by Dennis Rodkin
Architect :: Farr Associates
Architect Doug Farr's current project in Ravenswood is an anti-"McMansion." Instead of making a statement on how much money its occupant spent, this house is a testament to how much its owner will save—on energy bills. The handsome structure comes topped with a V-shaped roof, which suggests a butterfly's open wings but conceals an array of solar panels. You certainly can't tell by looking at it that, when complete in the fall, the structure will be the first "zero net energy" home in Illinois, and possibly even the Midwest. (Zero net energy means it captures or generates as much energy as it uses annually, making no net withdrawal from the municipal power grid.)
"McMansions are so 20th century," says Farr, who hopes the project will go a long way toward changing the neighborhood's concept of 21st-century Chicago homes. "Changing your light bulbs is a good idea," Farr says, "but that's more of a behavioral change. We need to start building solutions into our cities."
Last year, Farr, 50, took this argument further with a book called Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature. With blueprints for forward-thinking projects such as replacing impervious street paving with a material that lets water percolate into the soil, the book is Farr's attempt to convince urban planners that, like a zero-net-energy house, massive change is an attainable goal.
Farr brings a wealth of experience to his message. He designed the Chicago Center for Green Technology and Christy Webber Landscaping's headquarters on the West Side, two of the five buildings in Chicago to receive the highest LEED rating: platinum. And his firm's portfolio boasts many other projects with innovative, eco-sensitive features. The architect himself has been working to integrate sustainable elements into the construction field since 1987, when he finished architecture school at Columbia University. He says he began thinking about how to make cities greener and more sustainable as a teenager in Detroit in the 1970s, when he used to ride a bus to and from high school through a devastated city. "I would see the auto plant being torn down and the depopulated neighborhoods. It was starting then: the beginning of urban decay. What do you do about it?"
The answer: Reach a little further, think a little smarter—the V-shaped roof of the Ravenswood house, for example. "I'm not interested in doing half measures," he says. "It means constantly raising the bar, but raising the bar is what climate change demands of all of us."
Photograph: Anna Knott