Imagine, if you will, a utopia smack in the heart of downtown Dallas. In this green, sustainable building of tomorrow, you might roll out of bed, take a shower and find your runoff water feeding vegetation growing on the roof and walls, upon which you'll feast later that night. Or maybe you'll move downtown and become a cattle rancher several stories above the concrete jungle. Or perhaps you'll grab a bite in the slow-food café downstairs after knocking off your shift working the counter in the holistic pharmacy next door.
Solar panels heat and light your home, and the high-tech and the natural mesh seamlessly in a Logan's-Run-to-a-kibbutz kind of way. It's a place so inviting, so self-contained that there's really not much reason to ever leave home.
The possibilities, say the three architectural firms competing to design this future world, are endless—so much so they can't really pin down what life in their buildings would be like, which is precisely what makes it so hard to believe one will ever exist. But if local affordable housing advocates Brent Brown and John Greenan have their way—and they insist they will—this world of tomorrow might be a lot closer than you think.
For Brown and Greenan, this story begins on a pan-fried July 2008 afternoon behind Dallas City Hall. Theirs had been nothing more than a routine trip to a bureaucrat's office. Brown and Greenan often had occasion to visit City Hall: Brown, as the head of bcWORKSHOP, celebrated for its efforts to give ramshackle South Dallas homes extreme makeovers; Greenan, as founder and executive director of nonprofit Central Dallas Community Development Corp., a subsidiary of Larry James' Central Dallas Ministries.
That summer, Greenan was knee-deep in his biggest project to date: converting 511 N. Akard St. from a ghost town of an office tower into affordable and low-income housing into which Brown plans to move. The two men could not be more dissimilar. Greenan sports a gray beard obscuring a baby face; he speaks softly and seldomly, especially when Brown is around. Perhaps that's because Brown, tall and broad and bespectacled, is as exuberant as his colleague is placid. They are, say many who know them, a perfect match. Says one real estate executive, "If Brent and John try doing something, I can't imagine it won't get built."
So, on this day, after crunching numbers and implementing action-plan items and whatever it is dreamers do when they spend time with public servants, Brown and Greenan took the elevator down to the ground floor and exited into the blinding sunlight. And, for no reason other than the fact it was all he could see, Greenan turned to Brown and commented upon the asphalt wasteland where they had parked the car.
"There ought to be a better use for a block in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the country than a dollar-a-day parking lot," Greenan told Brown.
To which Brown replied, "Let me get back to you on that."
Architect Eric Corey Freed is something like a tent-revival preacher, traveling the country proselytizing for Frank Lloyd Wright's theory of organic architecture, which melds the man-made with the found-in-nature. He sits on the advisory board of a nonprofit out of San Francisco called Urban Re:Vision, which since 2007 had been holding a series of academic competitions that asked doers and dreamers to re-imagine the future of building, designing and living. Each competition—involving such things as urban planning, transportation, energy delivery, architecture, commerce and construction materials—had a cutesy name such as Re:Connect, Re:Construct, Re:Design, Re:Route, Re:Store or Re:Volt.
But all along, Urban Re:Vision has planned a climactic competition that could render the theoretical tangible. Hypotheticals were good for fund-raising. They got Urban Re:Vision's name out there. They were fun as hell. And, hey, that idea for making walls using building blocks fashioned from compressed maps? Kick. Ass. But until Urban Re:Vision lived up to its name, so what?
Which is why, during the course of these competitions, Urban Re:Vision began scouting for a city in which to plant their piles of theories, to see if it would sprout an architectural revolution—a self-sustaining block, a steeped-in-green building where people of all incomes would live, work, play, shop and eat (off their own walls, more or less). San Francisco seemed, at first, the likely site—then organizers realized it was too obvious. New York City? Perhaps, but there's not much separating a left-coast crunchy from a right-coast liberal. Again, too predictable. Portland? Maybe. But wait. How about, um...Texas?
As far as Freed was concerned, it made sense: Something in flyover land would attract attention. It would prove that this was no hippy-dippy, never-gonna-happen, greenwashing bullshit. So Freed called Kathy Zarsky in Austin, where she runs a "sustainability consulting firm" called the HOLOS Collaborative. Urban Re:Vision also reached out to Sergio Palleroni, who, at the time, was teaching architecture and sustainable design and development at the University of Texas at Austin. He told Urban Re:Vision he knew just the guy.