Building blocks: Ecosa Institute rethinks renewable

Nov 3, 17 • 5enses, FeatureNo Comments

By Robert Blood

[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Jessica Hernreich, executive director of the Ecosa Institute for Ecological Design, 300 E. Willis St., 928-541-1002. Find out more at Ecosa.Org.]


What is the Ecosa Institute for Ecological Design?

It’s an ecological design school. We’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and we teach the principals of ecological design. We break the mold of a traditional design education in the sense that we pack what would happen in two years in a design school into a 15-week total-immersion semester wherein we teach the earth sciences: ecology, hydrology, biology, and climate science in conjunction with the design arts. There’s an emphasis on architecture, but there’s also a big focus on product design, landscape design, graphic design, and urban planning, as well as material sourcing for the fashion, building and product industries.


What exactly is “ecological design”?

Ecological design asks how do we create something that follows the logic of nature, that goes beyond sustainability or green building. The idea is to create systems, landscapes, and buildings rooted in the ecology of a place. That’s true sustainability. … Sustainability, for us, is a baseline. Our job is to do regenerative work.


Each cohort goes through the program in one semester, correct? Is there a certificate or some other sort of designation upon completion of the program?

We issue a certificate. We’ve been around for 17 years and we definitely had a few revelations about how and what we award. We took a break from it, but now we’re regaining our accreditation through the American Institute of Architects and continuing education credit through the American National Standards Institute. It’s not for college credits as anyone would know it, but many schools acknowledge our certificate. You could think of it as part of a process of continuing education.


How would you characterize a typical Ecosa student?

It’s a pretty large target audience: undergraduates, graduates, and mid-career. That’s great for us because just as nature teaches us diversity is key, we look for a diverse set of people to make up our cohort. We have 14 students go through the program each semester. Last semester we had a pool of 37 applicants. We try to get as much diversity in background, experience, age, and passion as possible. One other thing we look for is volunteer work. We want to attract a student who has an element of selflessness, who’s passionate about the environment and doesn’t just see a problem, but wants to be a part of the solution. How do they show up and volunteer? There’s also a very large need for self-direction. You hear about that a lot in experiential education. That’s vital. We need to have students who are incredibly self-sufficient and self-directed to make the most of the one-semester program.


What’s the cost of the program?

The market price is $8,000 per student. However, this year, in response to the Cop-21 and Paris Agreement decisions [Editor’s note: She’s referring to the current administration’s decision to not abide an international agreement intended to mitigate climate change.] and the incredible amount of student deficit hovering around $3.7 trillion, our board came together to give away two semesters for free. We believe that the information we provide is imperative and the issues we are addressing are time sensitive. Actually, the last enrollment period to get that ends in November, so if you’re reading this there still may be time to apply. We’re still doing a lot of heavy marketing to get students for this but, right now, it’s probably the last free semester. It’s a really great opportunity for people to participate who might not otherwise be able to go through this program.


Jessica Hernreich. Courtesy photo.

What do people who complete the program typically go on to do?

Our market research shows that a lot of them are coming from and returning to architecture, interior and landscape design and city planning. However, a large majority of other students, in our experience — outside of market research — go on to finish degrees at their respective schools and enroll in master’s programs in architecture or other fields of sustainability. Northern Arizona University is popular and we filter a lot of students there. Arizona State University, and Prescott College, too. As far as mid-career changes go, the pattern seems to be that people either change careers and go to work for a company that’s launching a sustainability initiative, or they go back to their workplace and become teachers. We really try to inoculate the world with the idea of systemic problem solving in sustainability. We’ve gotten some feedback from people’s workplaces that they come back from the program invigorated with great ideas and share their new approach in and across their departments.


What is the general approach you teach?

Our philosophy is that we consider design to be a problem-solving tool and we look to the logic of nature to drive our inspiration. Ecological design balances the needs of humans and the needs of nature and, ultimately, leads to a harmonious society that addresses the esthetic, social, economical, and environmental contexts in which it functions. We offer a very different approach to design education. Students aren’t passive learners; they’re contributors to this vision. We continually evolve to provide the best and most relevant in-depth design education as possible. We aim to change how people see the world and approach problems. We offer a cross-sectoral/trans-disciplinary approach, so we can’t be confined into the silos that a traditional education offers. There’s architecture and physics and ecology, but you might not learn all of those in one semester from one department if you’re going after a traditional architecture degree or a land management degree. That separation is at the root of our problems. Also at the root of the problems we are facing is a separation between humans and nature; you may learn how to protect the environment with a land management degree but that doesn’t address the human-built environment, and vice versa, you many learn how to design a green building but not how to protect ecosystems. This divide deepens the gap between humans’ needs and the needs of nature. I also have to say that climate change is probably the greatest design challenge because it’s so cross-sectoral and requires the involvement of practically everyone and every species on the planet.


One of your primary conceits is that there’s a problem with the way things are going. Could you elaborate on that?

