In Our Hands
In Our Hands
Ep. 17. Doug Farr on Sustainability and Urban Design

Ep. 17. Doug Farr on Sustainability and Urban Design

Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Doug Farr about designing for sustainability, exploring urban solutions, and climate action.

In this episode of In Our Hands, Ramanan speaks with architect and urbanist Doug Farr. Farr shares his sustainability journey and the work of firm, Farr Associates.

They delve into Farr’s involvement in movement-building initiatives, the significance of community engagement and individual agency in driving change, and his book "Sustainable Nation," which focuses on urban design patterns and the need for climate action accelerants.

Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

In Our Hands is a production of Amasia. Follow these links for more about our firm, the Amasia blog, our climate fiction podcast, and Ramanan’s blog.

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Show Notes

[00:01:43] Doug's Background And Interest In Sustainability

[00:10:40] Sustainable Nation And Its Purpose

[00:13:09] The Search For Trends In Society And Their Timeframes 

[00:18:33] Creation Of The Climate Action Museum To Inspire Action

[00:25:07] Focus On Tangible Actions That Bring Joy And Happiness

[00:27:20] Approaching Projects With Future Energy Standards In Mind

[00:29:42] The Importance Of Balancing Science And Community In Climate Action

Doug Farr [00:00:00] The insight here was that in looking at the climate crisis and the climate emergency, I needed to respond to it; That the scarcest resource in this whole conversation was not silicone wafers or lithium or technology or money. It was time.

Ramanan [00:00:17] Welcome to In Our Hands, a podcast about the challenges and opportunities presented by the climate crisis. Each episode features a new thinker at the front lines of the battle to save our planet. Join us as we delve into the complexities of this global challenge and seek actionable ways to build a sustainable future.

Hello everyone. We are here with Doug Farr, today, Doug is a nationally recognized architect, urbanist, and author. He leads Chicago-based Farr Associates, a pioneering, sustainability-driven architecture and urban design firm that plans and designs lovable and aspirational buildings and places. He is also a leader of the sustainability movement, which is a major reason we asked him to consider speaking with us.

He's co-chairing the development of the US. Green Building Council's Lead for Neighborhood Development or LEED ND, and the author of the urban planning bestseller “Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature,” and “Sustainable Nation: Urban Design Patterns for the Future.” Doug, thank you for being on our little show here.

Doug Farr [00:01:29] Delighted to be here. Thank you.

Ramanan [00:01:31] And we're going to kick it off, as we always do, with a little biographical question. Could you give us the highlights and lowlights of your life and career? How did you get interested in architecture? And was sustainability always a part of that?

Doug Farr [00:01:43]  Sure. Thanks for asking. So I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, which doesn't seem like the hotbed of sustainability, but the time I grew up there, it was the hotbed for all kinds of things that drive my practice today.

So in the 1970s, I know many of your listeners weren't alive then, but I was. And it was the first time that the world sent a message about the importance of energy. So this is in 1973/1974 when the price of oil overnight went up four X and Americans made gas-guzzling cars and were immediately subsumed by principally the Japanese, who figured out a better, lighter, more energy-efficient car. And so I watched that happen to my hometown industry and I was the nerdy kid who was turning off the lights and scolding my parents about sweaters and all the kind of simple, superficial, behavioral things that you think you have agency over, which you do. But anyway, so fast forward to University of Michigan. Eleven undergraduate majors, hard sciences, soft sciences and then in the end, landing in architecture because I like to design and I like to draw. And so here we are.

Ramanan [00:03:02] Fascinating.

Doug Farr [00:3:04] Well, I don't know if it's fascinating. You're very gracious.

Ramanan [00:03:08]  Well, we need a few bullet points on the intervening decades.

Doug Farr [00:03:11]  Oh, yeah. It didn't end there. Okay, surely. So really launched my architectural career with a focus in sustainability. It wasn't called that then. In the 70s, it was called passive solar design. It was called environmental design. The word sustainability kicked in just before the turn of the century. Since then it's had many labels and flavors. Smart, resilient, robust. All these guns are healthy. All of these design labels apply to the work we do both in building design and place-making, and then started Far Associates in 1990, 33 years ago and since then have been, I believe, the sustainability leader in Chicago architects. The New York Times said so.

Ramanan [00:04:04] Just quote them. It must be true.

