In 1975, Pliny Fisk III co-founded the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (CMPBS) in Austin, Texas. Thirty-six years later, the nonprofit affectionately known as Max’s Pot is still dedicated to advancing knowledge of sustainable design through education, research, and demonstration of architectural projects considered to have potential for contributions to site, regional, and global sustainability, as well as to human health. Fisk serves as its co-director, along with his wife, Gail Vittori.
Fisk traces much of his passion for cross-disciplinary inquiry to his days at the University of Pennsylvania during the late 1960s and early 1970s. His professional accomplishments include helping to start the AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE) and serving as co-chair for the AIA’s Environmental Resource Guide (first published in 1992 and funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), one of the first efforts to green the profession. Through his leadership, CMPBS established the Laredo Blueprint Demonstration Farm in 1990 for the Texas Department of Agriculture and helped the City of Austin inaugurate the nation’s first green-building program in 1991. CMPBS is currently consulting on a number of sustainable initiatives for a variety of clients, including supporters of a controversial Formula One racetrack in Austin who want Fisk’s help in designing a complex of high-tech green buildings.
The CMPBS turned 35 last year. What do you consider to be the biggest milestones in sustainability for you over this time?
I think it’s a mixture of policy—local and statewide, and, to some degree, national—and the AIA Environmental Resource Guide and what we did with the Austin green building program. Then also the Advanced Green Builder Demonstration [an ongoing research project] for the state of Texas, which was fitting policy and good design together. Very, very neat stuff.
How can commercial buildings become more green?
If you built these [big box] structures more responsibly to start with, they could become something that we’re not even thinking of today, which is land. And those roofs—those are not only [for] PVs, but they are your urban gardens of the future. This is beyond green roofs. This is food, this is water, this is water processing, this is everything.
Structurally, they have to be really adaptable. We have a design for the future of the big box—a holistic approach—and how the structure can actually begin to accommodate an unbelievable diversity of possible needs, all the way to the point of taking those parking areas and having a tensile structure span it, hundreds of feet, and putting very lightweight photovoltaic panels on the structure. This is a power plant. Parking in the future is your solar energy plant.
How will the next generation of commercial buildings compare to those from today?
I think the main thing is that there are now protocols for making these buildings adaptable from the start. There are protocols so that we can embed these things into a green-building program to say there’s another life to these buildings, that they are going to adapt. They’re either going to be torn down and put into the dump or pieces are going to be reused in a responsible way.
What is a typical day like at CMPBS?
Very, very unpredictable. To give you an example, Formula One is here. And then the developer who’s financing [a prototype for single-family housing] is here, so I have to run over and take down Formula One. We have to be careful sometimes about who sees what, because we are always delving into the unknown and unexpected.
Now the other thing that happened: The Meadows Foundation [which is funding CMPBS research on an experimental cement made from magnesium oxide and seawater] calls in the middle of all this and says, “Pliny, you really haven’t said how many units within a given period of time that you’re going to impact.” And this is happening right in middle of all this other chaos. I have to get them the numbers or they won’t fund it.
Then I have a bunch of interns from all over the world. The disturbing thing is they have such a good time here that they have a very difficult time leaving and going back to either their own university or getting a job because they compare all their jobs to this crazy exposure that they’ve been through here.
So here I have this dichotomy, these totally different projects, one after the other coming in, and these interns that come from these totally different experiences to try to get it aligned in some way. And that was Friday.
You’ve often been referred to as a maverick, yet now green building and environmentalism is moving more toward the mainstream. How has this migration changed your work, if at all?
I’ve become more maverick.
You were once quoted as saying that “nothing in the architectural world can be looked at in isolation. As in the natural world, each aspect of the system is connected to everything else.” How should this concept impact an architect’s work and processes?
You first of all don’t differentiate between what is architecture and what is landscape architecture and what is planning. That is an impossibility. A building actually works within a sort of feedback system [in which] the building is an extension of the organism of yourself.
It is very important to be thinking about cycles, whether it’s energy-related, or whether it’s the water or the oxygen. It’s no longer: Let’s put cisterns out there. It’s the cisterns and the roof and the wastewater: That’s a cycle. It’s the energy and the conservation of the energy together: That’s a cycle. We [at CMPBS] like to think of food, air, all the things around us in a truly cyclical manner, and we’re designing cycles or we’re stopping the cycle. If you can keep the cycle going and the user begins to recognize these cycles, then we’re doing our job. We call this eco-balance. It’s an eco-balance process and we can grow it nationally, by state, city, building, or room.
[Architects must] get out of thinking “I’m doing my thing” [when] all the buildings around you in the commercial environment could be helping you do your thing. Get out of thinking “I’m going to do the perfect green building” and not realizing “there’s a building next door with the largest green roof I’ve ever seen in my life and yet I’m trying to stuff everything in what I’m doing while not cooperating with the guy next door.”
I mean that’s a little bit kooky. It’s sort of like almost turn-of-the-century architecture bullshit that “I am me.” And we’re a little bit “I am me” still and we’re not really getting this citywide, planningwide way of cooperating. [Governments should say] you cannot do single entities, we’re not in the single entity thing anymore, and you’re not going to do a green building with a boundary around it. It’s impossible. By definition, it doesn’t work.
Stephen Sharpe is the editor of Texas Architect magazine in Austin, Texas. For more on the CMPBS, visit cmpbs.org.