Pliny Fisk is an architect and visionary who began the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (CMPBS) on a rise northeast of Austin forty years ago. The term ‘maximum potential’ refers to a hypothetically perfect state beyond our present, where our built environment sustains us in an ecologically balanced way. CMPBS is a think tank that’s influenced sustainable planning, policy, and design throughout our country. The Center also addresses fundamental issues such as testing materials for construction and evaluating their impact on our environment. It also develops physical prototypes, like the solar decathlon houses which were exhibited on Washington DC’s mall. “Look around. It’s a candy store of craziness. There is no other organization like it in the United States.”
Pliny spent considerable time explaining a long drawing, unscrolled beneath a pergola, that illustrates CMPBS’s primary focus. The three P’s: Prototypes, Protocols, and Policies, describe the potential for environmental equilibrium and what we have to do as a society to achieve it. He referred to a Potenti-o-meter, a way of measuring the connectivity of these three forces, to evaluate a variety of implementation and assessment strategies. “I am totally overeducated. This is an entire graduate program.” It took some time for me to absorb the scope that the drawing represents. Eventually, I came to understand what initially looks complex is both integrated and elegant.
Pliny is a few years older than me. He studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in the golden days of Renzo Piano, Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and Romaldo Guirgola. “I thought it was heaven. I thought the world would continue to be like this.” He was also influenced by operations studies at the Wharton School of Business. Although Pliny is an academician and theorist of the highest degree, his explorations are always rooted in the practicality of how things can be built, disseminated, and accepted.
The City of Austin adopted a green building program, based on work done by CMPBS, in 1989. Austin’s model has influenced over 15,000 buildings within the city, and has served as the model for the green building program for the State of Texas and national LEED standards.
These days, Pliny is exploring the concept of eco-balance; the boundary within one can define a sustainable system. “If you don’t have a boundary, you can’t measure the impact of what you’re doing.” The most sustainable places are those with the smallest boundaries within which energy input and output, agriculture, shelter, and commerce are in equilibrium.
This concept resonated with me; I thought of places I’ve visited along my journey. For example the city of Boulder, Colorado has drawn a tight boundary around areas of development. This appears to be sustainable strategy. However, there are many more jobs within the city than housing opportunities. As a result over 60,000 people a day drive into Boulder for work, creating an energy imbalance. Similarly, the 4.5 million people who live in metropolitan Phoenix have to import water and energy from beyond regional, even state lines. Phoenix’s balance boundary, if it exists at all, is immense.
How will we live tomorrow?
“Trim Tab, the magazine of the International Living Future Institute, wrote an article about the theory that the world will become a brain. We will develop universal empathy at the time our planet reaches a population of seventeen billion. All projections show that we will exhaust our planet’s resources when human population reaches nine billion. Biophilia looks at the primitive brain. It has demonstrated that our neocortex is evolving as our population grows. Our brains continue to be expanded by cell phones and mass communication. Sustainable design is about quickening the cycles of the brain. Can we speed the development of the neocortex through design? Can we achieve the universal empathy projected for a population of seventeen billion by the time our population reaches nine billion? If so, we may find a way to all share this planet before we destroy our ability to survive on it.”