Doug Farr [00:04:08] Well, the paper of record said so, so I'm just hanging my hat on that. But no, the more important thing is a sustained attempt to continue to pioneer at every stage and never settle for good enough. And so the things that we thought were great and were pioneering and were demonstration projects in the 90s are nothing today. We did our best then, but we now know how to do so many more miraculous things. And so our practice on the architecture side focuses on all-electric high-performance buildings. We often embrace the Phius standard, passive house, U.S standard, which is a high conservation standard, voluntary for buildings. But we know how to design predictably buildings that use half, sometimes two-thirds less energy than a code-compliant building.

And that was guesswork not so long ago and now it's reliable. And the more important part of the equal in importance to the energy performance that we're able to get is we have a fairly narrow range of predictable cost premiums. So for example, a recent multifamily project we did that uses half the energy of a code-compliant building we believe that we built for a 7% cost premium, so everyone would like it to be 0% cost premium. Like I've got something twice as good and it didn't cost me any more.

That, along with unicorns, leprechauns, and other things are things to dream about. But in the practical world, we're just offering a higher value, higher performance project at some premium and it's left to the client to say is it worth 7% to reduce my energy by 50% and my fossil fuel consumption by 100? So that's kind of where we're at and lots of stories to tell about that.

Ramanan [00:05:59] Well, I'm going to ask one more sort of not so much biographical, but about Far Associates, which is your client base national, international, primarily Chicago area? Do you limit yourself geographically in that sense? Just commentary on that? Because I suspect some of our listeners will listen to this, go to the website and want to know where you operate.

Doug Farr [00:06:21] Sure. Most of our building projects are Chicago, Illinois and Midwest. Our planning projects go to Texas and California, Florida, so we're national more on the planning side. I'll just say there's method to this limitation, which is we think it's important that architects know how to design optimally for their climate. And so for me to pretend to be an expert in Texas or in Alaska would just not be true. So we would be out of our element.

And I do think there's a regionalism to the best high-performing buildings is we really know how to make a building sing for a Chicago climate, which is a place where buildings should put on a winter coat and also take it off in the summer and be a fun, kind of breezy, airy, comfortable place to be. So the expertise to do that is hard-earned and takes many years. And so we optimized around climate zones four, five, and six.

Ramanan [00:07:25] That was a super useful and insightful answer. I'm going to move us into the meat of our discussion. I have a question on applications, and then we'll mostly talk about the book. You're an active movement builder, to put it that way. You helped create the US Green Building Council's lead for Neighborhood Development, and you had the Carbon Free Chicago Project, which is a 30-year campaign for the Equitable transition away from fossil fuels. How do these different roles work alongside each other and alongside your business? Explain to us how they all fit.

Doug Farr [00:08:00]  Sure. So I will say there's kind of a synergy between my desire to establish and run a business to demonstrate the cutting edge of sustainability, to pioneer techniques and assemblies and entire buildings that prove what just a year or two ago seemed impossible or non-attainable or impossibly expensive. So we've run the business to be that sort of cutting-edge firm to gain clients.

What I've learned over the years is that my opinion about what that is and whether it's a good idea to do is just one person's opinion. So I found it more useful that there be a forward-looking third party that can validate that what I'm suggesting our clients do has been validated by a third party. And so basically, don't take my word for it that what I'm proposing to do for you is the right thing.

Listen to the US Green Building Council, or listen to this group called Carbon Free Chicago who are thoughtful, the right people with the right thinking, who have blessed it and believe too that it is the right thing. And then in the case of LEED Nd, we were way out ahead of the curve in terms of proposing that the insights of the green building movement people may associate with the term lead in the US Green Building Council could apply just as well to larger scale master plan places. In fact, there are some things that you can only do with scale of a master plan place, but USGBC and LEED didn't know that or didn't get that right at the time.

So we pioneered that. And so, famously, we turned in a project in advance of LEED MD to a master planning client, the local regional transfer authority here, and it had green building elements in it. So it had an illustration with buildings that had green roofs and the streets were designed to store stormwater, and there were solar panels and so on. We turned it in and just no extra charge for my mind. We're giving you the future for free. And they said, what is all this stuff? We didn't ask for this. And who thinks it's a good idea? And please take it away. It's like, oh my gosh, boy, do we have a problem here.

So that was honestly the spark that launched the journey of 1000 miles to create LEED Neighborhood development. To say all of those things that we showed you in that rendering that you couldn't make sense of are now described in a standard called LEED Neighborhood development. It's national, it's actually global. So it's a good idea. Don't take my word for it. Those things work together. The business, what the business needs and what the business needs to create markets.

