Concrete Thinking Think Concrete
Thinkers> Doug Farr  
Farr Associates
Despite a love of nature, Doug Farr, AIA, is a city guy at heart. During a summer in college studying lakes in rural northern Michigan, Farr had an epiphany. He hated being away from the hustle and bustle of the city. He needed to seriously reconsider his career path.
Doug Farr

While his decision was a loss for the field of botany, Farr has been able to combine his respect for the natural environment with his interest in the urban landscape as an architect.

“ My calling is to design elegant spaces that people love, which also are high density,” says Farr, founding principal and president of Farr Associates in Chicago. “The more dense a development, the lower per person environmental impact.”

The foundation of his work as both an architect and urban planner is to align his personal passion for sustainable development with each client’s economic, aesthetic and practical objectives.

“I want to design buildings and communities that will last and create enduring value for several generations,” says Farr, identified by Architectural Record magazine as one of five “Second Generation” New Urbanists.

Farr counts on concrete to achieve his sustainable development goals.

“Concrete is one of the oldest materials available,” Farr says. “We certainly can learn from the success of the Romans. Their buildings have stood the test of time.”

In addition to creating buildings that last, Farr appreciates concrete’s versatility. From leveraging concrete as a thermal fly-wheel to creating clean, elegant finishes, architects can make concrete work for them in many ways, he says.

Defining Green Design

Farr’s childhood in Detroit shaped his interest in sustainable development. The oil shortage in the 1970s and the city’s long-term decline made a deep impression on him.

As a young professional, Farr joined the American Institute of Architects newly formed Committee on the Environment in Chicago. That committee and the rich dialogue with other architects struggling to define sustainable development helped to shape his work.

Finding the market for sustainable development in the early 1990s was challenging. “We spent much of our time with potential clients trying to explain green building instead of focusing on our experience and past work,” Farr says.

The advent of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) helped resolve much of the debate around green building and really moved sustainable development forward, Farr believes.

“It created a market,” Farr says. “We no longer had to waste time trying to define green building. LEED provided a standard to design to.”

Hitting the Sweet Spot

A pivotal moment in Farr’s career resulted from a connection made at a sustainable development competition during the 1993 AIA conference. His firm developed an extensive master plan for a low-income neighborhood in Chicago. Farr Associates’ plan became a political lever to save a section of the city’s elevated train, and his small firm of three architects became heroes and instant experts on transit-oriented development.

A component of that effort was designing the Bethel Commercial Center, a mixed-use transit center. Designed to achieve a LEED Gold rating, this building incorporates an insulated concrete wall system to minimize energy usage, reduce noise transmission and create a durable structure. Through the use of concrete and other design innovations, such as lightshelves and sunlight shafts, the building is expected to use 50 percent less energy than conventional construction.

During this multi-year project, Farr and his firm had a chance to do both urban planning and individual building design.

“Green urbanism, the combination of urban planning and architecture, is the sweet spot; when you control both the land use plan and building design suddenly much more is possible,” Farr says.

Farr’s passion for both site development and building design culminates in his work as co-chair of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) committee, working to establish a national standard that integrates the principles of green building and smart growth. LEED-ND is expected to debut in 2006.

Farr sees significant opportunity to increase the dialogue and interaction between the two disciplines. “For instance, a structure may be designed using the principles of sustainable development but if it is far from mass transit and doesn’t connect with the broader community, is it really green? Likewise there may be an urban development closely linked to mass transit, shopping, jobs and more but if the buildings waste energy, water and materials, what’s been gained?”

At Farr Associates, architects and urban planners work side-by-side in a large, open drafting room overlooking downtown Chicago. The firm spends about two-thirds of its resources on architecture and one-third on urban planning.

“We greatly benefit from the cross fertilization occurring between the two in our work, which makes us better professionals and a stronger firm,” Farr says.

Dynamic Discipline

In his more than 20 years as an architect, Farr has seen sustainable development move from a hard-to-describe concept to a requirement of many projects. However, it remains a dynamic discipline. One that continues to evolve, challenging architects to come up with new ways to meet the needs of the structure’s occupants while being good stewards of the environment.

Farr sees many opportunities open to forward-thinking architects who embrace green design. “I am glad to be a young person,” Farr says. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and I want to be a part of it.”


case studies
Bethel Commercial Center
NW Illinois Residence
Sanctuary Place

Farr Associates