The TH Interview: Tony Brown and the Ecosa Institute

green and lush thickly wooded forest with skinny trees

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Tony Brown is the founder and director of the Ecosa Institute, the only design program in the US devoted entirely to sustainability. The Ecosa Institute was founded in the belief that design based on nature is critical to the search for a new design philosophy; the mission of the Institute is to restore health to the natural environment, and thus the human environment, through education in design. Mr. Brown's dedication to issues of sustainability and ecological design developed after joining Paolo Soleri's Cosanti Foundation where he worked for thirteen years on conceptual designs for a new vision of urban settlements. In 1996 Brown formally founded Ecosa ; in 2000, the Institute offered its first semester in sustainable design.

TreeHugger: How does Ecosa address what you see as lacking in today's conventional design education?

Tony Brown: There are many ways in which the conventional model of the college and university are failing to meet the future. The traditional institutions are risk averse; few people are fired for saying no to a new idea. One would imagine that our institutions of higher learning were hot beds of innovation, unfortunately the opposite is true. The dis-economy of scale inherent in many of the now gigantic organizations of our universities and colleges make change a difficult, lengthy, bureaucratic process. As a consequence we are teaching to an outmoded model. A beaux-arts student from the 1890s would not feel out of place in many of today's architecture schools. Architecture is a powerful skill yet it is not harnessed to grapple with environmental, ecological or ethical issues. While sustainability is a word being used in colleges of architecture it is an adjunct skill and doesn't permeate the curricula.

Multi-disciplinary education is also difficult in a traditional setting. The administrative structure of the university tends to divide rather than integrate. The psychology department rarely, if ever, interacts with the architecture department. Even engineering departments have a difficult time collaborating with, never mind integrating with, architecture or planning or graphic design. All the new ideas and synergy created by cross-cultural activity is rarely possible. Departmental budgets, turf battles and tradition are a few of the hurdles. Our semesters often contain wide-ranging skills. Semesters have had engineers, architects, landscape architects, marine biologists and computer programmers working together. In terms of sustainability, I am amazed at how many of our students have no concept of passive solar design parameters. Many of the sustainable ad-ons to courses are electives and lead to the plug in attitude "I'll just add photovoltaic panels here" with little understanding of integration or stacking functions. What design schools are excellent at is teaching design from an aesthetic, technological, historical and intellectual perspective and, while I believe that these are vital and important functions we must broaden the scope of architectural education. It is more than a decorative art. It is fundamental to our survival.

TH: Part of the reason you founded Ecosa was so you wouldn't have to bend to the mainstream university system. Can Ecosa bring sustainability to the mainstream without going mainstream?

TB: For the reasons I have noted before I don't believe real innovation is a product of the current system. Education is a monopoly and monopolies tend not to encourage innovation. I do not believe we have all the answers nor do traditional schools, but we have the opportunity to try new things and new ways of teaching. The value of things like mixing disciplines, skill levels, working on real projects, would be far more difficult in a traditional setting. We do work with other educational institutions that see our program as an enhancement of the regular design curricula. They are excited to be able to offer their students a different kind of experience that they understand is important.

The other concept for making these ideas mainstream? Through leverage. In founding Ecosa I knew that we would have a limited number of students so the concept is to create design "viruses" in our students. We bring them to Ecosa to "infect" them with a real sense of the power they have to impliment change, we give them skills to be smarter about energy strategies, how to design high performance bio climatic designs. Then we send them out into their schools or workplaces to become emissaries of change. In that way one student can affect many other people amplifying the impact of our program. Many of the new sustainable initiatives in universities have been pushed by students.

TH: You designed Ecosa for students and professionals studying or practicing built design. How do you sell the environment as a cause to designers, rather than the other way around?

TB: Ultimately the solution is not to rely on just designers or just environmentalists but to have many disciplines work together in interactive ways each informing the others knowledge. I believe very strongly that we have specialized ourselves into a corner where we no long see the big picture and so we solve problems in isolation from each other. A dangerous approach with unintended consequences.

For several years I taught sustainable design at Prescott College. The students were liberal arts students with a passionate concern about the environment. While the solutions they proposed were valid, they lacked a broad worldview and the aesthetic quality that designers bring to projects. Designers on the other hand are looking for an aesthetic approach that has very little to do with solving social or environmental problems, so the challenge is which of these groups can have the most impact in solving problems? Design at its most basic level is a problem solving skill, and that is a vital skill for the 21st century. So by training designers to address today's most critical issues we are extending the reach of that skill.

Many people enter the design professions as a way of making a difference; improving the world. They are often disillusioned by what they find. However, there is a growing understanding among young designers, that the future holds some alarming challenges. Just one issue; the impacts of climate change will stress food supplies, raise sea levels, displace coastal communities, cause mass migrations and threaten our ability to maintain social order. It is clear that the magnitude of the challenges we will face are unprecedented. What is important about design is that it is, above all, a problem solving skill.

From a purely self-interested professional position sustainability is being driven by market forces. Government and businesses are demanding energy efficiency and high performance from their buildings. Therefore it is becoming more desirable skill among architectural firms. As the environment deteriorates and regulation becomes more necessary, those with a sustainable background who can innovate will be in demand. So, rather than having to sell designers on becoming environmentally concerned I believe our future needs will demand that they are.

TH: If all your students could take one thing away from Ecosa, what would it be?

That design is a powerful tool for change and they have that power. Buildings in the US according to Edward Mazria consume more than 45% of our energy. Just imagine the impact of cutting that in half. The reduction in greenhouse gases would be major. Architects specify about $1 trillion per year in materials for their projects. Other designers; product designers, landscape architects also specify materials. This gives them an enormous leverage for change. Understanding what really constitutes sustainable materials and demanding recycled content, non-toxic materials and manufacture, low energy use products, can literally change the world.

Tony Brown is the founder and director of the Ecosa Institute.