Ramanan [00:10:40] Got it. That was a super helpful and eloquent explanation. I'm going to move to books and we'll do Sustainable Nation, which was published in 2018 as a follow-up to Sustainable Urbanism. It's a really interesting book. It draws in all these fields which kind of plays to my general view of the world, which includes neuroscience, sociology, history, environmental science. It is visual. It has contributions from many people for listeners who may not be familiar with the book. Could you give us a bit of an overview and what led you to write it?

Doug Farr [00:11:12] Sure. So my publisher, John Wiley and Sons, had asked for an update on my earlier book, “Sustainable Urbanism,” published in 2008. When I sat down to write this book about 2014 and 2015, even in the short span of seven years, the industry, the world pertaining to sustainability and climate had moved so far that the thought of reheating something that was cutting edge, written in 2006 and 2007, just seemed untenable. So much to the surprise of John Wiley and Sons. The book I turned in was not sustainable. Urbanism Two. It was Sustainable Nation, a book that had a very different ambition. And so it started out there's a famous book in design circles called Pattern Language by a now deceased professor from Oregon named Christopher Alexander.

And this book was just kind of a bible for so many of us that documented traditional patterns of design at different scales, at the scale of city planning, buildings, sometimes down to the level of a window or a chair, all this kind of stuff. And it was just kind of you could sleep with it under your pillow and it had application for kind of so many aspects of life.

So we wanted to do a future version of that. So that's what the pattern, the subtitle of Sustainable Nation was urban design patterns for the future. So his was mining history and that's all well and good and they're still timeless, but we wanted to reach into the future and say, what are the things that we should be anticipating? 71 Patterns by, as you mentioned rightly, a diverse set of co-authors and co-collaborators on the 71 patterns. So that was the core of the book. And then a second part came along when we really sat down to do we were trying to generate a pattern on time and the insight here was that in looking at the climate crisis and the climate emergency I needed to respond to it.

[00:13:09] That the scarcest resource in this whole conversation was not silicone wafers or lithium ore or technology or money. It was time. And so asking the question what is the fastest way to change? And so that became a kind of late-in-the-game obsession that got recorded in Sustainable Nation.

And so famously the story on that one was we were looking for trends, long-term trends, particularly in the United States where we could show that some action that society was taking reversed itself and to ask the question how long did that take? And so we were looking for analogs to we now burn fossil fuels in the future, we hope not to.

How long does a reversal like that take? Right? So that's the question we were asking. So the best sort of study that we found was cigarette smoking cessation. It was a great study, not because of the harm of cigarette smoking, but because it was so well documented and we had great data. And what we figured out was if the United States reversed, if the United States decarbonized, that is, stopped burning fossil fuels at the same rate following the same reversal curve as cigarette smoking cessation, we would decarbonize fully by the year 21 50 which is 125 years from now and far slower than any of us can tolerate.

That was a shocker. Oh my goodness, I hope not to find this, but we just found this. And so other parts of the book evolve to focus then on accelerants which is what are those things that we can techniques, strategies, campaigns and so on we can apply to speed things up? Sustainable Nation is those three things. It is the patterns, it is the recognition of the scarcity of time and timelines, and then its accelerants.

Ramanan [00:15:04] That was amazing. And there's so much in what you just said that resonates with how we think. And believe it or not, I have written a very mediocre book on behavior change for the climate and the example I have used in it is that of smoking sensation. So that just tells you something. Let's talk theory of change because the one thing you did not mention and does show up in the book, if I'm reading it right, is the importance of community. What led you to think about the community in such a substantive way? And if this is the case by the way, I believe it. How do our strategies change?

Doug Farr [00:15:42] One observation I will make as it pertains to much of the busyness and sometimes activity around promoting climate action, taking action to mitigate harm. Right? So my overall observation it is more often than not someone suggesting that someone else needs to change or someone else needs to go first. So oh well, the climate, it's a really big problem. You know what government needs to do. Yeah, that's right. We really need to act, but I'm not going to do anything until China is perfect and so I'm going to sit this out.

So we've got these kind of a whole world of actors and we're empowering them individually to give us a pretext to not act. And so it's always like well, if you go first or I'm kind of sitting this out, but I talk a good game to put it on someone else. That's one observation. And then the second observation is I believe that there is a again, in climate there's so many cerebral, even business cases like oh, we should all invest in renewables because we know that for a new kilowatt of production, it's the lowest cost, cheaper than nuclear and blah, blah, blah. We should do it for the business case and we should do it because it's the right policy, all these kinds of things.

