2020 Sustainability Awards: Sustainability Superhero
Industry stalwart Peter Pfeiffer’s four decades of building efficient, beautiful structures that are appropriate for their climates and locales has made an indelible mark on the industry.
When it comes to architecture, Peter Pfeiffer, Green Builder Media’s 2020 Sustainability Superhero, is a purist. Serious about the fundamentals of sustainable design, his mantra is quite simple: “Design the built environment to be appropriate for its climate and location.”
Not afraid to express his opinions—even if they’re controversial, Pfeiffer openly laments that many building professionals and consumers have become so distracted by smart technology that they have forgotten about design essentials. “We’ve all become so attracted to the shiny nickel that we have abandoned the basics: building science and designing for environment.”
Which leads him into a commentary on our social values. “We can’t have sustainability without equality,” he claims. “We can build the most visually stunning, functionally perfect, high-performance homes we want, but if people can’t afford to buy and live in them, then what’s the point?”
Indeed, buildings should provide opportunity, asserts Pfeiffer. He proudly points to one of his favorite projects designed by his firm, Barley|Pfeiffer Architecture: the Lost Pines Arts Center outside of Austin, Texas.
“The goal of this project was to revitalize the community spirit of a small Texas town where a quarter of its residents had lost their homes to devastating wildfires,” says Pfeiffer. “We aspired to design a structure that would facilitate a vibrant arts community. We solved for energy efficiency, indoor air quality and daylighting, while reducing operating costs. We showed that good design can directly translate into cost savings for the building owners.”
Room for Improvement
While he recognizes that there are many excellent examples of sustainable design and construction across the nation, Pfeiffer implores the design and construction community to tackle climate action with a greater sense of urgency.
“We have to get serious about climate change,” he avows. “We need to get back to teaching about climate sensitive design. It’s fundamental, but it isn’t taught in architecture schools anymore.”
Instead, everyone has “jumped straight to green materials and smart technologies without reference to orientation, passive design and other key architecture elements that have a substantial impact on the performance of a structure.”
The super-efficient, sustainably designed Lost Pines Art Center boasts an art gallery, community gathering space, offices, studios, foundry, glass shop, ceramics kiln, coffee shop, artists’ residences and gift shop.
He also bemoans the values of our throw-away society, and he is not afraid to pose some fairly provocative questions. “Our culture’s massive overconsumption isn’t actually making our lives better,” he notes. “How much is enough? Do we really need 4,000-square-foot houses? Does every child need their own bedroom, bathroom and playroom? The way we live in our houses translates into our social values, and I’m not sure we’re heading in the right direction.”
He maintains that the design community needs to end its love affair with “options and shiny nickels” and get back to focusing on thoughtful, climate-sensitive design. He also wishes that organizations like the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) would become more active in advocating for better building practices, codes, regulations and policy rather than “holding them back under the guise of affordability.”
Like many other sustainable design and green building professionals, Pfeiffer struggles with the price per square foot valuation metric. “Lowest upfront cost doesn’t lend itself to good sustainable design,” he asserts. “We need to get appraisers, realtors and bankers onboard with promoting better design. But they’re lazy—they want to base values and loans on lowest price, indicating that good design, efficiency and quality don’t matter. That’s just not right.”
In contrast, Pfeiffer believes his business has the proper business attitude. “Homes should be designed to be lived in, not financed and sold,” Pfeiffer proclaims. “We try to design from the perspective of how easy will it be for someone to own and operate home for the next 20, 30 or 40 years.”
He also believes that the language of architecture can sometimes be supercilious, to the detriment of the public. “Let’s speak in pain, forthright English,” he says. “When we get too ostentatious about explaining what sustainable design means, people get confused. That’s cruel, because it distracts people from the essence of good design, which, when done right, is indisputable.”
A Hero in the Making
A Polish immigrant and product of the Great Depression, Pfeiffer was brought up with a “waste not, want not” approach to life. “I was taught at a young age to live efficiently, which has significantly impacted my approach to architecture,” Pfeiffer says.
Pfeiffer, whose professional credentials in his 42-year career include architect, realtor, property manager and building scientist, has been committed to sustainability for most of his life. When he was in the eighth grade, he launched a newspaper recycling campaign and started studying passive solar design.
Soon thereafter, he immersed himself in the environmental movement. “It was an exciting time,” he reminisces. “The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were being developed and environmentalism had a lot of momentum.”
Early in his career, Pfeiffer served as an apprentice to the esteemed Paolo Soleri, a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple and pioneer of the sustainable architecture movement, who Pfeiffer heralds as his own hero.
Pfeiffer was instrumental in developing the Austin Energy Star program, America’s first widely accepted community energy conservation program, and the Austin Energy Green Building Program. He also participated in the development of the NAHB’s National Green Building Standard and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Home rating system.
An accomplished author, speaker and educator, Pfeiffer spends much of his time teaching other building professionals about sustainable land development, environmentally appropriate design and green building.
He has also been instrumental in developing building science-based products that improve home performance, such as LP’s TechShield and cool roof coatings.
Out of his esteemed body of work, Pfeiffer is most proud of being designated an American Institute of Architects (AIA) Fellow for “Mainstreaming Green Building in America”—a distinction only 1 percent of U.S. architects receive.
“I believe I was awarded this honor by my peers because they recognized my work to help normal people—with average budgets—take advantage of green building in a way that is meaningful,” Pfeiffer reflects. “I have tried to strip away the lofty concepts of sustainable design, which are often beyond the reach of the average homeowner, and bring green to the mainstream.”
His favorite project from his extensive portfolio is the Net Zero Retreat home, which just won a Home of the Year award from Green Builder Media (see story, page 24). “We blended the best of contemporary design and sustainability into a structure that is both cost-effective and works with the environment,” he says.
But it’s not all about work with this architect. When not designing, teaching, writing or observing building performance, you can catch Pfeiffer walking his dog, Tripp, or boating.
Some of Peter Pfeiffer’s career accomplishments include:
- Being invited to be a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for “Mainstreaming Green Building in America”
- Being named “National Green Advocate of the Year” by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) for advancing the green/high performance land development.
- A citation in 2006 by Residential Architect as one of the “10 most influential residential architects of the decade.”
- Developing Kool Ply radiant barrier decking in the 1980s, which later became TechShield.
- Developing the “Shading Umbrella metal roofing system,” which Oak Ridge National Laboratories later determined to be “the second major advance in roofs for our century.”
- Participating in the creation of Austin Energy Star, America’s first widely accepted community energy conservation program.
- Continuing as a founding adviser to the nation’s first green building program, Austin Energy Green Building.