The Mad, Mad World of Pliny Fisk
From Fringe to Center

by Robert Bryce

Two decades ago, Pliny Fisk was on the fringe. One of a handful of forward-looking architects, thinkers and environmentalists trying to make architecture more environmentally sound, Fisk's ideas were largely ignored by mainstream builders. Today, the fringe has become the middle and Fisk is advising the White House on environmental issues, the American Institute of Architects has elected him to their Committee on the Environment, and he's part of a federally funded thinktank which will advise architecture schools on integrating sustainability into their curricula.

The founder and co-director of the non-profit Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, an 18-acre hodgepodge of odd-looking buildings, electric cars, cisterns, cement mixers, and other paraphernalia located at FM 969 and Decker Lane, Fisk speaks in urgent, rapid-fire sentences.

"We just have fun here. That's all we do," Fisk explained a bit facetiously, as he led a pair of visitors through a workshop, where Randall Notgrass, the mechanic-in-residence, welded a brace for a new cistern. A short walk away, Fisk shows off his "laboratory," a tiny, jumbled room filled with bottles, jars, and a forlorn crock pot covered with a thick layer of indeterminable goo. From the counter, full to overflowing with more papers, jars and refuse, he plucks his latest creation, a product he is calling "AshCreteTM." The material, which is twice as hard as regular cement, uses waste ash from coal-fired power plants. "Cement kilns cause eight percent of the total CO2 releases worldwide," Fisk says. He says that one power plant near Austin produces 800 tons of coal ash per day. "With this stuff, we are turning a waste product into a useful material."

If it's energy efficient, creative, low-cost, experimental, unusual, or any other thing that implies non-traditional, Fisk has probably already tried it, or knows someone who has. The grandson of a Wall Street banker (Pliny Fisk I), and the son of an artist and microbiologist (Pliny Fisk II), Pliny Fisk III appears to be inventor, tinkerer, architect, activist, environmentalist and malcontent, all rolled into one energetic blur. Walking around the Center, commonly known as "Max's Pot," Fisk discusses several ongoing projects. What about the collection of vintage electric Ford Fiestas? "Oh we are going to get one of those running tomorrow," he explained on a sunny day in March. "We are just waiting on a part." (A week later, the car still wasn't running. Fisk explained only a bit more time was needed.)

Just west of the office complex he shares with his wife and business partner Gail Vittori, Fisk points to an array of square holes, which will soon become the foundation for the Green Builder Demonstration Home. Supported by the Department of Energy, the Governor's Office, the City of Austin Electric Utility, Texas Department of Health, the Lower Colorado River Authority, Austin-Travis County Health Department and the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, the project will showcase a host of sustainable building materials and concepts. The 1400-square foot home should be finished later this year.

In their office, Fisk displays a design for two recreation camps operated by the Tejas Council of Campfires in Waco. Other drawings detail an environmental program they designed for the proposed state insurance building. They found the building could collect all the water it needs from rainfall and they designed a plant-based system that would treat all the wastewater from the building by using part of the lobby as a marsh. (The insurance building is currently on hold).

Fisk and Vittori are also working on a project that will move 52 recently flooded towns out of the way of the Mississippi River. "How do you get beyond sandbags?" asks Fisk. "We are trying to find a way to move these towns in a sustainable manner."

With degrees in architecture and landscape architecture, Fisk, a wiry, intense man of 49, looks and talks much like a college professor. At other times, he sounds more like a creative genius or mad scientist. One of his contemporaries says of Fisk, "He's eccentric enough to try anything."

"Is that what I am?" Fisk asks. "Eccentric?" But we agreed, he wasn't rich enough to be truly eccentric. "I wish the hell we did have more money. Then we'd do some really crazy stuff out here."

Fisk always tries to look at the big picture when analyzing architectural issues. "It all has to do with why did you build these building here? Why did you transport that oil halfway across the earth?" He says that nothing in the architectural world can be looked at in isolation, that as in the natural world, each aspect of the system is connected to everything else.

Vittori, a slender, forceful woman who affectionately calls her husband "P. Fisk," has her own claims to fame. The longtime chair of the city's Solid Waste Advisory Commission, she was instrumental in launching the city's curbside recycling program. She was also an architect of the "Pay As You Throw" program which will be installed city-wide by next year. And she helped design a recycling program that will be in place at city apartment complexes by next year. "She's an expert at figuring out the bureaucracy," says Fisk.

Vittori points out that much of the work they do at Max's Pot focuses on adapting the built environment to the natural environment. She says that builders should focus on local materials and the carrying capacity of the local system, rather than importing materials and resources from other regions. As part of that, she and Fisk are great proponents of decentralizing the power grid. While other environmentalists are ebullient about the development of wind energy in West Texas, Vittori says the new windmills will be much like other power plants, in that homeowners will rely on a remote power source for their electricity instead of providing their own.