And what we overlook is that we are all causing it. And so government has very severe limits on how much it can actually intervene in your life to cause you to change your conduct. It can tax you, it can make something more expensive or less expensive. Actually. We don't tax people, we subsidize because the politics of taxation just don't work.

But when you compare, again, cigarette smoking to fossil fuels, what you find is all of these same measures of like the government will tax you, the government will ban bars won't serve you if you smoke in them. All these kinds of things were attempts to get around the fact that what it comes down to is an individual quits smoking. Society doesn't quit smoking for them. Government doesn't quit smoking. The bar didn't quit smoking, they quit smoking. And so the other thing is when you look at the behavioral details around cigarette smoking cessation, if your family smokes, you smoke.

If your family doesn't smoke, you don't smoke. If your friends quit, you quit. And so it's a social network. Contagion is the wrong word. We are social beings. And to think that climate and carbon aren't also subject to that same kind of prompts and nudges is silly. Of course it is.

[00:18:33] And so maybe since the materials we sent you for this podcast because we've been trying for so long to schedule it in that intervening time we stood up something called the Climate Action Museum here in Chicago. It opened on June 21 and so this is the next series of activist things that we've been involved in.

Yeah, and so that exists. And the premise of that is several things. One is when you come in the door, it's a physical space. 300 South Riverside Plaza in Chicago. If anybody's traveling, hit me up, we'll go over there. We think it's the world's 8th museum devoted to climate and it says nothing about climate disasters, nothing about fires, polar bears floating on icebergs, any of that stuff. So zero triggers for people shifting from a conversation that I would like to be about what action can you take to make this better to, you know, how bad it's going to be.

Do you hear the latest story about how bad it's going to be which I think arrests action so we don't trigger anything. Number two, we had an exhibit last year called The Energy Revolution and I was a curator and gave about 40 talks. And what I realized in talking face to face to people and coming out of COVID one, we were hungry to talk and two, most of those people that showed up under the surface felt that we had already failed at climate, that it was too late and they were defeated and whatever. So at the Climate Action Museum we greet people at the front door with a simple sort of four button survey. How do you feel like society is doing on climate? What's your emotion about it? The options are engaged, optimistic, pessimistic and defeated.

And so we take people's temperature on the way in and on the way out and we're seeing some initial this is not statistically significant anything so I would label this anecdotal but people come in and the process of going through the museum leave some of them…some of them seem to leave a little less defeated.

We'll go from defeated to pessimistic or whatever optimistic to engage. So they're moving up one position there's no one has come in defeated and leaves energized that has not happened. But the idea of creating an experience, an in person often docent led experience that could cause people's emotions to go from why bother? Because we've already lost, to there's something here I can do. And so our sole focus is on things you have agency over.

So the last wall is a big wall that says if you're president, goodness, we have a long list of things we'd like you to do governor, rather a long list homeowner car owner, business owner, all these kinds of things architect, policy person, whatever, down to kid. So our thesis is everybody has agency. It's never even but we honor you with the recognition that you have at least if you're a kid you can complain to your parents about they're not doing it right and they will do something to shut you up. Kids have agency. This is in some ways also our response to a crying need to address environmental justice that the harm is disproportionately focused and the benefits are unevenly available, all those kinds of things. But one thing we all do have is agency. And so we celebrate each person's agency and try and get them to connect with the things that they can tangibly.

Ramanan [00:22:01] I mean just about everything you're saying here just resonates massively with me personally and our investment thesis at a very personal level. I am someone who quit smoking for a very long time. Being a smoker, which by the way makes me very unusual in the VC business. And I quit when I got to California and around me the idea of smoking was anathema in a way that is not true for many other parts of the United States. So this idea that when you were saying if your friends quit, you quit, if everyone around you is not doing it or is doing something else, it adds up. We're going to motor along here and I'm going to pick and choose from our remaining questions since you published the book. Any surprises change happening faster or slower than you expected in certain things?

Doug Farr [00:23:06] Thanks for asking. So I would say slower. So, authors, we delude ourselves into thinking if I just choose the right words and make it quite appealing on the page and choose a nice color palette, et cetera, oh, people will just grab this and pick it up. And so no, it is not that way. And honestly, some of the thesis and our theory of change is a little counterintuitive. It takes some convincing of people and so it's not a set of ideas that passively advance through brownie in motion. They take active engagement and discussion and debate honestly, which is in the back of my mind one of the reasons to change the format for this engagement to an in-person place, the Climate Action Museum where a live docent is leading you through it, challenging you to think differently. There's no email that will move anyone. That’s the other thing is just the fallacy that social media or virtual things in my opinion, almost make any difference at all.

