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The Week in Sustainable Design (7/23/06)

Interview: Paul Kephart of Rana Creek Habitat Restoration and Living Architecture

calacad.jpg The team at Inhabitat covers the ongoing evolution of sustainable design.

As far as green roof designers go, you can't get much more committed or accomplished than the team at Rana Creek. While their name often gets partially eclipsed by the names of their starchitect collaborators, such as William McDonough and Renzo Piano, it's Rana Creek's genius that yields such massive marvels as the rooftops of the Gap corporate headquarters and the California Academy of Sciences.

I discovered Rana Creek in March, when I attended CA Boom, the West Coast annual design show. Across a huge exhibition floor, I was drawn to Rana Creek's living wall display, which they'd custom designed for the occasion as an example of a climate-appropriate botanical rain catchment system. Of course, the technical functions of the wall weren't the main attractor; rather, it was the incredible artistry of the sculptural bent metal, through which succulents were penetrating by what seems like the sheer force of a plant's irrepressible will to thrive.

It's a metaphor for the whole organism that is Rana Creek Habitat Restoration and Living Architecture, a California-based firm with a committment to sustainable innovation matched by a tremendously impressive project portfolio. When I met the two team representatives, Freya Bardell and Brent Bucknum, both were adamant that I speak with with their Exective Director, Paul Kephart, who they made to sound like an ecological prophet with a vision for the future that must be heard.

As it turns out, their zeal was not unfounded. A few weeks later, I had a chance to interview Paul, and gain a broader understanding of the mission and philosophy underlying Rana Creek's tenacious green pursuits. Beginning as a painter on the Big Sur coast with a passion for natural habitats, Paul is now a leading restoration ecologist and resource planner. It was a delight to have a conversation with such a deeply knowledgable, wholeheartedly committed, and genuinely optimistic innovator.

The interview to follow us the first part of two. The remainder will be posted later in the week with links back to this one. Read on for insight straight from the horse's mouth...

ranaroof.jpg SR: So tell me how you've seen the interest level in green roofs evolve since you began.

PK: Well, there is a great interest today, that's for sure! When I first started, there was less. A lot of these great ideas started with some art and science integration, and all of the tenets and houses that support psychological and natural processes. When I did the project with Bill McDonough at the Gap [Headquarters in San Bruno, California], it was a little far out – a green roof in a Mediterranean climate. But now things are happening, and I think people are beginning to understand what is sustainable and what isn’t. People are beginning to recognize the importance of sustainable design and planning and construction. And they are starting to see the economic benefits, as well. I am pretty encouraged. Having spent 20 years doing this and now seeing it as both “main street” and "mainstream" is really a rewarding and fulfilling experience.

SR: It seems like you are doing some incredible projects. The way I learned about you was through researching the California Academy of Sciences.

PK: That‘s a spectacular project. Working with the design team of Renzo Piano and Gordon Chong, and SWA. What an absolute beautiful group of people to work with -- talented, artistic, disciplined; and that vision that Renzo had was quite elegant.

From my perspective, the project addresses how to restore and encourage biodiversity in the urban sectors; what a great message, what a great venue. You know the Academy has a long tradition of exploring and explaining the natural world, and they have thousands of living organisms in collections and have been classified under the roof. Now the opportunity is to take that kind of experimentation in science and apply it in the built environment and as part of structure.

And that’s really where I’m going with my work; I want to define a new vernacular and a design style that don’t just look at green roofs and don’t just look at bioswales and grey water and passive solar, but to start to integrate all of these in a design process that really makes it a part of structure, not an amenity to or an apperturant feature of the design. That’s really on the cutting edge; that’s where a lot of our design work is going.

We have a number of large scale projects now that are starting to look at integrated designs where we use grey water, and we use the roof as a biofilter for the grey water system; a closed-loop system where the water is then reprocessed and used in the ground plain or it can be used for other applications, water being the most precious resource.

ranapiece.jpg I have been talking about green architecture and ecology and design for a number of years, but it is time to start thinking in the design community about catastrophic episodes and preparedness. How do we design food production within our cities? How do we generate energy, self-sufficiency, and how do we create an environment where people are a lot safer than they are today? It’s not only about ecology, but part of ecology is having a safe place that has stable food and energy and water supplies. That’s going to be key.

And I think our designers - after some of these large-scale events like Katrina and such - are starting to get it. I think it starts with ecology, because it’s a whole systems approach, so it looks at all the different parts of the design process and the natural process. What’s neat is that you can take ecological principles and apply them to architecture. When you think about the program of a structure or building, what about thinking about its natural processes?

SR: Are the food preparedness and energy issues things that you are already integrating into your current projects, or something you’re thinking towards?

