center helped develop the concept of green building. What does the future of green building look like to you two?

VITTORI: The built environment is so fundamentally consequential in terms of human health. Health has long been an underlying issue for green building, but in the last couple of years it has become more prominent. I’m really interested in transparency and disclosure. We need to be a lot more precise and clear when we talk about healthy building. We need to be bolder about pointing out relationships between building materials and human health.

TREEHOUSE: Is this a matter of more government regulation?

VITTORI: Transparency and how we report the truth can be a shared opportunity between environmentalists, consumers and manufacturers. To date, a lot of the tension has been economic—because of negative health effects, X company can’t make Y product. But manufacturers are very successful when they’re nimble and look ahead and align themselves with a set of principles and values. Health is a common denominator that people rally around. This could potentially yield significant economic opportunities in terms of innovation and desired outcome. I hope we avoid controversy and divisiveness so that consumers, builders, manufacturers and standards organizations all get on board. I’m looking to a future time when transparency is expected....TREEHOUSE: How exactly do you increase transparency?

VITTORI: One of the things I’m personally involved with is the Health Product Declaration Collaborative. We’re seeking an open standard, known by the acronym HPD, for disclosing basic information about material ingredients that have negative health effects on the end user. The goal is for this standard to be adopted in the same way that Safety Data Sheets were adopted to address harmful chemical exposure in the workplace. We’re pushing for enhanced labeling to improve consumer awareness about health consequences at home. I’m hopeful the manufacturers that are early adopters of the HPD will set the bar for others and make them better able to respond to regulations that are likely to come at some point.

TREEHOUSE: How about you, Pliny? Where do you see the future of green building?

FISK: Texas ranks number one among states for climate-change-related disasters. That’s number one in terms of different types of disasters, number of disasters and value of property lost. We’re talking about drought, flooding, hurricanes, tornados. To our amazement, when we overlayed the disasters on a map, we realized there’s not a single place in Texas that’s not at risk. Whether we admit it or not, we’re entering the Anthropocene, a new epoch in the Earth’s development that’s drastically influenced by human activity. Once you admit that, you realize humans are not only part of the cause but can also be part of the solution.

“In the future, industries will work together so that input and waste become food for another industry.”

TREEHOUSE: What does this mean in terms of the built environment?

FISK: First, we’re trying to get good information about success stories that combat these issues. We’re working with a climate change group to create a working atlas that begins to share information for similar conditions statewide, nationally and internationally. That’s one level, a learning system that explains what people are doing to be resilient. The next level involves exploring the specific materials and techniques that combat natural disasters. Consider the 2011 Bastrop County wildfires [which burned 35,000 acres, destroyed 1,650 homes and killed two people]. It doesn’t take a person with a doctorate to realize that the fire shot up the outer walls of the houses and into the attic and actually exploded the houses from the inside out. Go to Tornado Alley and ask the same question—what forces actually cause destruction?—and you realize that wind rips off roofs and collapses buildings like a house of cards. As a response, we’re developing buildings with no overhangs. Instead of concrete foundations, the houses rest on cisterns. The water anchors the houses, serves as a heat sink to make heating and cooling more efficient and supplies backup water in case of an emergency. We’re also creating a localized wastewater treatment system that functions as a barrier to fire spread. It also pulls out toxins while producing beautiful plants, like calla lilies and rainbow irises. In this way, resiliency and beauty fit hand-in-hand into green building practices. Model for an eco-friendly Galapagos research lab.TREEHOUSE: So resiliency will become the next dimension? Do you still call it green building?

FISK: Green building has always been oriented towards healthy, sustainable materials. What’s changed? Now we’re having to address natural disasters and the building practices that are making climate change worse.

VITTORI: Words like green, sustainable, healthy and resilient have a broad, elastic meaning. I see what’s happening as the green-building vision finally filling out, refining what needs to be understood and embedded within the next generation of green concepts. Green, sustainable and resilient also apply broadly to manufacturing, food production and the chemical industry. They encompass a lot of different disciplines that are by definition connected, even if society doesn’t always recognize the connections.

FISK: In the future, industries will work together so that input and waste become food for another industry. They’ll work together in an ecological sense, the way plants and animals work together in great chains of symbiosis. Instead of using precious potable water to make concrete—a monumental problem—the water desalination and building industries are exploring ways to use sea water. Current thinking says to solve the growing water shortage by converting saline water into potable water, an energy-intensive process that yields magnesium oxide as a waste product. Guess what? Before the widespread use of Portland cement, magnesium oxide was a key ingredient in traditional, carbon-balanced cement. Instead of processing the water, why not use it directly to make cement rather than adding potable water to the mix?

Building systems are just part of the broader ecological web. Our center is based on the concept of systems—systems of thought, evolution, biology and so on. Systems thinking is part of our human DNA. It’s spelled out in our center’s founding document: “Everything is a system; if not, there would be no feedback, no evolution, no life. Living systems—biotic and abiotic—maximize potential futures; if not there would be no change. Potential Systems become life at the next step.”Adjustable solar shade roof at the center's campus.