At the root of it, the human-built environment is destroying the natural ecosystem. We do that in the way we live. Urban sprawl is a good example. We move out horizontally and take up land (be it natural habitat or agriculture land uses) and turn it into “little boxes on the hillside.” Those are monocultures of human experience and human life. Through that sprawl, we’ve become dependent on personal vehicles and personal vehicles depend on gas which releases C02, which incites global warming. We’re having a huge impact on our natural environment through changing land use patterns which in turn have a cascading effect. We have to look at that as a design challenge. Every choice we make has an impact and you can trace it. If we can implement smarter systems, and build smarter, we can change that. Nature doesn’t create monocultures; humans do. Paolo Soleri’s concept of arcology on display at Arcosanti is a good example of creating the necessary density without the horizontal sprawl. Actually, our founder, Tony Brown, built much of Arcosanti in the ’70s, and adopted the design strategy that includes all the necessary pieces for human existence — a food system, work life, home life — in a more dense, three-dimensional environment that doesn’t require sprawl or land use segregation.


Is this an idea that everyone has to adopt in order to implement, or is it smaller scale than that?

According to the UN’s World Urbanization Trends 2014 report, 54% of the people living on this planet live in urban environments, and this percentage is anticipated to grow to 66% in 2050. So, this problem and this solution affect the majority of people on the planet. It’s not feasible with the way things are set up now to move the people back to the land, living off grid and growing their own food. They tried that in the ’70s, and it didn’t work. The conversation has shifted since then. We have to approach things from a design perspective. The director of the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, John Wilmoth, said “managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century.” The urban environment is a beautiful thing with so many resources and opportunities. It’s about working smarter, not harder, and revolutionizing that built environment. Creating a human environment needn’t require so many resources and so much land. One of the cool things we’re seeing right now is that in major cities across the world, people are revitalizing core metropolitan areas. Look at Detroit. It was that classic case of that industrial interior having been eroded as people sprawled out. Well, now, neo-urbanism is sexy and fun and people are going back to those places, working, living, and using public transportation. We have the skills and know how to really push this idea forward. It’s something that will be integrated and you might not even notice.

Sketch of an Ecosa proposal for improvements to Sixth Street that were, in part, utilized in the Alarcon Street project. Courtesy image.


Could you cater an example that’s a little closer to home?

One thing that the city of Prescott just did is that project on Alarcon Street. They wanted to address the issue of traffic as well as drainage. They had two separate problems and found a solution to both. Ecosa has done a number of presentations for the city over the years and actually submitted plans for projects on Sixth and McCormick streets. Now, those were unused, but one of the ideas is on display on Alarcon Street. They ripped up the road and sidewalk and put in infiltration basins with native plants. It incorporated more of a pedestrian experience encouraging people to walk and not drive, as well, and the entire thing dealt with the drainage issue. Alarcon used to be a river when the monsoon came; you couldn’t drive down the road or walk on the sidewalks some days. Now, when the monsoon comes, the water is spread out and slowly sinks into the soil, creating a beautiful environment full of native plants. It’s not like Tucson with ornamental orange trees; these are plants you’d see if you took a walk up Thumb Butte. Those plants are designed to live off of those surges and survive on small amounts of water leading up to them. They’re adapted to that environment and serve that purpose. … Changes like that are huge.


Why is Ecosa here in Prescott, anyway? Why not somewhere more urban?

Our founder, Tony Brown, worked as a graphic designer in Boston and felt that there were so many social and economic problems that could be addressed through architecture, but he struggled to find a tribe of people or firm that was doing that. So, we floated around the country for a while and, while in Oakland, saw an exhibit and talk by Paolo Soleri about arcology and Arcosanti. He proceeded to follow him to Arizona around 1969 and moved to Arcosanti before there was anything there. He was really the one who was able to take Paolo’s vision and say, this is how you build it. He and Paolo had a wonderful working relationship. You could say Tony was the engineer, though the project didn’t officially have one. He was the one who taught everyone, including Paolo, how to build what he wanted to build. After more than a decade at Arcosanti, Tony and his wife, Pam, moved to Prescott. She taught in a school, and they wanted to build a home up on Thumb Butte. He wanted to start his own school, which he did. … Tony’s biggest asset is that he could always see the big picture and never got caught up in the principal. If something didn’t work, he’d toss it out and move on. As much as he loved Arcosanti, he realized it needed to be more flexible than it was. He has no need for rigid principles. Nature teaches you to have flexibility in your approach to solving problems, which is what we teach. Long story short, with nearly half of the world’s population living in smaller cities which experience the most rapid growth, which in turn leads to the largest land use changes due to development and sprawl, Tony identified Prescott as a beautiful town to live in, and on the verge of significant rapid growth. He was right; look at the growth pattern of the Tri-City Area over the last few decades. In Tony’s mind, Prescott was and still is a great case study for our type of work. It’s our belief that you must go where the work is needed.


The Ecosa Institute for Ecological Design is located at 300 E. Willis St., 928-541-1002. Find out more at Ecosa.Org.

Robert Blood is a Mayer-ish-based freelance writer and ne’er-do-well who’s working on his last book, which, incidentally, will be his first. Contact him at BloodyBobby5@Gmail.Com.

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