And so there's a New York Climate Museum that took a very different stance and was focusing on directing people to do things like write your bank or plan to post on social media. These were the kind of aggressive climate actions that the New York Climate Museum was advocating for. To which I say like, you don't have any agency over how I bank at Bank of America. I'm going to call them, what am I going to say and what are they going to do? Hi, I have an account this much money and I'm really mad at you for this or that. If you took their prompt and devoted the scarce time you're going to give in your life to climate action and that's what you did with your scarce time. Why bother? Why bother?

[00:25:07] So we've really focused on the very tangible things. If you own a car and it's a gas car, please plan to swap it out or use it less. Or what about the walking and the biking? Those kinds of things. So very specific things. And we're looking for those things that give people joy and happiness. Independence of its climate benefit - better be fun or people don't want to do it.

Ramanan [00:25:29]  I cannot tell you how much I'm sounding like a stuck record. All of this resonates with how we think about the world. And above all, there's so much doom-saying and people are getting paralyzed, which is just a terrible outcome. And individuals have more agency than they think. I'm going to move to our last question, and it's about patterns, which you mentioned in the book for our audience. Could you share a few of your favorites and how do you see patterns of working together?

Doug Farr [00:26:02] The patterns in Sustainable Nation were written in a kind of omnipotent voice. So several of my favorites include guidance for architects. For example. My favorite - there's so many favorites. One I'll mention is, so I'm based in Chicago where many of the firms that design the world's tallest buildings practice, so the firms, you know Gensler, ASGG, all these firms design across the Mideast, across the world, mega tall buildings. And so the pattern is to design mega tall buildings and goes on to say this is just a bad idea.

And yet you all are consumed with a race to build taller and taller and taller. Just stop. So that's one. Another one for the everyday architect is many architects, I think, have clients who simply want a building and that wants it to be legal and neat code and they can occupy it and do whatever profit-making enterprise they're going to do in it.

[00:27:20] But the power of firms and developers and architects and so on who voluntarily exceed the code, those projects pave the way for the code to get more rigorous over time. Because the question with every new code that wants to be tougher on energy is are people able to do it?

Evidently, there are people that are voluntarily doing it, so now we can require it. So that kind of voluntary exceedance is a really powerful accelerant. So another pattern is approach every project as though this will be a little nerdy, but passive house, which is the super insulation standard I mentioned a few minutes ago, approach every project as though passive house, which will be the energy code in the future, were in effect today. So essentially live in 2028 and act accordingly because their standards are better and there's nothing illegal about holding yourself to a higher standard. So that's another one and maybe I'll just pick a third one that's kind of from a different realm.

Design. It reads design urban waters to delight the senses. So let me unpack that. So you think of a city and it rains and what are you thinking of? You want to get inside and you want to get out of the rain. Well, since the Romans, we have been very focused on capturing water, putting it in a pipe or a tunnel, and conveying it away so that no standing water is there and you don't ever get wet. And so our cities are dreary places to be in when it's raining because there's no fun. You don't ever see the water. It falls on the roof. The downspouts are internal to the building. They go into underground pipes. It's like I thought it was raining here. Where's all the falling water? So this is one that says whether you are using delight, all the senses so sound, hearing, even taste on your face, all this kind of stuff.

[00:29:42] So as a guiding principle, a pattern for making a living, lively, joyous city that when it rains, say, hey, it's raining, let's go outside. It's awesome, let's do that. There's 68 others, so tell me when you want to start.

There are a couple on Burning Man that are kind of fun too. One of them is hold an annual neighborhood event based on the ten principles of Burning Man. And I think you asked about community a while ago where I think sort of the climate action has a kind of nerd science policy, business sense, and probably your tech, VC, some of your investors and clients are about offering products into a marketplace to move things forward. There's a sort of spiritual, emotional, community side that I think is underrepresented. And so, you know, I believe in both. You got to do both and the patterns are pointed.

Ramanan [00:30:13] Those are some great examples, Doug. The dream is that more architects and planners incorporate these ideas in their designs. To find out more about Doug's work and sustainable design, you can find him on That's Doug, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today and I know our listeners will have really enjoyed it. Thank you. 

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In Our Hands
In Our Hands
In Our Hands is a podcast series featuring interviews with climate and sustainability experts on the front lines of climate action, emphasizing behavior change. Guests include researchers, journalists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, authors, and more.