April 29, 2014

Gary Olp, founder of GGO Architects, was awarded the Green Source DFW Sustainable Leadership award for For-Profit Professional in March. Green Source DFW quizzed him recently on the evolution of his practice and green architecture in North Texas. 

GSDFW: YOU’VE BEEN INVOLVED WITH ENVIRONMENTAL ARCHITECTURE FOR NEARLY 30 YEARS IN DFW – DO YOU SEE ANY PROGRESS IN PEOPLE’S ATTITUDES TOWARD GREEN DESIGN? 

Left, Gary Olp.

GO: Yes, to some degree, but mostly no! What I’m seeing is that there is a small minority of people who are committed to building and living green. There is a larger contingent that wants to live green, eats organically and recycles but can’t seem to make the connection between their dependency on fossil fuels and continuing to choose to live in unrestorative environments. What’s missing is the holistic integrated understanding of our individual impacts on the environment.  And then there is the large majority who just plain don’t give a damn. 

GSDFW: IS IT HARD TO SELL PEOPLE ON SUSTAINABLE DESIGN? 

GO: Generally, my clients tend to be people that are extremely enlightened. They get it, they can see how their lives are connected to the flow of all life and how living in a way that is degenerative rather than restorative impacts everyone negatively. So no, my client’s are the cultural progressives leading
the way. The curious often visit my office, while they can see the difference in 
how we design; harmoniously integrating aesthetic and sustainable influences, they just can’t make the leap to live fully aware in an actualized sustainable lifestyle.

I could talk until the sky falls but unfortunately their spiritual awareness just isn’t open to gifts we have to offer. And I keep sharing, talking, explaining and living by example anyway.

Above, pigeon coop at Washburn residence. Courtesy of GGO Architects.

GSDFW: HOW HAS YOUR ATTITUDE TOWARD ENVIRONMENTAL ARCHITECTURE CHANGED OVER THE YEARS? DO YOU HAVE DIFFERENT PRIORITIES?

GO: I do have different priorities. When I was in my 20s and just starting on this chosen path I was focused primarily on energy efficiency. Mostly passive solar design techniques. That hasn’t changed and the orientation to the path of the sun still supersedes every other aspect of the influences that guide our designs. But now I look at our work in a broader sense. We are extremely sensitive to the sense of place, the “messages on the wind,” the life in the soil, the presence of trees, plants and animals. How where we built may affect or alter the immediate environment and also, in a larger sense, the region. I learned from an Apache elder that man isn’t by nature a destructive creature. Landscapes managed by human stewardship in pre-history times exhibited greater fish and game populations, healthier forests and better water.

I am also intrigued now with Mies van der Rohe’s concept of “Less is More” and redefining a conversation with Bucky Fuller who at a very advanced age asked me to be aware of “how much my buildings weighed.” When he told me that I thought is this guy gone out to pasture? I get it now. It’s about efficiency of purpose and manifestation. Nature is precise, nothing is wasted, nothing more is used than is essential to affect the guided intentions of the life force here on the planet. That kind of natural efficiency is how we can build and live without harm to any living system or form of life. Only young immature ecosystems consume large quantities of resources – it’s to support one purpose – growth! Mature eco systems are marvelously precise, diversified and efficient in terms of using available resources.

Above, Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth house. Courtesy of FarnsworthHouse.org. 

GSDFW: HOW WE CAN BUILD COMMUNITIES MORE IN HARMONY WITH NATURE?

Left, Olp residence. Courtesy of GGO Architects.

GO: Density, synergy, diversity and introducing what I call Urban Wilderness. The suburban model is basically DOA. Living in “idyllic” communities that require a commute by single-occupant fossil-fuel powered pollution machines is absurd and last century. Does a community of rabbit warren streets with houses that all look alike with 8-foot tall fences really appeal to anyone? Most of those residents have a yard service and drive into the garage from the alley and never ever see their neighbors.

Density yields social and creative interaction with cultural and intellectual exchange that advances and gentrifies the human condition. Certainly there is a case for rural communities – we have to grow our food somehow, although there is a case of locally grown food as well. I’ve got chickens and bees in my back yard. We also need to begin to address the full circle of individual responsibility. A diverse natural environment can’t exist where there is nothing but concrete roads, sidewalks, manicured landscapes with non-indigenous plants and roof tops. We have to begin to rediscover a pedestrian way of life. I’m not advocating chickens or hogs running free in the streets but we need to have communities that integrate our homes with the places where we work, shop and play and recreate.

Designing wild places that are integrated into the community fabric brings the natural world right up into our daily experience. The diversity of life that is spawned by a regenerative holistic approach allows us to live fully in each and every moment. When I step in my back yard and watch a Cooper's Hawk launch up in the air with a fresh rat kill in its talons from the wild creek behind my house, it is exhilarating. In that one spiritual moment the entire breath of the concept of living in harmony with nature is exemplified! Now if it was one of my best hen’s he was taking off with I wouldn’t be giddy but I’d understand – harmony is still maintained.

