Published August 19, 2021
Obsessed With Impact
Featuring: CannonDesign’s Eric Corey Freed
By Jen Levisen
California Institute for Technology (Caltech) Resnick Sustainability Resource Center.
I first met Eric Corey Freed at a wellness architecture conference in early 2019. He’s an architect, founder, author, teacher, speaker, and self-proclaimed sustainability comedian — “I don’t like the term ‘climate change.’ It sounds too clinical. I also don’t like ‘global warming’ as it sounds too pleasant. I’ve stopped using those terms. Instead, I call it “climidia.” Make it sound like a disease, nobody wants our planet to have a disease.” I say we make sustainability comedy a thing, and get Eric on more stages.
Comedy aside, that introduction to Eric and the conversations at that conference were the beginning of our sustainability focus here at the Forum and over on Mortarr — from the stories we tell, to the information we share, to the connections made. I caught up with Eric earlier this summer to learn a little more about the man behind the jokes, his latest book, and how he and CannonDesign are going to change the world.
JL: How did your interest in sustainability and sustainable design and building practices start?
ECF: My interest in sustainability began when I was still in high school. Way back then it was the crazy 80s, and sustainability wasn't really a word we used at the time. There were barely any recycling efforts, and Jim Hansen’s NASA report on climate change had just come out. My interest was in a fringe group of passive solar architects that were designing off-grid buildings.
In college I became obsessed with understanding the impacts that materials have by designing ways to build buildings that adapt to their site by capturing the sun, wind, and light. I was always obsessed with Frank Lloyd Wright, and started writing away to his former apprentices. They were my first mentors, and showed me how to design in harmony with nature.
JL: Thinking back over the course of your career, what are some of the moments that were pivotal to your professional growth?
ECF: I was fortunate to have great mentors at a young age. This really set me on a very non-traditional career path. I was always pretty fearless, but also I don’t think I knew any better. I saw things I wanted to do and just gravitated toward them.
Before graduation, I moved from Philadelphia up to New York to work under Beverly Willis on some innovative schools. Two years later, I moved to Santa Fe to work on deep green homes made out of adobe, straw bale, rammed earth, and more. So in a very short period of time I got to work on innovative, green projects and, more importantly, saw directly how to run a visionary design practice. I launched my own firm in 1997 designing green homes in the Bay Area.
Eric Corey Freed courtesy of CannonDesign.
JL: Was there a point where that work, your own firm, started to feel like not enough?
ECF: In 2001, I started getting restless again and realized I wanted to extend my impact. For me, happiness is really about having a positive impact. So I started writing, teaching, speaking, and consulting. I wasn’t sure if I would be good at any of those things, but really was looking for ways to have more impact than one project at a time. I started writing articles, then books. I started teaching one course, then designing entire curriculums. I started advising small startups, then consulting to Fortune 500 companies. That’s the point — just start.
Fast forward to today and I’ve written 12 books (so far), lectured to 350,000+ people in seven countries and all 50 states, and learned a ton on how to transform companies to profit from sustainability.
JL: Tell us more about your latest book, Circular Economy for Dummies. What brought on the idea or need for the book?
ECF: The book started with one of my grad students from Boston Architectural College, Kyle Ritchie. I mentor my grad students to find ways to have a positive impact with their projects. So after he graduated, Kyle kept bugging me about writing a book with him. His background is in biology and science, and the Circular Economy is this elegant framework for how to redesign the world to eliminate waste, carbon, and resource depletion. Since the Circular Economy was huge in Europe, but relatively unknown here in the US, it seemed like the perfect topic for us to cover in this first book together.
We wrote the book during the pandemic through 2020 and it was released this spring. It’s a ton of work. I hate writing, but I love having written.
In writing any book there are always things you are surprised you learned, and for me it was discovering hundreds of amazing companies doing amazing things with the Circular Economy framework. We feature 350 different stories in the book, and profile 25 of them in longer sidebars.
JL: What advice would you give to architects interested in sustainable and resilient design?
ECF: What are you waiting for?! Your clients desperately need you to provide them with bold, robust, regenerative buildings. Don’t wait for them to ask. We have a moral and ethical obligation to push them toward net zero energy, healthy and resilient buildings now. The best part? If you do it right, it actually saves your client’s money.
A quarter of the Fortune 500 companies have made carbon neutrality commitments already. All of them have some type of sustainability commitments. It’s our job to show them how to get there.
"What are you waiting for?! Your clients desperately need you to provide them with bold, robust, regenerative buildings. Don’t wait for them to ask. We have a moral and ethical obligation to push them toward net zero energy, healthy and resilient buildings now. The best part? If you do it right, it actually saves your client’s money."
CJ Blossom Park, South Korea.
The Future Depends on How We Design Today
JL: So after establishing your own firm, teaching, writing books, speaking engagements — the list goes on — what brought you to CannonDesign?
ECF: You could say we found each other! I've been looking for a large firm to call home in which I could test out some of my ideas around sustainability and doing net zero energy buildings at scale. For most of my career I was on my own with my own small firm. Over the last decade, I’d been focused on sustainability nonprofit work at Urban Re:Vision, a global think tank that helped cities develop regenerative, urban blocks; the International Living Future Institute and EcoDistricts.
CannonDesign had just gone through an internal process to figure out what their next 100 years should look like, and that included deep commitments to sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion, and really delivering an integrated multidisciplinary approach to design. When we spoke about how we could work together, it really settled on one word — impact.
JL: What does your role as CannonDesign’s Director of Sustainability entail?
ECF: I think I've got the best job in the entire firm!
I get to collaborate with all of the project teams across the entire firm. My role is really just to make the projects better by listening to our clients and showing them the opportunities that sustainability can bring. Specifically, I’m using a change management strategy to implement innovation across our projects. More specifically, I'm not selling our clients on sustainability but rather I'm selling them on the outcomes and benefits that sustainability brings.
JL: What does a typical day look like? Wait — do you even have a typical day?
ECF: So a typical day includes a design kick off workshop for a new project, discussing strategies to reduce embodied carbon on a project, crafting approaches for proposals for potential projects, and researching new materials.
JL: How are you helping to position CannonDesign as a leader in sustainable and resilient design?
ECF: There are amazingly talented people at CannonDesign who already understand the value of sustainability. When I came in I didn't need to convince anybody of that! The challenge was finding ways to incorporate it into our process in a way that's seamless.
To do this, we committed to four very clear things: first, we need to target net zero energy on every single project; second, we need to cut the embodied carbon of our projects in half by 2030; third, we need to deploy a healthy material strategy on every single project; and lastly, we need to develop a resiliency strategy for our clients and their portfolios.
CannonDesign was already an early signatory of the AIA 2030 commitment, and in addition we've signed on to several other industry commitments, including the SE2050 Commitment, which pledges to reduce and eliminate the embodied carbon in our projects by 2050.
Every project has the opportunity to incorporate deep sustainable strategies into their designs.
Left: California Institute for Technology (Caltech) Resnick Sustainability Resource Center. Right: Yountville Veterans Home Featured in North Bay Business Journal.
JL: Can you tell us about some projects you are currently working on? Or ones that make you excited for what’s to come?
ECF: Every project I'm working on is super exciting, which isn’t something every architect gets to say!
Some of the projects I’m working on currently include the CalTech Resnick Center for Sustainability. For Caltech, our Yazdani Studio is designing the new 75,000-square-foot Resnick Sustainability Resource Center to be the greenest building on an already pretty green campus. It will house resource centers with expert staff and state-of-the art equipment, including research into efficient solar fuels, smart electricity infrastructure, mitigation of climate change, and ways to improve soil fertility in a changing climate. New teaching laboratories will be housed in the same building, allowing their undergraduate laboratory courses to seamlessly integrate with these cutting-edge research facilities.
Also, the Yountville Veterans Home Memory Care Facility. This $269 million, 240-bed skilled nursing and memory care center is using more than 20 strategies that improve health outcomes, safety and staff well-being of the residents and staff. It will be the greenest facility of its kind when complete. It features a communal dining room built of cross-laminated timber, and multiple state-of-the-art sustainability and air filtration methods.
And a project at the Children's Hospital of Orange County, which is a new nine-story 333,000 SF Outpatient Clinic Building consisting of specialty care and mental health clinics, ambulatory surgery center, diagnostic imaging, outpatient infusion center, retail pharmacy, and research wet lab space. It will be the greenest building CHOC has ever done.