Green Career Profile: Greg Kiss

March 11, 2010

Greg Kiss, Kiss+Cathcart Architects, Brooklyn, NY

Describe your “Eukera!” moment that shaped your decision to pursue environmentally conscious design.

I actually never had one single moment, rather a series of them that had guided the evolution of our firm’s philosophy over the years. Some people pursue environmental design out of moral conviction, others think of it as good business, but we just think of it as good design. Our primary interest has always been good architecture. Good design can be distinguished by its beauty, functionality, and economy; we believe that engagement with the environmental element is just as an important a component as the other three. If we were to omit it, that opportunity for enrichment would be lost.

Fortune would have it that our first project as a firm was to design a solar panel factory in Port Jervis, NY. At the time, solar technology was novel and exotic, which also means that it was marginal and regarded by many within the design community as a sort of a “hippie fringe.” But we realized immediately that a solar panel is a piece of glass, which is a commonplace building material, so it could serve a double function. In our search to use it as an architectural element, we became interested in environmental issues. Subsequently, we were able to turn this experience with a rather specific technology into a fantastic opportunity since working on the factory made us one of the first designers in the US to use BIPV [building integrated photovoltaics]. We were invited to do research for the Department of Energy, which then led to more surprising developments.

In simple terms, what did your life look like before you opened this practice?

In simple terms, I was a graduate architecture student at Columbia. I’ve had kind of an unconventional career, not having much exposure to working in architecture while in graduate school. Colin Cathcart and I met at Columbia. After graduation we opened this practice, and we’ve been at it since 1983.

How did you get where you are? Did your education at Columbia prepare you to practice green architecture? If not, how did you go about filling in the gaps?

Not at all. I was in school a long time ago, and back then, environmental building performance wasn’t yet taken seriously as an integral part of the design process. Actually, for my thesis, I proposed a zero-energy house but was turned down. I guess they thought that trend wouldn’t go anywhere.

We learned mostly through experience: self-education as well as projects like the PV factory and many others. I have found that it is not critical to learn every detail about every new development in technology. Rather, an intuitive understanding of the systems and the evolution of technology allows one to integrate the technical elements efficiently and therefore design elegantly. But at the same time, it is important to keep up and not become enamored with a certain technology. As with everything, it requires balance.

What was your biggest fear before starting this practice?

Having to get a job in some other firm! Working for somebody else can be creatively constraining, and we wanted to be fundamentally creative, not only aesthetically, but also looking beyond that to the environmental performance of a building. The challenge of exploring the cultural, theoretical, and aesthetic aspects of high-performance buildings has kept us interested and has motivated our creativity over the years. Perhaps I would not still be an architect if that challenge had not come along.

Can you talk about what you mean by productive architecture?

Productive architecture is a term that resulted from years of keeping our ambitions and aspirations constantly moving up. It is the latest formulation of the evolving principle behind our practice. We had a great experience working in Taos, NM, in 2000 when we saw examples of completely self-sustaining design: houses, built off the grid, that survive due to passive design elements. That kind of construction makes apparent that we can achieve self-sufficient buildings in the real world. One of the goals of good design is to figure out how to achieve that outside of sun-drenched New Mexico. And then, we must go beyond that to making buildings productive.

Sustainable architecture aims at halting any further damage to the environment, at neutralizing or minimizing the impact of the building. One day, it will become code minimum. Productive architecture goes beyond the LEED standard to reversing the impact by, for example, producing more electricity than the building requires or using vegetation to improve indoor and surrounding air quality. The term is a product of our professional experience where we have always tried to do better. An architect, like any other professional, can be somewhat passive in that he or she can settle for simply delivering what the client wants. In our case, we tend to drive the project by educating our clients as to what options are available to them and, as a result, are almost always rewarded with acceptance of the “you can do better” principle.

Has the mission of the firm changed over the years?

No, we still use our basic approach of trying to find the best possible solution for every problem. However, our understanding of the nature of the problem has evolved, and therefore the solutions that we implement had to evolve with them.

In practice, it is almost always a compromise between the best possible theoretical solution for the building’s maximum performance and the realities of the project, like budgets and the comfort level of the spaces we create. It is somewhat like an asymptotic progression: one can get very close to realizing the best possible theoretical solution but probably will never quite achieve it. This is why it is important to keep the standard to which we adhere always rising.

Do you think “green” or “productive” architecture needs a new visual language, in order to distinguish itself as new as well as to promote public awareness?

Yes and no, because we don’t distinguish what we do from good design in general. Great architecture has always exhibited a deep understanding of nature that surrounds it. It is integrated into its environment as much as it is integrated into society, as much as it takes advantage of new technologies and corresponds to the needs of the time. The distinction of “green architecture” exists because today’s “regular” architecture does not take into account the building’s life-long environmental impact. From now on, the “green” element should be in the bones of what is considered good design. I believe we are at the cusp of that generational change.

