Pliny Fisk III / Gail Vittori Architecture

Talking to Pliny Fisk III—one of the pioneers of the sustainable-design movement—is both inspiring and confounding. In any given sitting Fisk might discuss bio-regional mapping, fly ash concrete, cybernetics, and E.F. Schumacher all in the same dizzying context. It’s difficult to grasp, but that’s because he isn’t following a conventional approach. For him the planet’s prosperity is inextricably linked to its architecture. To make that connection a reality Fisk has long felt the need to smash the status quo, then let everyone else know how to do it themselves. “Part of being a visionary is pushing everybody else’s limits and opening their eyes to opportunities,” says David Lake, principal of Lake-Flato Architects in San Antonio and a former student of Fisk’s. “From Pliny’s perspective, anything is possible.”

At 61 years old Fisk remains as passionate about architecture and the environment as he was as a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s. There he got master’s degrees in architecture and landscape architecture under the tutelage of the legendary Ian McHarg. After completing his studies he taught “ecological design” in the School of Architecture at University of Texas at Austin in the early 1970s and became known for a field lab where he and his students built windmills, raised organic vegetables, and designed buildings using local materials. In 1975 Fisk turned his lab into a nonprofit organization called the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems and left the university to “cause commotion” full time.

For the past 30 years the center has developed a four-pronged approach, emphasizing design, master planning, policy and education, and tools (which include educational games and the creation and testing of building materials). Fisk and his wife, Gail Vittori, who joined the team in the late 1970s and is now codirector, have set up solar hot water heater production for poor towns in South Texas, planned sustainable villages in Nicaragua and China, and created several dozen building materials. In the early 1990s the pair also helped to create Austin’s city-sponsored green building ratings program—the first of its kind in the world and a model for the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system. (Vittori currently sits on that organization’s board of directors.) “Our idea was to extend the Austin program from just considering energy conservation and performance to looking at the total flows of inputs and outputs to a building,” she says.

These days Fisk has added a new building system to the center’s repertoire. The GroHome—part of a broader program Fisk calls “Community-Supported Architecture”—was conceived of as a way to offer residents the flexibility to expand their living space with minimal impact to the site, the local landfill, and residents’ daily lives. The construction is based on a series of joints that can be used to erect a variety of structures, from simple lampposts to large meeting halls. Another component of the system is the FatWall, a thick wall that can be cantilevered off the sides of a GroHome or positioned inside the frame for closet space, a home office, or even a bathroom.

Like many Fisk projects, the GroHome embodies more than just a single principle. It’s one element of an integrated system that includes sustainable thinking on a broad and integrated level. “If you look at the GroHome from a planning perspective, you can take the joint all the way up to the region so that you have a sensible way of understanding your footprint,” Fisk says. Indeed the standards within the joints—which Fisk dubs GroJoints—can accept pipe, conduit, dimensional lumber, bamboo, and many other structural members so that builders can adapt and use whatever is locally available. Any given GroHome then becomes a source of information about the region. “As part of a master plan, a building system becomes a way of communicating,” Fisk says. “Manufacturers can understand how a system works so they can cooperate with each other. It’s also an effective way to inventory resources.”

Fisk has always maintained that for a building or a city to be sustainable it must be created from the resources available in its region as well as contribute to the local economy. His contract work for the Environmental Protection Agency in the mid 1990s crystallized this idea (see “The Infinite Grid,” by Andrea Moed, Metropolis, December 1996). At the time Fisk was asked to create a grid map of the country on which he pinpointed natural resource availability, businesses that were distributing those resources, and people who were knowledgeable on how to use the materials; he called these groups area, point, and network resources. By integrating this information, Fisk says, it’s possible to track the economic resources that go into harvesting and transporting a material. It also allows one to see where materials are used and how they’re recycled (or not) after their initial use—a process now widely known as life-cycle analysis.

Currently Fisk and Vittori are in discussions with grassroots organizations in Louisiana and Mississippi about building GroHome communities for displaced Hurricane Katrina survivors. In a sense this represents the culmination of 30 years of work. The GroHome is a technical fix for a housing need, but the larger initiative is a planning opportunity that can involve residents in the rebuilding, provide local jobs, and teach neighborhood businesses about the benefits of green building. “Bucky Fuller said that we’re all born geniuses, and we’re gradually de-geniused by our parents and teachers,” says Bob Berkebile, principal of BNIM Architects in Kansas City. “Pliny wasn’t de-geniused—he never lost the curiosity for lifelong learning.”