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A Discussion with Charles Harris About Sustainable Thinking

How did you first get started in architecture? As a child growing up in Manhattan, I was immensely fascinated by the city around me.  I saw, from an early age, that cities were places of both opportunity and challenge.  I felt then – as I do now – that buildings and the public realm contributed […]

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Charles Harris
Charles Harris

How did you first get started in architecture?

As a child growing up in Manhattan, I was immensely fascinated by the city around me.  I saw, from an early age, that cities were places of both opportunity and challenge.  I felt then – as I do now – that buildings and the public realm contributed to both.  As long as I can remember, I have wanted to participate in that dialogue, to design better, more sustainable, and more equitable places for us to live, play, and work.

I guess as for how I got started, one important factor was mentorship.  From high school all the way through to today, I’ve been fortunate to have incredible teachers and mentors who encouraged and challenged me at every step of the way. 

Has your experience as a professional architect measured up to your childhood expectations?

Absolutely, in that this career is every bit as exciting, challenging, and rewarding as I hoped it would be.  But I never could have imagined how broad the job and the skill set would be.  For example, over the past year, I have found myself traveling to stone quarries to help guide the stone selection and fabrication process.  I never expected that to be part of the job, but it’s one of many tasks that make you realize how much work goes into creating the world around us.

How did the issue of sustainability come into focus for you?

In school, I originally wanted to work on housing projects because I saw that as an area where architecture could have a positive social impact.  I still feel that way, but I’ve also broadened my focus to an even wider issue of global impact, and that is sustainability.  This has come from the realization that buildings–our homes, our offices, our schools, everything that we design–consume such a large portion of our world’s energy, and that architects can have a major impact on building a more sustainable world.

How do you define sustainability?

The simple textbook definition, the one they teach us, is “meeting the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations,” but I would propose a little more urgency and imperative to that definition.  We must align our world – including our buildings, our cities, and our behavior – so that human beings can successfully coexist with our planet.  Sustainability is building peace between humans and the earth.

A good way to think about the imperative of sustainability is to look at our short-term crisis of Covid-19.   We received ample warning from the global medical community, and yet we did not take it seriously enough.  We tried to prioritize our short-term economic interests, to cheat the risks, to keep our country open as long as possible, but this ended up increasing our economic damage.   Now, think about global warming.  We have the exact same ingredients: ample warning from the global scientific community, yet a tendency to dismiss the risk in favor of our short-term economic interest.  The big difference: there may be a vaccine for Covid-19, but not for global warming.  There’s no cheating here, we have to do this the right way.

So how do you tackle this issue on a typical building project?

Good question – it requires a holistic approach, every project is different. Rating systems such as LEED and WELL are a good place to start, because they structure a holistic approach in terms of categories: materials, indoor air quality, energy conservation, etc.  But it’s important to look beyond the point systems. 

Material selection is a classic example: we may desire “wood” in a project, but “wood” is an immensely broad category of products, species, cuts, and finishes, all which have varying environmental impacts.  So, how do we judge?  An excellent new tool at our disposal is called an “EPD” – environmental product declaration.  This allows us to evaluate the environmental impact of a product, from resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, global warming potential, and future recyclability.  It’s a grueling process, to question every decision point from the perspective of environmental impact, but it’s an important layer of our work.

How does the pandemic influence your thinking on sustainability and architecture?

Times of crisis and challenge can yield great innovation.  I was reminded recently of the story of Charles and Ray Eames, who experimented with different forms of contoured, molded wood in the early 1940s.  The impetus for their work was the US Military, which needed more reliable and comfortable leg splints for wounded soldiers.  But after the war, these material explorations set the stage for the Eames Chair, and many of the most iconic and lasting achievements of 20th century design.  Times of crisis can yield innovation that long outlast our present difficulties. 

On a more specific level, the pandemic has forced us to reconsider how office spaces are designed and utilized.  I believe in the future of the office as a hub for collaboration, creativity, and relationship building.  But it will require architects to prioritize healthy environments and inspire confidence in their tenants. 

Indoor air quality has become a particular area of interest for me.  Offices in the 20th century were notoriously unhealthy places to work, and now the imperative for health and wellness is even higher.   To be comfortable returning to work, people will want to better understand the quality of the air that they’re breathing.   I have recently been exploring systems that allow for continuous testing of air quality.  This data can be displayed throughout offices to heighten employee awareness of the quality of air around them.  But it can go even further: this data can be used to control building conditioning systems and allow systems to react to indoor air quality in real time.  For example, a system like this could sense if lots of people were gathering in one area, and could automatically deliver more fresh air to that zone.   It could make building systems more nimble, flexible, and responsive.

So, you’re optimistic about the future of the office?

Yes, we weren’t built to work from home forever.

How have you managed to do so during the pandemic?

I’ve managed fine; I’ve been fortunate to be able to work from home, and have been continually impressed with how well teams can function remotely.   But the concept of balance, particularly work-life balance, has been thrown off.  Before the pandemic, we witnessed a gradual blurring of the work-life divide, but when you’re working from home, the line between work and life can disappear completely. I think it’s a challenge for everyone to define that line, to maintain high standards at work while carving out time for themselves, for family, and for health.

For me a big part of the past several months has been concern for friends and family members, most notably my wife, who has been a doctor on the front lines treating covid patients since the very beginning.  She has been truly heroic in her efforts, and I’m very proud of her.

So what does the future hold for Charles Harris?

A professor once told me: you don’t need to know where you’re going, as long as you’re not lost.  I feel that way at this point in my career.  I’m grateful to work as an architect with so many incredible colleagues, consultants, contractors, and collaborators on such interesting projects.   I don’t have a precisely defined life trajectory, but I’m totally ok with that.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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