PK: You know what I’m doing is I’m beginning to articulate it. And through that articulation, I’m beginning to understand it; and now I’m beginning to see where the connections are and where we have opportunities. This actually came out yesterday in this design process for an urban application of a police station in San Jose. Here I was promoting the use of indigenous species, specific species from that site that benefit specific invertebrates and organisms -- so an actual reverence for the place and the little things that inhabit it. And then I zoomed out and I said, But what about the people? That particular part of the world once had great agricultural production of fruit trees. So why can’t we retain a part of that as a part of our landscape and not just create ornamental landscape? You know, ornamental, in the true sense of the word, is without function or purpose other than adornment and amenity.

So I threw that on the table [in our meeting] and I said, "Wouldn’t it be nice to have a small grove of fruit trees?" And the answer was that the participants and the people there probably wouldn’t understand it, or they would be afraid of it. That’s how far removed we are from our food production and from natural processes. When I said, ”Well, it could be for the birds,” they said “Oh no, we don’t want birds! Then there would be birds droppings everywhere!"

Another project I’m working on is the LEAF standards. You’ve heard of LEED…now this exercise is to develop "Leadership in Ecological Applications and Functions," where we really start to look at ecology and natural process and psychological functions in urban ecology as a part of the built environment and reward people for having an understanding of their particular site capacity to support biodiversity. What a concept! It’s called LEAF, and you don’t get a silver or gold or platinum award, you get an oak leaf, maple leaf, sycamore leaf and willow leaf award.

LEED is sometimes inadequate to really address particular species of rare plants or animals; so this would provide incentives for those kinds of developments within the built area. I keep throwing the idea out there and most people kind of look at me like I’m a little bit deranged; but that’s probably a good thing! I must be on the right track.

It’s time to get real. It’s too late to continue protesting and saying the word “saving.” That era is over. We need to be proactive and incorporate this in our design with a clear understanding that the population is going to nearly double in California in the next 40 years. That's going to put pressure on the natural resources. And since we are going to do so much redevelopment and we’re going to create such a broad-based economic revival based on ecology, let’s celebrate it. I’m very optimistic!

SR: Someone recently commented to me that they felt that the threat to biodiversity is our greatest danger, but I find that most people don’t really understand what this means, or what the implications are of lost biodiversity. It takes a lot of explanation for the gravity of the situation to make sense to people - it’s such a far removed idea.

PK: It is, and you know it’s not that complex. Biodiversity happens on a species level, it happens on a plant community level, it happens on a geophysical level throughout the planet; it’s the genetic expression of all life on the planet. Take insects, for example. They are probably the greatest, in terms of numbers. There are about 1.5 million insect species on the planet that we have actually classified, and there are quite a number of species we don’t know anything about yet.

I think it was E.O. Wilson that said that in the next hundred years we may lose 15% of all species represented on the planet, or lose the opportunity to understand them. Long term, we would like to understand whether living roof structures actually support biodiversity – and we don’t know that yet. Are they a biological trap? Are they a place that is limited in terms of resources? Or are they places where these species of birds may go to reproduce and are subject to predation?

All of these are great questions, from a science and ecological standpoint, to ask in the near term future; it just takes the conversation way up and above the amenity, adornment and ornamental applications of landscape.

paul kephart, rana creek, green meme, living wall, green roof, paul kephart, freya bardell

SR And yet the reason I was drawn over to the Rana Creek booth in the first place was those beautiful bent metal, vertical succulent gardens, which would make such incredible ornamental additions to a landscape. But those are a rain catchment system, right?

PK They certainly can be. The prototype you saw there is just a new idea from an artist, Freya Bardell. She is doing some wonderful experimentation and design with vertical systems. Rain water catchment is absolutely a byproduct, because of course you have a vertical column of soil that retains moisture. And, also because it transevaporates, it provides a similar process that a living roof does.

I can capture 70% of the rainfall that falls on the site and the wall can take care of the other 30%, because the design looks at conveying the water to the surface drains on a roof and then goes right down through the backside of that rainwater wall and is utilized there by the plants. The walls also are sound barriers, and they keep the building cool – evapotranspiration really cools the skin of the building. It’s a living skin.

At Rana Creek, we are all designers but we rely on science as part of our design, and often our designs lead to ecological benefits.

green roof, rana creek

SR I know that you put a lot of effort into doing natives and habitat restoration. Do you see people doing more ornamental green roof projects that involve invasive and non-native species?

PK You know I have seen a great interest in people wanting to utilize particular plants that are supportive of invertebrates or butterflies and humming birds. That’s not to say non-native plants cannot have ecological functions. Plants are adaptive and so are the species that utilize them. Philosophically, I don’t want to discourage people from using any kind of plant material as part of the structure of a vegetative system, and often times there are applications where non-native species have a range of utility that native species do not.

I look at these plants more for what kind of utility they provide and in terms of structural utility or shading or evaporation, drought tolerance. I look at it from that kind of site adaptive perspective. When you think about these types of environments, they are highly exposed to radiation. They’re usually windy, subject to intense rains and storms, and the soils that are on roofs and in walls have low nutrient capacity; so I look at plants in regards to their adaptability and performance.