Right, Cooper's hawk. Courtesy of DFWUrbanWildlife.com

GSDFW: YOU SAID AT THE GSDFW AWARDS “We don’t have an environmental problem, we have a design problem.”  HOW CAN WE DESIGN OUR WAY OUT OF OUR ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS?

Left, Passmore residence. Courtesy of GGO Architects.

GO: I commented earlier that young ecosystems by their design consume large amounts of resources. They also grow extremely rapidly with short-lived species and the waste quotient is huge. By comparison mature eco systems are precise, efficient and waste doesn’t exist. Species are more long lived and diversified.

So put that in societal terms and what does that look like? Imagine what it would be like to be able to walk to everything you need to support your quality of life or perhaps to clean and efficient public transportation to whisk you away without traffic jams to anywhere you need to go – your place of work, grocery store, dry cleaners, shoe repair, the local pub, movies, restaurants etc. Would we need roadways that are dead uninhabitable environments? Would you be filling the belly of these beasts with fuels toxic to mine, refine, transport and burn? Wouldn’t the air be cleaner?Walking or bicycling would mean a healthier population and far less heath care. Homes would heat and cool themselves by virtue of conscious regional design. Ugly is not ubiquitous because it’s no longer socially acceptable to build cheap disposable buildings. Rather buildings are designed and constructed in a manner that does no harm. Perhaps landscapes are edible? Hardscape and roof designs are precise to capture episodic rain events and reintroduce the water back into the natural landscape at a rate that mimics the pre-development flow so that riparian habitats and natural stream banks are not eroded by hydraulic water flows. These are just a few examples. 

When I visited Copenhagen, everyone rode bicycles. The entire city is designed to support walking and biking. Cars are few. The urban center is vital and alive, fresh foods were abundant. Fish, fresh out of the sea, were in the market places.

Right, Bicyclists in Copenhagen. Courtesy of the Toronto Star.

The residential areas were either right inside the city or integrated immediately adjacent to the urban core. Recycling bins were on nearly every corner. The harbor boasted a line of wind turbines that generated power for the city. And right in the heart of the city center was Tivoli, which was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Disney Land and guess what? Everyone walked into Tivoli – there isn’t a parking lot or space anywhere near it! I’ve read several studies lately about pedestrian-oriented communities like Georgetown near Washington, DC. Turns out they are highly prized. Real estate rarely turns over. They exhibit a vibrant sense of community. Consequently, the per capita level of education is represented by advanced degrees and the per capita income is also significantly above the American norm. They are clean, boast lots of green open space and the built environment is breathtaking. Interesting, isn’t it?

Left, red-tailed hawk. Courtesy of DFWUrbanWildlife.com.

I visited Colonial Williamsburg a few years ago. I was sitting on a park bench with my son Ian and, like a bolt of lighting, a hawk struck a squirrel that was feeding on tourist-strewn nuts. In a flash, the hawk skinned the squirrel and started enjoying his fresh squirrel parts. I was ecstatic! The exhilaration of experiencing the integration of urban wilderness and urban social experience in perfect harmony in that moment was profound. However, the surrounding screams, cowering and demands to do something to remove the repulsive scene clued me in that we “moderns" have a long way to go. To the credit of the community though, the local law enforcement officers promptly set up a barricade and kept the tourists at bay so the hawk could relish his lunch.

GSDFW: WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR DALLAS IN TERMS OF SUSTAINABILITY?

GO: I wouldn’t own a car or need a car – traffic jams would be a distant nightmare. I’d smile every morning as I stepped outside and filled my lungs with air as clean as it is in the Sierras or Rockys at 10,000 feet. I’d like to be able to walk to White Rock lake with a fly rod and catch a few fish that were free of contamination and dip my hands in water as clean as it is in the Boundary Waters of Canada or running through a trout steam high in Alpine country. I wouldn’t see a speck of trash as I walked streets lined with trees and beautiful craft-fully built buildings to the grocery, my office or the train station. And along the way maybe I’d see a horny toad running in the sun.

Above, horned lizard, aka the horny toad. Courtesy of National Geographic.


Gary Olp is an award-winning LEED-accredited architect and founder and president of GGO Architects, the first green practice to open in Dallas. He speaks and writes about sustainable design and environmental stewardship.

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Comments (2)

  • anon
    Anonymous (not verified)

    Love, love, love this article. Gary speaks my language about stewardship of our natural resources. I also voted for him during the voting process for the 2014 GSDFW awards

    May 01, 2014
  • anon
    Anonymous (not verified)

    Very interesting interview. Such ideas & approaches give me hope...but let's get going on sustinable villages.

    May 10, 2014