Conversation: Terrapin Bright Green

Today I met with Chris Garvin, a Partner at Terrapin Bright Green. Terrapin is a sustainability consulting firm that works with clients to rethink environmental strategy, policy, and design.  The firm has strong ties to New York architecture firm Cook + Fox, and frequently consults with architecture firms on projects ranging from the building to community scale.  They also collaborate with government and non-profit agencies on infrastructural and preservation projects, as well as helping companies develop sustainable and corporate strategies.

A few questions from the discussion:
Q: How did he first become interested in sustainable design?
A: Chris began his career studying and practicing architecture.  When he moved to New York City he worked with a firm interested in sustainability- one of only three or so at the time.  He found that element of the work most satisfying, and from there it was a natural progression towards making it his focus with Terrapin.

Q: When collaborating with architecture firms, what type of scope does Terrapin take on? What do you bring to the table as consultants that might not be as successful if taken on within the firm?
A: Terrapin does different types of things depending on the project.  That can include research, and oftentimes a report and visuals- a lot of communicating.  They help connect their clients with the best specialists that fit their needs, such as building energy modeling. Terrapin has many years of experience and specialized knowledge that is difficult to build up within a firm.

Q: Iceland has one large urban center that is home to the majority of the population, and then a series of small towns, or nodes that dots the perimeter of theIsland.  What is Terrapin’s concept of node and network?
A: Oftentimes infrastructure planning favors a massive centralized system.  Terrapin is looking at the ways systems can work efficiently at a localized scale along a larger network. A lot of that depends on what system you are talking about. For example, they are studying how waste might be gathered and converted to electricity for the city ofNew York, where as systems such as combined heating and power can work at a building or block scale.

Q: Since 2008, more than half of the world’s population has lived in an urban context (cities or towns).  There is a lot of interest in the design community about the urban context.  What about the rest of the world living in less dense conditions? Can they subsist sustainably? What about things like resort communities that aren’t accessibly by sustainable transit?
A: This is not necessarily easy. One solution, which was used for a project inCosta Rica, is for the developer to purchase carbon offsets for energy used for guests’ flights toCosta Rica.

Q: Will that sustainability become something that is worked into the code and becomes part of normal practice, i.e. accessibility or structural codes, or will remain a source of inspiration for progress and innovative design?
A: Certain things will get worked into the code- this will force less conscientious designer to bring their designs up to a certain standard.  But just as there is always cutting edge design, there will also be cutting edge sustainability- new challenges that require innovation. The next focus might be on water supply or food resources for the growing population.

Q: How do we know how much better a building or project is? Doesn’t it all depend on a baseline scenario, which normally is the one defined by ASHRAE- a uniform code that doesn’t take context into question?
A: Yes- and many buildings don’t go far enough.  For example they’ll use conventional systems and make them work 30% more efficiently. But if they went for 70% improvement they would have to rethink from the ground up and make a better system.   For example, one interesting program is the “Living Building Challenge” where they set very high goals and take the local physical and social environment into consideration.
For more information on Terrapin Bright Green, visit: http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/

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