Sometimes we find that the plants that volunteer are the ones most adaptive to that condition. In sustainability, as a part of our process, we need to redefine our aesthetics in regards to seasonality and letting things go dormant or die.

green roof, living architecture, rana creek

SR You said that green roofs didn’t get the kind of response when you started out as they get now. With some of these large-scale projects that you first worked on, how did those early clients arrive at the idea that this would be a good design move?

PK That context is so important. At that time, we were talking about energy conservation and bound attenuation and heat island effect and water quality. We were just beginning to articulate those goals as a part of vegetative systems or living roofs. But with the clients and the architects that I have worked with, while we were just kind of discovering the vernacular and envisioning these benefits, we couldn’t quantify them. Yet people felt in their hearts and on an intrinsic level, that these were the right actions to take.

A lot of the time I would sit around a meeting table with a big design staff and we would look at these diminutive little plants and think about incorporating them as part of this living roof or structure, and the money people were saying, “No living roof, no living roof!? And the other people were kind of scratching their heads thinking, “Well what in the world is this?” It was not clearly understood. But in the long run it was the architects and the clients that felt it on an intrinsic level.

This is key to sustainability: We are going through a philosophical and spiritual renewal in regards to our connection with nature. That’s where it started. And now and in the future, we are looking at performance indexes — not only economic performance, but moving towards looking at biodiversity performance, and how we can actually measure a site capacity to support a healthy ecology even within the built environment. We apply some good science and discover what parts of these design processes are valuable and working and what parts we need to revise or redefine or refine.

rana creek, living roof, habitat restoration, green

SR Obviously you have become a real leader in doing these projects; how did you come to know the people who led you into doing the bigger projects? What brought you here? What is your training, your background, and where did you have a break?

PK I lived on the Big Sur Coast as an oil painter and an artist and as a hobby I studied native plants, natural systems and ecology. I began to work with architects on a landscape level. I’m more of a technician than a designer. I like to stay behind the scenes. I see myself as someone who provides service to architects and planners, and technical information and design solutions. That’s where I like to stay.

I like to draw and I like to sketch and these are sketch problems sometimes. I like to incorporate natural systems within architectural standards. It’s an interesting process. And I also love the people I’m able to work with because of their passion and vision. I think we need each other to manifest a new and healthy, hopeful world.

SR One of our writers recently attended urban design conference where there was a panel called The Next Green Roof. It was asking what the next thing will be in sustainable design, because green roofs have already had their 15 minutes of fame. I’m curious for your perspective on the trendiness of green roofs.

PK Well let’s look at Malcolm Wells‘ vision: Airports that were vegetated and beautiful causeways where we could see growth on highways winding through urban centers with parks over the top. Look at the Big Dig in Boston. The future is now. We’re seeing this new elevation because we are simply out of ground space in the urban environment. So let’s lift all of that vegetation and natural process above the streets and then where we can, incorporate nature and parks and natural systems on the ground plain.

I see these as places for food production, for a safe haven, for recreation, habitat, and really I think it’s just a refinement now. The industry has grown 80% in the last three years, so there are going to be some black eyes, and there are going to be some big mistakes. This is natural in an experimental process.

I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that a lot of the work that we are doing now is experimental and that we are going to learn a great deal from it and build upon it. So from the future standpoint, I think integrative and regenerative design will come forth where the idea of stacking functions and multiple process are included in the design. From an economic and policy standpoint, the cities and municipalities are getting up to speed really quickly in providing economic and planning incentives to those folks who want to incorporate ecological design in their process.

I think that is going to become more prevalent in the near future and from an economic standpoint this realm of ecological design and restoration will become a new level of economy. It is really important that this happen so we can turn our sights away from past economies that weren’t very healthy for the biosphere, like the oil economy or the war economy. From a social and cultural standpoint, it just demonstrates how important this architectural design, and art in general, are. They drive so much of our cultural and social functions.

green roof, habitat, rana creek, restoration ecology, living

SR In closing, can you tell me about any new projects you have coming up? Anything exciting on the horizon for you?

In terms of energy and excitement and inspiration, I’m really drawing my energy and excitement and inspiration from main street now, commercial and industrial applications. We have to make it economically feasible so that it can become ecologically feasible.

You would think that these monumental projects with big name architects — libraries, museums, and municipal structures that are monumental architecture — would be exciting to me. But more exciting is Casa Feliz - low cost construction for housing low income people on Main Street in San Jose; or a police station in San Jose; or the Nueva school in Hillsboro that focuses on the environment and ecology with a living roof. Or the SPCA dog park that actually creates a park on a roof on which people will care and take care of their animals and pets; or small residential projects where people want to grow food on their roof. Those are the projects that I’m excited about now, more so than the monumental ones. It tells me that we’re going in the right direction.

+ Rana Creek

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