Gregory Cowley

Harrison Fraker, Assoc. AIA, is the 2014 Topaz Medallion recipient, an award administered jointly by the AIA and the ACSA for excellence in architectural education. Fraker, who co-founded the Center for Environmental Study at Princeton University in 1972 (now part of the Princeton Environmental Institute), has spent the last 40 years pushing architects and students to focus on ecology, energy, and environmental stewardship—first at Princeton Energy Group and Harrison Fraker Architects, and then as dean at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. “Architecture, as urbanism, is a systems challenge,” Fraker says. “It’s about design, but just as much about design that integrates research.”

Architectural education has the privilege of communicating the core body of knowledge that informs making good buildings. Schools of architecture have an essential teaching responsibility. There are many ways to do that, and there is a constantly evolving set of questions of what pedagogy should include. At the same time, the universities—in which these schools of architecture sit—should be generating new knowledge, questioning assumptions, and acting as incubators for innovation. That is the task of the university. When we do both of those things well, education fulfills its mission for society.

After Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring [1962], the first Earth Day in 1970, and Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle [1971], architecture’s environmental impact was still uncertain. Neither architects nor engineers really knew how buildings used energy. Tracking energy flows became a huge need. Our first Center for Environmental Study project was to put 100 sensors in three houses in Twin Rivers, N.J.; to plot how much energy was used in the refrigerator, by lights, for heating, and for cooling; and to judge performance. The key finding? Air filtration is critical to energy performance, which we discovered by finding all of these thermal bypasses from basement to attic. Knowing this, we instrumented 10 more houses. Three underperformed, not because of air filtration but because their windward location on the site increased their air infiltration losses.

Later, in my deanships, partly by luck and partly by instinct, I was able to incorporate my interest in systems, energy, and design into my new responsibilities—everything from the art of fundraising to recruiting and retaining faculty who could both teach core design concepts and effectively engage the city.

Finding a group of like-minded people in the early 1970s was a bit of a challenge, but an alternate club existed—one that focused on the environment. At the very beginning of my career, I taught an introductory course on design process at Princeton that included a two-week module on “the environmental imperative,” which centered on the then-old but newly discovered idea that buildings act as environmental filters. The students got it immediately—and understood that the envelope wasn’t just a formal thing. It is so gratifying to see now, 40 years later and after so much work by my colleagues and me, that that idea is fundamental to architectural education.