Productive architecture isn’t necessarily a new type of architecture, although there is definitely potential to use sustainable principles to create a new language. Drawing on my past experience, I can say that every project has been different, and different problems require different treatments: sometimes one needs to design a conventional, pleasant-looking building to show that green can look good, and other times a radical design might be appropriate in order to highlight the building and its mission. However, at this point in time, it might make sense for architects to start practicing design that perhaps goes a little overboard with demonstrating engagement with the natural elements. Such design would have to be technologically effective as well as aesthetically pleasing to be able to make the statement and draw public attention to the issue. Whether a new visual language emerges from those efforts, only time will tell. But if in fact it does emerge, it should be inspired and inspiring rather than being just a collection of features that earn the building a LEED rating.

You have said in the past that if you could change one thing to make spreading the sustainability message easier, it would be the level of education and public awareness of the issues involved. What do you think is the most effective way to reach the public?

Undoubtedly, it would be inspirational education. Whether it comes from a teacher or a president, it should give people a sense of positive potential. Focusing on the negative makes the issue exacting and imperative, but a better way to get through to most people is by pointing out why reducing our impact on the environment is better for individuals as well as for the society as a whole.

There’re many active barriers to executing productive design, one of the biggest ones being that we as a society don’t contribute a true value to it. Effectively, there’s no quantitative incentive that can be assigned to productive design at present, and until that happens, all one can wish for is awareness of its benefits in everyone involved. When working on a project, the general emphasis on solutions that are cheapest in the short-term, coupled with the litigious nature of our society in general, make many people protective of the status quo and often unnecessarily conservative when it comes to design solutions. The person with that kind of mindset usually ends up being the weakest link on a project, whether that person is the client, the bureaucrat issuing the permit, an engineer or an architect. But if everyone involved is aware of the true value of good (i.e. productive) design, when he or she has a good understanding of it and a healthy aspiration towards it, then confronting the obstacles becomes much easier.

What is your favorite project or your proudest accomplishment so far?

It’s hard to say, actually. The project for the Smithsonian Bocas del Toro station, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama was the coming together of a lot of things: it’s a good-looking building as well as a good example of a high performance structure situated in a challenging environment. Its tropical location requires the building to be constantly air-conditioned, yet we were still able to approach zero-impact through the use of photovoltaics, daylighting, and natural ventilation.

Currently, we are working on some projects in New York City that are the culmination of many of our previous experiences: The Lee, supportive housing on Houston Street, Manhattan; Solar 2 on the East Side in Manhattan; Bushwick Inlet Park in Williamsburg, just to name a few. All of them have challenging programs and unique sites that require intricate solutions. It’s also exciting to take on commissions within New York City since many of our past projects have been eclectic and generally away from here. So I would have to say that the favorites are still in the future.

Compared to your past undertakings, how different is it to design for an urban setting like New York?

It is a geographical as well as a typological change for us, and the learning curve has been steep, comparable to moving to a different country. Currently, many of our projects are institutional or civic buildings, commissioned by the public sector. That means our client isn’t driven by the short-term economic factor as much as clients in the private sector tend to be. Rather, the focus is on leadership and long-term foresight.

I would say that it is equally difficult to design anything in a dense urban setting like New York, so implementing productive design isn’t any easier or harder. In fact, high-performance buildings are usually easier to accomplish in an urban area simply because you’re already limited on space and you can take advantage of that to reduce the impact of a building. For example, when you build anywhere besides a city, you usually plan a square foot of parking for every square foot of building; you can’t do that in New York. And as for including solar technology, I find that access to natural elements is as good as anywhere, except maybe in the desert of the Southwest.

What do you love most about what you do?

Our priority has always been on picking interesting projects rather than projects that will necessarily make us the most money, win recognition, or allow the practice to grow. Actually, we had made quite conscious decisions that kept the practice small so we can avoid a corporate structure. As a result, I am still directly involved in all our projects instead of becoming mired in their administration. So I guess the answer is: to design.

What is a type of project that you would love to work on but have not yet gotten a chance to pursue?

We like variety, and I find that we are equally interested in many different things. However, the possibility to integrate agriculture into buildings is very exciting to me personally, like by using greenhouse elements. Our plans for Solar 2 and for a New York City school include those. Perhaps one day structures like that will become their own building type.

In your mind, what kind of person would fit in well at Kiss+Cathcart?

First and foremost, we seek out people who are passionate in general, and particularly about architecture, about design, and about the environment. Then, of course, we look at that person’s overall skills, ability to design and to get things done. We are rather non-hierarchical here, so everyone has to be willing and able to do design, production, management, and many other things.

What advice would you give to GreenHomeNYC readers who want to transition into a green career?

Well, you are definitely on the right side of history! At the very least, the green economy is a long-term trend and it makes sense to get involved. An entrepreneurial spirit is worth a lot as well as a creative and open mind. You have to be willing to do things differently from how they were done in the past and even from how you were educated to do them. Much still needs to be accomplished, so you must be willing to try things you previously wouldn’t have.

See more from Kiss+Cathcart Architects at Interview conducted by Mary Tchamkina

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