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Green Giant
Doug Farr Aims for a Marriage of Environmental Responsibility and Good Urbanism

He's a successful architect, planner and urbanist, but he also was quite possibly born to be among the chief advocates for green buildings and sustainable communities.

Doug Farr, president and founding principal of Farr Associates Architecture & Urban Design, was shaped first by the energy crisis of the 1970s and continually evolved through an awareness of transit, sustainability, restoration and other elements that make him a sought-after guru of green.

"I am a guy who grew up in Detroit, Mich., and did so at a time of great tumult in the world, the country and my hometown," Farr says from his office inside Chicago's famed Monadnock Building. "In the 1970s, I was a high school kid in Detroit when the oil shock hit. I was the kid who went around and turned out the lights; energy was something important to me."

Farr says cities, town planning, revitalization and conservation were also on his mind as a Motor City high school student.

"Detroit, having the great highway system, decanted its vitality to the suburbs," he observes, pointing out that the city had a population of more than 2 million in 1950, but the latest census shows a population below 900,000 in the once-vibrant industrial center.

Farr went to college at the nearby University of Michigan, where his restless energy took him through "every major in the world: pre-med, pre-law, limnology, urban planning, biology, botany ."

Graduating with a degree in architecture in 1980, Farr was determined to go to work in his battered and bruised hometown, despite Detroit's devastating economy. "After graduation, I called the second largest firm in Detroit, expecting to get a secretary. The head of the firm picked up the phone and said, 'Get out of town. We moved the firm to L.A., and I'm just here closing things down.' He said to go to Chicago, that 'things are better there.'"

That storm cloud in Detroit had a silver lining for Farr in Chicago. It further developed his sense of tradition, restoration, preservation and sustainability.

"I worked for John Vinci, a wonderful man who has played a major role in preservation in the city of Chicago," Farr recalls. "He had just finished restoring the Sullivan Trading Room (artifacts from the tragically-demolished Adler and Sullivan 1893-94 Chicago Stock Exchange Building) in the Art Institute of Chicago. The second job was the Monad nock Building (a Burnham and Root classic where Farr's firm resides), then a Frank Lloyd Wright house."

Farr's next stop was more education at Columbia University, where he met Dan Solomon, one of the co-founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism. That helped solidify Farr's integration of green architecture with sustainable communities. By 1991, Farr had his own practice back in Chicago, the site of the 1993 American Institute of Architects convention that helped spawn green building.

Coming out of the convention, Farr worked with a group that created a master plan for transit-oriented development in Chicago. It helped convince the Chicago Transit Authority to save the Green Line that connects the Loop to Oak Park and the West and South sides.

"We came up with a sustainable kit of parts -- a menu of land uses," he says of development plans for areas surrounding transit stations. "Finally last year, we finished the first building at Lake & Pulaski -- halfway between the Loop and Oak Park -- in an area with 70 percent disinvestment."

In the late 1990s, Farr was part of the group that helped define LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building certification as a way of determining exactly what defines a high performance, green, sustainable building. Farr's firm went on to redesign the Chicago Center for Green Technology, a 1952 building that now uses solar and geothermal energy, and boasts a rooftop garden and natural habitat to filter storm water. The city of Chicago invested $9 million in clean-up costs and another $5.4 million toward construction and renovation. As a result, the Center for Green Technology became only the third LEED platinum building in the world. Farr Associates' Center for Neighborhood Technology also earned that distinction, making Farr the only architect on the planet with two LEED platinum buildings.

Nationwide, Farr is pushing to synthesize green building into new urbanism. "We are trying to get LEED to be more urban-friendly. The green building guys do very good work emphasizing stand-alone, drive-to buildings with huge parking lots,'' he says. "And new urbanists are building great communities but have no idea about green buildings."

"In Rosemary Beach, they throw away two houses worth of materials for every house built. The houses cost a fortune to repaint, the air conditioners rust and must be replaced, and there are other elements that are not as sustainable as they could be.

"My goal is to get the urbanists to be green building guys and get the green building guys to be urbanists."