Pure Genius

Q&A: Chip Crawford, director of planning, HOK

Q&A: Chip Crawford, director of planning, HOK

Posting in Architecture

Chip Crawford champions the techniques of biomimicry, using nature to find solutions to our problems, and works closely with Heinz Award winner Janine Benyus.

As director of planning at the global architectural firm HOK, Chip Crawford champions the techniques of biomimicry, using nature to find solutions to problems, and works closely with Heinz Award winner Janine Benyus.

Below are excerpts from my interview with Crawford.

How did you get into this field? Why is the work important to you?

I've been interested in architecture since I was a kid. I never looked in any other direction. As I grew older, I learned it's much more than the building. There's the entire public realm. I also had a passion for living things. I became interested in landscape and worked for a number of years with plant material. I mixed it together when I got to the university with landscape architecture. That's what I got my degree in.

It's such a diverse, rich profession that can help people in so many ways, from small-scale interventions at the residential level to the planning of natural systems at the scale of a country. It's been an amazingly enriching profession.

How did you learn about biomimicry and begin to incorporate it into your work?

As a landscape architect, you're quite the generalist. That makes it difficult to dive deep. I became interested in Ian McHarg's book, Design with Nature, which began to look at incorporating natural systems into planning and design in a more authentic way. There are all kinds of different scales to that. Understanding these larger systems became interesting.

I was fortunate to attend an event with Ray Anderson of Interface. It was sort of a retreat with Janine Benyus and Paul Hawken in Vermont. It rocked my boat. In talking with them about the environment and the different ways nature solves problems, it hit me over the head and changed the way I think. Janine talks about 'quieting your cleverness.' Most architects are trained to be know-it-all problem solvers. It dawned on me that we have this best friend all around us with the answer. That changed the way I look at projects and integrate ideas, from the natural and from different thinkers and different disciplines. It's about trying to integrate in the way nature does.

We began to think about the HOK effect. The group I direct has 16 locations all over the world and 150 people. What tied us together? What made our practice unique and allowed it to be diverse? We coined it around this natural systems thinking and the metrics and performance of what we did. That led to another effort with Janine around performance metrics and ecological performance standards. We first tried that in Atlanta for the History Channel's City of the Future competition. It enabled us to apply this new relationship. We looked at how man would deal with the issue of sprawl, as well as how nature would have done it.

Out of that came other initiatives, most notably the idea of working together at the city scale with biologists. Also, how could we introduce performance metrics that [tried to get] the built environment to perform like the natural environment that was there first?

Talk about the use of biomimicry in one of your specific projects.

The Lavasa Hill Station is a project we've been working on for 10 years. It's multiple phases. It's five villages of 30,000 to 50,000 people each. We started on that project before I met Janine. We've been building out the first valley. The project has been controversial, but quite interesting to see how India deals with the burden of urbanization. The easy thing would be to gate it and make it for the rich. Our clients demanded it was for all. When we met Janine and integrated her into the projects, we met with Lavasa. We used the Biomimicry Guild in our process to try to solve it. This is a new master plan and a new view toward how we can look at that.

We began to track everything we did with them in a study to try to understand the performance metrics of a moist, deciduous forest. That's what would be there if nature was left on its own. We had three phases: the preservation, restoration and enhancement of the environment. In each of those entities, tied to specific sites, we then had metrics we applied based on the performance of the natural systems. We did a lot of work around soil coverage and erosion. How would we take nature's practices and apply them to this new construction?

The next phase was incorporating those economic performance standards into the zoning codes. We'd ask more from our buildings to perform more like nature.

Have you incorporated biomimicry into HOK's business practices?

We talk a lot about it. Janine came to a planning group retreat for our people to build alignment around our ethos of the HOK effect. Out of that meeting clearly came this concept: How would nature design a global company? We're flying around the world all the time to do our work. Are we as locally attuned and adapted as we need to be? We talk about feedback loops in nature, the amazing communication that happens. What are we missing in our feedback loops?

Since then, we've been working with Janine and her team to apply that. We developed FIT, or fully-integrated thinking. It's a natural systems-based and data-based design methodology. We're trying to root it into Life's Principles. How FIT is your building? How FIT is your campus? How FIT is your neighborhood? How FIT is your company? We're in the early stages of development of that.

You're based in St. Louis, where many of your projects have taken shape. What's it like to live amid your work?

It's been interesting. We plan projects that might take years to implement. Some of them are long-term visionary ideas that might be implemented in baby steps over time. But we also build things, so you get to see amazing plazas and parks. Unlike a building, these landscapes change over time. Some of the projects I've worked on were one thing when they were first installed, but now they're different. The trees have grown or the community uses it differently. It's constantly changing and enriching.

We were working on all these projects that were green field projects. The biggest opportunity for this kind of thinking is in existing cities. We were trying to apply what we'd learned in all these other places to St. Louis. It is, in many ways, a poster child of what used to be a large, successful industrial city that has changed. We've been looking at how to FIT St. Louis. How would you use lessons from nature to fix and retrofit an existing city? It's been fun to be in the middle of the workshop.

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure