While his decision was
a loss for the field of botany, Farr has been able to combine
his respect for the natural environment with his interest in
the urban landscape as an architect.
“ My calling is
to design elegant spaces that people love, which also are high
density,” says Farr, founding principal and president
of Farr Associates in Chicago. “The more dense a development,
the lower per person environmental impact.”
The foundation of his work as both an architect and urban
planner is to align his personal passion for sustainable development
with each client’s economic, aesthetic and practical
“I want to design buildings and communities that will
last and create enduring value for several generations,” says
Farr, identified by Architectural Record magazine as one of
five “Second Generation” New Urbanists.
Farr counts on concrete to achieve his sustainable development
“Concrete is one of the oldest materials available,” Farr
says. “We certainly can learn from the success of the
Romans. Their buildings have stood the test of time.”
In addition to creating buildings that last, Farr appreciates
concrete’s versatility. From leveraging concrete as a
thermal fly-wheel to creating clean, elegant finishes, architects
can make concrete work for them in many ways, he says.
Defining Green Design
Farr’s childhood in Detroit shaped his interest in sustainable
development. The oil shortage in the 1970s and the city’s
long-term decline made a deep impression on him.
As a young professional, Farr joined the American Institute
of Architects newly formed Committee on the Environment in
Chicago. That committee and the rich dialogue with other architects
struggling to define sustainable development helped to shape
Finding the market for sustainable development in the early
1990s was challenging. “We spent much of our time with
potential clients trying to explain green building instead
of focusing on our experience and past work,” Farr says.
The advent of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
(LEED) helped resolve much of the debate around green building
and really moved sustainable development forward, Farr believes.
“It created a market,” Farr says. “We no
longer had to waste time trying to define green building. LEED
provided a standard to design to.”
Hitting the Sweet Spot
A pivotal moment in Farr’s career resulted from a connection
made at a sustainable development competition during the 1993
AIA conference. His firm developed an extensive master plan
for a low-income neighborhood in Chicago. Farr Associates’ plan
became a political lever to save a section of the city’s
elevated train, and his small firm of three architects became
heroes and instant experts on transit-oriented development.
A component of that effort was designing the Bethel Commercial
Center, a mixed-use transit center. Designed to achieve a LEED
Gold rating, this building incorporates an insulated concrete
wall system to minimize energy usage, reduce noise transmission
and create a durable structure. Through the use of concrete
and other design innovations, such as lightshelves and sunlight
shafts, the building is expected to use 50 percent less energy
than conventional construction.
During this multi-year project, Farr and his firm had a chance
to do both urban planning and individual building design.
“Green urbanism, the combination of urban planning and
architecture, is the sweet spot; when you control both the
land use plan and building design suddenly much more is possible,” Farr
Farr’s passion for both site development and building
design culminates in his work as co-chair of the Leadership
in Energy and Environmental Design Neighborhood Development
(LEED-ND) committee, working to establish a national standard
that integrates the principles of green building and smart
growth. LEED-ND is expected to debut in 2006.
Farr sees significant opportunity to increase the dialogue
and interaction between the two disciplines. “For instance,
a structure may be designed using the principles of sustainable
development but if it is far from mass transit and doesn’t
connect with the broader community, is it really green? Likewise
there may be an urban development closely linked to mass transit,
shopping, jobs and more but if the buildings waste energy,
water and materials, what’s been gained?”
At Farr Associates, architects and urban planners work side-by-side
in a large, open drafting room overlooking downtown Chicago.
The firm spends about two-thirds of its resources on architecture
and one-third on urban planning.
“We greatly benefit from the cross fertilization occurring
between the two in our work, which makes us better professionals
and a stronger firm,” Farr says.
In his more than 20 years as an architect, Farr has seen sustainable
development move from a hard-to-describe concept to a requirement
of many projects. However, it remains a dynamic discipline.
One that continues to evolve, challenging architects to come
up with new ways to meet the needs of the structure’s
occupants while being good stewards of the environment.
Farr sees many opportunities open to forward-thinking architects
who embrace green design. “I am glad to be a young person,” Farr
says. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and I
want to be a part of it.”