Cook spoke to LIME about his green conversion experience, his heroes, and his vision for an urban utopia, and offered an intimate glimpse of his own family and home.
LIME: What are the origins of your interest in, and commitment to sustainable design?
COOK: I feel it necessary to speak in terms of a "conversion experience" that has changed the course of my life and career. In 1998, my firm, then Richard Cook & Associates, worked on a project for the Ross Institute in East Hampton, New York called the Center for Well-Being. Exploring a fusion of Eastern and Western concepts of health and fitness and the task of educating a generation of global citizens — it got me thinking about what it meant to design buildings that embrace the local environment and enhance the well-being of their occupants. We used geothermal technology and rapidly renewable resources, but what really fascinated me was the way the building was used — visitors removed their shoes, all the food was organic, everyone scraped their own non-disposable plates, and the compost was all donated to local farms.
More recently, we began working on our Historic Front Street project — 14 residential buildings in the South Street Seaport Historic District, all heated and cooled with ten 1500 feet-deep, standing column geothermal wells. Our firm had extensive experience exploring the "environmental" response of working in historic districts, so it was natural to make the connection between the goals of historic preservation and environmental conservation. At the same time, my friend, mentor, and now partner, Bob Fox, was in the press for designing the first green skyscraper in the US, The CondÃ© Nast Building at 4 Times Square, and we would talk about exploring environmental technologies at different scales and building types.
But the real change—when it really hit home—came when my wife and I adopted twin Khmer boys. Our lives were forever tied to Cambodia, and our family instantly became global citizens. It became immediately clear how unsustainable the standard is that the "developed nations" have set for the rapidly urbanizing developing nations, and how imperative it is that the standard is changed.
LIME: I've heard you call sustainable architecture "intelligent design." Can you unpack this a bit for a general audience - describing with a few examples how buildings can be "smart"?
COOK: They can start by not being stupid—not making people sick, or completely disregarding where materials come from. We have an incredibly dysfunctional way of handling stormwater in New York City: we have a combined sewer and stormwater system, which means every time there's a heavy rain the system overflows and raw sewage is released into our rivers. But buildings don't have to contribute to the problem; they can capture stormwater and reuse it for things like flushing toilets and cooling tower make-up.
Indigenous forms of shelter have always been inherently "smart"—think about Native American cliff dwellings, which were made from local materials and took advantage of natural land features and the path of the sun. In an urban setting, it's just as important to think about the site and local environment. In New York City we have the advantage of having one of the best public transportation systems in the world, and our site for the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park, at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, is possibly the best place in Manhattan to access mass transit. So by building an office tower in this urban location, we're able to take advantage of a subway system that gets 540 passenger miles to the gallon at rush hour, rather than contributing to suburban sprawl and commuter pollution. The Bank of America Tower is a 2.2 million square foot office building without a single parking space provided.
LIME: Who are the heroes in your life (be they poets, engineers, artists, or architects) that have most influenced your work?
COOK: On a purely personal level, my biggest influence is the Biblical account of the life and actions of Jesus Christ. I believe we have a deep, spiritual obligation to be wise stewards of our natural resources. One of the basic breakthroughs of sustainable design is when people start to think not just about themselves, their clients, and their current impact — the usual tendency of architects and architecture — but begin to think about their impact on our children and our children's children.
Other heroes of mine include Janine Benyus, who wrote an amazing book called Biomimicry Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface and Werner Seligman, an educator and mentor to Bob at Cornell and later to myself at Syracuse. Also, given enough time, I can work Herman Melville and Moby Dick into just about any conversation!
LIME: What sustainable features do you have in your own home, and what lifestyle decisions have you and your family made to lessen your overall environmental impact?
COOK: At home, my wife, Ellen, is the enforcer in our family when it comes to recycling, composting, and saving energy. She takes great care in selecting the food we eat and looking after our family's health. We live in a remarkable community on the Hudson River, in a classic modern home that was built in the 1970s. We've already undertaken renovation work to make it more energy efficient—we've replaced the thin aluminum framed doors and windows, installed high-performance "low-e" glass, and reinsulated the entire house. We're designing a photovoltaic [ie. solar panel] installation for the roof, and are working on a renovation of the interior that will incorporate rapidly renewable materials, improved indoor air quality, etc.
I've also had the opportunity to explore these issues in my other "home," the office where I work every day. We use a hybrid vehicle rather than a standard car service for site visits and travel to client meetings. We will be moving to a new office this spring, where we'll take advantage of technologies such as daylight dimmers and waterless urinals. We have explored the rapidly increasing pool of beautiful, sustainable materials, and plan to use our new office space as a living laboratory and showcase for sustainable design.
LIME: Describe your vision for an urban utopia in the future -- say, 2050.
COOK: Using the word "utopia" is always scary, since these visions of the future never seem to work out as intended. But going forward, for the sake of the future, we must attack the way we build our environment and address CO2 emissions from buildings and the potential catastrophic impact of carbon loading in our atmosphere. I believe we must strive for net-zero CO2 buildings that will be healthier, happier places to live and work.
I think we will make great strides in energy use and developing renewable strategies, but the real key is CO2. In transforming how we think about buildings and architecture, we'll start to see buildings that listen to nature, and learn to coexist with and even restore the natural environment. This is what biomimicry means, to learn from nature rather than thinking of ways to deny our place in it. It's the only way we can have a long term, sustainable future.