At Max's Pot, Vittori explains, they try to keep things on the local level. "You should always try to do whatever you do - water, energy, wastewater, whatever - at as small a scale as possible and as close to its use as possible. There are a number of reasons for that: first, you understand things better if they are close to home. Second, you avoid all negatives of transmission, transportation, if production is closer to the point of use."

These premises were the basis for the city's sustainability rating for new houses. In the past, the city only looked at energy consumption as a gauge of a new building's environmental friendliness. Vittori and Fisk wrote a grant with the city of Austin in 1989 that got funding for the sustainability rating. The program later evolved into the Green Builder Program. The project was recognized at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as one of 12 exemplary local government initiatives from around the globe. It was the only program of its type from the U.S. that was honored at the Earth Summit. n For the past few weeks, Fisk has been on the road. "People pay me a lot of money to talk about this stuff. I do lectures to support the craziness out here," he says as he motions toward the various ongoing projects at Max's Pot. And most of the projects have a story that goes with them. Pointing to equipment in the shop area, Fisk explains that the tools are left over from a solar water heater manufacturing project in Zavala County.

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, he worked with La Raza Unida, the left-wing Hispanic group that took over Crystal City and Zavala County during that time period. The solar water heaters were needed because Crystal City's supply of natural gas was shut off by their supplier. The solar heater factory was producing five heaters a day, but fell apart in the early Eighties when La Raza was ousted and the group's leader, Jose Angel Gutierrez, left town. In 1982, Fisk went back to Crystal City to retrieve some of his gear and found himself in the middle of a political maelstrom. He was arrested and charged with grand larceny.

"I was arrested for stealing our equipment," he explains. He telephoned Vittori in Austin, who had recently given birth to the couple's first child, Ariel. (They have two children, Ariel, 12, and Carson, 6.) Vittori couldn't drive to Crystal City, so she mailed the receipts for the equipment to the Zavala County sheriff. The mail took three days. During that time, Fisk was in solitary confinement. When the mail finally arrived, he was released and the charges were later dropped.

The Crystal City jail is a long way from the Oval Office. Last year, Fisk and other members of the Committee for the Greening of the White House got a grand tour of the mansion, which he describes as "very cool." Fisk and his cohorts are looking at all aspects of the White House's consumption patterns, from water and electricity to landscaping and recycling.

"The greening of the White House is a neat indication that the Administration even thinks about this stuff. With the White House involved, that means you have a prayer of a chance." He believes the changes happening now are part of a cultural transformation. The challenge now, he says, is "How do you use the White House to get people to understand these issues?"

The main focus of Fisk's work at the White House is on a CD-ROM project called "Greening of the White House - A Virtual Perspective." The project will be used to educate groups about the changes in the White House environmental policies.

While the White House effort has given Fisk and Max's Pot a boost, their work at the Laredo Blueprint Farm is arguably their most successful project. The two-acre farm, which was featured in Architecture magazine in 1991, uses local materials including straw and used oilfield pipe. Straw bales were used to construct five buildings to be used for classrooms, offices and storage. The pipe was used to support awnings for shade. Wind towers were integrated to keep the buildings cool. Wind generators help supply power, while catchment systems trap rainwater in cisterns. The Laredo farm helped Fisk formulate ideas for a new architectural ethic, which he calls Biom-Metrics.TM

In a paper he presented to the American Institute of Architects in 1992, Fisk says that with Biom-Metrics, components will be "chosen for their particular regional significance." Rather than relying on copper, petroleum and other resources which are transported long distances, Fisk wants to focus on how to convert local materials into usable substitutes. The method will also incorporate life cycle assessment to measure the total impact of resource utilization. Life cycle analysis measures "the total impact of resource utilization, including sourcing, transportation, manufacturing, use, reuse, recycling and disposal." For instance, in their analysis of the state insurance building, Fisk found that by substituting granite from Texas for Italian granite, they could save 600,000 kilowatt-hours of energy. Replacing imported materials with local materials saves not only energy, but time and local jobs.

Much of Biom-Metrics depends on breakthroughs in computer technology for accurate mapping of biomes, resources, soil types, geology, and land use activities. The goal, of course, is to achieve what Fisk calls "a sustainable built environment." Fisk's ideas are gaining acclaim among his peers. The Laredo Blueprint Farm will be included in a book on the 20 best architectural projects since John F. Kennedy. His Biom-Metric concept is being used as the basis for the New England Sustainability Center which will be built in Amherst, Massachusetts.

When he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Fisk said, there was a general understanding of the ecological importance of architecture. But few architects saw the need to combine the two elements. Now, Fisk is leading the crusade to re-integrate buildings into their surroundings. After years on the outside of his profession, Fisk believes his image has begun to change. "What was weird 15 years ago is mainstream now," he said.


Pliny Fisk III
Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, 8604 Webberville Rd, Austin TX 78724; 928-4786