With Earth Day and Arbor Day celebrations taking place last week, it’s a great time to reflect on the remarkable complexity of the natural world. Friend and local architect, Patrick Farley, met with us over coffee to discuss building new infrastructure, biophilic design, and environmental sustainability. We first met Patrick through his position on the advisory board of Modern Richmond, a local organization that highlights modern design of all forms in-and-around our local community. Patrick is the founder of Watershed Architects, an award-winning design-build firm focused on environmentally and socially conscious architecture – specifically, a design approach that strives to reduce impact to the watershed.
What is biophilic design exactly and how does it inform your approach to architecture?
Biophilic design is central to my work and a paradigm that has been around the green building movement for years. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that there is an instinctual bond between human beings and other living things. With every project, we look for opportunities to incorporate biophilia in that architecture can enhance and intensify the experience and connection with natural systems in such a way that it heightens our sense of protection and stewardship. To us, this is the essence of “organic modernism” and is the common thread in our work – – the idea that we have the opportunity, by design, to elevate the human experience – to create stronger connections between nature and the places that we dwell, work and otherwise need for shelter.
You mentioned that architecture is a direct interface with nature. Can you give us an example of how Watershed brings nature into living spaces?
What I hope to convey through our work is that we’re not only connecting with nature, but we’re incorporating it directly into the architecture. One example of this occurred within a full renovation of a Fan – a Richmond neighborhood – row house a few years ago, where we integrated a “living wall” within the living space. It was 100 square feet and two stories tall. At the time, we were fairly certain that is was the only one of its kind in Virginia. With ideas such as this, we’re trying to promote the notion that you can literally bring nature into a building. In this case, we placed a skylight above and over 15 different species of plants on the wall to creating the feeling that you were outdoors even though you were still inside the comfort of your home.
Technology seems to play an increasingly significant role in our lives. Is there a way that both technology and the organic can seamlessly exist in our living spaces in the future?
We’re trying to strike that balance with each project. We have people who come to us that appreciate technology and recognize their desire for a cleaner, easier lifestyle by virtue of it. Yet, they still want a healthy home that will be healthful for the planet as well. More people are in search of green and sustainable living, and I think technology is part of that. There are products that measure the performance of our buildings, not too unlike the dashboard of a car. In the case of buildings, the “dashboard” gives feedback on everything – water, gas, and electricity usage. You can use technology to enhance the environmental integrity of a building in terms of its performance. For example, if you invest in solar energy, you would want to find out how much energy it’s saving.
You are also a major advocate of conserving the Chesapeake Bay. Have you seen any recent improvements to the bay’s health?
In the projects that we execute, there’s always a reduction to the impact on the watershed component. The naming of our firm, Watershed Architects, was very deliberate. As it suggests, we are committed to improving the health of all watersheds and, by extension, the Bay; it is our ultimate measuring stick. We do work elsewhere in other watersheds, and even in other countries, and this ethic always comes with us.
And there are, of course, the regular updates from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), and it isn’t always good news. The “dead zone” in the bay has been increasing, notwithstanding all the hard work that has gone into improving the Bay’s health over the years – with everything from agriculture, to thoughtful building construction. The CBF has done a great job at promoting and building awareness, but I think the problem is that, with our population steadily increasing, development is outpacing the intensity of efforts to offset the impacts.
As a small business, we are generally more focused on smaller projects in our mission to support the Bay’s health, and I hope that the results will add up. And where we have the opportunity to bring awareness, we can encourage others to create a more intensified collective effort. In our design approach, we do whatever is feasible to prevent or slow the run off through living roofs, rain gardens, etc., and we try to incorporate these strategies into every project.
You mentioned work that you’ve done in other countries. You’ve spent a lot of time in Haiti after the earthquake. Can you fill us in on the rebuild and your involvement?
We talk a lot about our environmental ethics and part of that includes social responsibility. We became involved in Haiti as an extension of our commitment to designing affordable housing in Richmond, which we started 5-6 years prior. We participated in an international housing competition, for which we were finalists. This secured our work in Haiti. At the time of the competition, we connected with a Haitian entrepreneur who was starting a company to bring an alternative, more efficient building technology into the country. This was certainly a direct response to the earthquake. We saw this as an opportunity to help and contribute to the rebuilding of Haiti.
When you first began your career as an architect, did it take a few projects to get into the flow of it? Learning what you can and cannot do, especially in regard to best practices for environmentally driven design?
When I talk to people about what we do, the why and the how, I always emphasize the word “practice.” I’m a practicing architect. Of course, you don’t want anyone to think they’re a guinea pig, but that really is an accurate term. It’s not unlike a practicing physician. We’re practicing our art and our trade, learning with each client and project, and building on the knowledge and experience that you gain from each one. I can’t ever see myself getting to a point and saying, “Ok, I got it. I’ve learned everything. I need no more practice.” and stopping. When you’re trying to enhance your relationship with the Earth thru sustainable practices, you have to understand that it’s a constant, not a “place” at which you arrive.
It’s more than a career; it’s really a lifestyle. I often say, “I’m never going to retire.” I may slow down, spend fewer hours per week working, but it is an extension of my life and my life is an extension of my work. It’s all sort of intertwined. My work is informed by what I’m trying to do in terms of my everyday life. Growing things, keeping a garden, collecting water, saving and producing energy. These are all things that I sell to other people, that I’m also doing myself.
After our conversation, we had an opportunity to tour a residential home currently under construction that Patrick and his team designed. The home is located just off of Richmond’s Riverside Drive, which is known for its scenic views overlooking the James River. As we walked through the space, Patrick emphasized that all of his projects – – this one included – – are the result of not only committed clients, but a very talented group of associates whose efforts are crucial to getting this caliber of work done. It’s immediately clear that the renovation and conversion of this late-1940s one-story house into a two-story elevated space is very well-done. The space features floor-to-ceiling windows, three outdoor balcony and patio areas, and a kitchen garden. Not only does the home now have more environmentally efficient systems in place, but it is a standing testament to the power of great design, collaboration, and forward thinking. Richmond benefits tremendously from having groups like Watershed contributing to the conversation.
For more information on Watershed Architects, visit their website, watershedarch.net.