A Discussion with Charles Harris About Sustainable Thinking Part Two

The below is part two of an interview with Architect Charles Harris discussing sustainability, architecture, and distributing PPE for Covid-19 first responders. For readers interested in part one of the interview, please visit: You were recently highlighted for your efforts to distribute PPE for Covid-19 first responders.  Tell us about that effort. The first weeks […]

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Charles Harris
Charles Harris

The below is part two of an interview with Architect Charles Harris discussing sustainability, architecture, and distributing PPE for Covid-19 first responders. For readers interested in part one of the interview, please visit:

You were recently highlighted for your efforts to distribute PPE for Covid-19 first responders.  Tell us about that effort.

The first weeks of the pandemic in March and April 2020 were especially challenging for me.  My wife is an internal medicine resident at one of New York’s hardest hit hospitals, and was one of the first people to treat patients.  Hospitals were overwhelmed, healthcare workers were getting sick, and PPE ran low quickly. 

At the same time, I saw grassroots efforts among the architecture community to use our skills and resources to help out.  Architects were designing, laser cutting, and 3d printing all sorts of PPE. After careful research and consultation with my wife and her colleagues, I saw an opportunity to help by providing plastic face shields to help protect doctors and first-responders.  They’re not actually PPE, but they’re supplemental equipment to help protect the PPE from droplets and fluids when in close contact with patients. 

The final piece of the puzzle was my company, SOM, which recognized the needs of its community and was eager to help.  Almost everyone knew someone who was impacted, whether it was a first responder, a neighbor, a friend.  The partnership was eager to help the community and generous in supporting the production and distribution.

So you had them 3d printed?

Lasercut, actually.  “3d Printing” is a common catchphrase that people love to use because it sounds super cool.  I’ve actually had a lot of experience with 3d printing, I helped run the 3d printing lab in grad school and have probably printed at least a thousand times.  It’s an amazing specialty design and prototyping tool, but it’s not yet a very efficient way to mass produce items.  In this case, laser cutting allowed our partners to produce over 300 per day…probably ten times the amount you could do with a 3d Printer, depending on the design.

How did you distribute them?

This was a collaborative process, and I’m thankful to my colleagues at SOM for reaching out to medical professionals all over the NYC area and the broader Northeast.  At that point, many of the medical institutions were overwhelmed, and the procurement offices were overwhelmed as well.  But doctors and nurses needed whatever they could get, so we went straight to those people who needed them the most and shipped the face shields directly.  We also canvassed web forums to find medical professionals who had put out calls for help.  We called them randomly, and they were grateful for the assistance and generosity of their fellow New Yorkers.  In the end, we distributed 5000 face shields to almost 50 hospitals, care facilities, and nursing homes all over the Northeast.  We placed special emphasis on trying to get them to the lesser-known facilities that were especially hard-hit.

Switching topics a bit here…You’ve developed a bit of a cult following on instagram.  How did your “stone stories” begin?

It all started a few years ago when I visited a stone quarry for a project I was working on.  Stone quarries are such immense and scaleless places, especially the underground ones.  They’re like whole other worlds: prehistoric places, built over hundreds of millions of years, that have been hollowed out by humans in the past few decades in abstract and geometric shapes.   They’re such fascinating worlds, I wanted to share them with friends. 

Why did this catch on?

I tried to set it up as a storytelling exercise, utilizing the format of instagram to discuss the process of how stone gets from the earth to a final product.  I eventually expanded it to discuss other uses of stone that I found fascinating. I think people like learning entertaining tidbits combining geology, history, and design.  Or maybe they think “getting stone” is funny.  Or perhaps people just like things on instagram that aren’t food/baby/travel photos.

What was your favorite stone story?

I love when geological processes are showcased in the final product.  In northern Canada, we found a limestone formed by settlement of layers at the bottom of a seabed hundreds of millions of years ago. It has these powerful and perfectly linear horizontal stripes.  Because of gravity, the lines of seabed settlement are perfectly straight.  When this stone is used on all four walls of a room, you can create the impression of immersion in this prehistoric environment. To top it all off, if you look closely, you will find tiny little fossilized animals that are now extinct.  The material transports you to a different world, and you can see history in the walls around you.

Another favorite piece was related to last year’s installation by German artist Alicja Kwade, called “ParaPivot,” which was installed on the roof of the Met Museum in New York City.  For this piece, she created massive spheres from different types of exotic stones, and suspended them at various points of a lightweight steel support frame.  In the end, it gave the impression of different stone “planets” floating around you.  Again, the beauty of the natural material transported you to a different world.

What are your other architectural fascinations?  What is Charles Harris’s next pet project?

Housing is a big one, and an area where we have gotten a lot wrong in the past.  The pandemic will force us to think differently about spending so much time at home, and how we blend living spaces with spaces to work and play.  I’m also interested in the way in which technology continues to transform our spaces.  And in the disciplinary challenges, the way that architecture continues to evolve in dialogue with the changing world around us.  One of the incredible things about architecture is that it’s a lifelong process of learning.  You’re not done when you finish school.  You are constantly exposed to new challenges, new situations, new ways of looking at the world, so you don’t know what’s next.

Disclaimer: As of this writing, Charles Harris is a Design Associate at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill  in New York CIty.  Charles noted that the opinions represented here are personal in nature and do not necessarily represent the strategies or positions of SOM.

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