It’s so easy to make a house be zero net energy, to the point you can heat your house with a hair dryer.
Interview by Heidi Legg
Cambridge has long been fertile ground for great design minds, with the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the likes of Frederick Law Olmstead, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier as teachers, designers and students. MaryAnn Thompson carries on this influence.
Interview by Heidi Legg
What’s different about your architecture?
It’s a way of connecting an indoor lifestyle to the outside. There’s a peacefulness in the way we design which has to do with how light is brought in. Light brought in from above creates a kind of sacred feeling in the space and is very similar to how light is brought in between trees, the way you get light from above when you're in the woods.
Are you part of a movement?
There’s a generation of people right now who want this and it's almost like a gestalt. I went into architecture when I was an undergrad at Princeton because I wanted to be a solar architect and Jimmy Carter was the president and he was funding solar projects, but when I got out of college, nobody wanted it. I had to do passive solar work, secretly, and my clients would say, “It's so nice that our heating bills aren't as high...you know, we basically don't have to turn on the heat.”
Then, all of a sudden, the whole world suddenly wanted to be sustainable.
When did you see the gestalt happen?
It happened in 2000. It was like a switch flipped. It was so weird. Older clients suddenly wanted sustainable work. So, it's not a new generation. I also teach a studio at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard (GSD) and the students really want to learn sustainable, which they had not before.
When you look at the graphs of how energy is used in the United States, the transportation industry is something like 12%. Industry in general is something like 30% and architecture is the rest. The United States uses 80% of the world's energy and it is all being used by architecture. It's not only building. It's maintaining and heating all of our buildings.
Is it expensive?
It's not expensive. That's the thing that's so funny. The money you put into the skin or the envelope, you take out of the heating systems. You need a teeny, tiny system and then you have a very, very sophisticated envelope. It's like wearing a really good coat from EMS.
Walk me through the steps.
It’s so easy to make a house be zero net energy. All you have to do is super-insulate the walls, make a ten-inch wall with really good insulation, get really good windows and you can heat your house with a hair dryer.
The way you supply the heat is through a solar ray on the roof. It is so easy to do. And if that were regulated the way that cars are regulated for carbon emissions, we would drop our energy use enormously.
What’s holding people back?
I'm not exactly sure. I really think it's the community of architects who are not leading this. It's aesthetics, I think, so we’ve put together sustainability aesthetics that tread more lightly on the planet's resources, mixing a kind of a beautiful look or interesting or evocative look with sustainability.
Why are so many schools taking the first step?
Because schools are so idealistic. People who are teaching and people who are in schools are utopian thinkers. They believe in the future. They believe in children. They want to create or to manifest spaces that are similarly utopian. They see the work that we're doing that uses less energy, that opens up to the sunlight in a way that creates a sense of wonder in the child that has to do with outdoors. There's a lot of work on nature deficit disorder for children and we try to heighten the presence of the sunlight.
Is thisThe Last Child in the Woods approach to the world?
Yes. There’s been a lot of interesting work done on how children are losing a sense of the tactile quality of life. Everything is about the screen. If a child has spaces that flow inside and out, it increases a sense of wonder and a sense of magic in the world.
What kind of feedback do you typically get?
What I hear from my clients is that it's a more peaceful way to live. A lot of times I'll get so many emails from my clients saying, 'I got over the flu faster because I'm living in your house because it feels so peaceful.
What shaped your design values and ethos?
I grew up in the Midwest where we were closer to an agricultural society ancestrally than I think we are in New England. My roots are in Appalachia. When I was little, I was really into the self-help Foxfire books. They were amazing and they were important to me. I played the hammer dulcimer and the string dulcimer, so there was a kind of ethos about craft tradition that was handed down in Appalachia like quilt making and how you make remedies from tree bark.
What do you wake up thinking about?
I wake up thinking about my projects. I have a really fun, active private life, which is working on my projects in my head. It’s probably similar to a writer working on plot lines. If I can't sleep at night, I just lie in bed and think about the spaces in the work and how to resolve a bookcase or how to resolve where the rooms go, how light comes in and how it opens up to the site.
Were there people who changed your life?
So many. A professor at the GSD, Michael Van Valkenburgh, is still an important mentor for me. He was my plants professor and an unbelievable genius about plants. When you start to really look at plants, each one is really different, different colors, different habits, and different tree branching patterns. You can identify them from their bark in the winter rather than just from the leaves. He saw plants as having a life force. Michael is probably one of the most important and most talented landscape architects practicing today. I always think of him as like a current Olmstead. He's opened so many doors for me. I'm so thankful for him.
Describe a day in the life of MaryAnn Thompson.
My women students always want to know, “How can I practice and teach, have children and a family?” I really do think it's because I work in my carriage house, right next to my house. I have a very multiple life. It's not in little boxes at all.
I might get up really early, like 5:30 or 6:00, and then go down to the dining room table at my house and sketch, then email and once the kids get up, I'm there making breakfast for them. My husband makes sure they get to school on time. I don't have boundaries in terms of this is the only time I work. I often work after everyone goes to sleep and I'm not always at work 9-5. It’s very rare that I am. It's a multiple life, like a collage.
Who helps you run your life?
My husband, Mort, has really been unbelievable. It's very collaborative with Mort. Usually at around three or four o'clock, he'll call me and say, “Okay, what are we having for dinner?” I'm not alone in the way I think a lot of women are in that sort of thinking through how the whole family dynamic is going to work and how we take care of our kids. And then at work, every person that I have working here is like a genius. I can delegate and feel really comfortable giving my staff ownership.
How do you keep such a vibrant energy in your workplace?
It's about ambiguity. It’s not like you're either outside or inside. You can't really tell. I think it's the way light is brought in, it's relationship to the site, but it's also this condition which I think of as being like a multiple condition where there's multiple realities happening in the work at all times. It's how I run the office too. Things are multiple. They're conflated on top of one another. They're overlapping.
Doesn’t that seem ironic since architecture is a rigid art?
I think a lot of firms are very specific, but I'm not like that and I think it's why people are happy here because I don't care about ego and ownership. The people who I work with here have a lot of ownership over the work. The project manager and I will have a complete collaborative experience. We go back and we bounce ideas around and who cares whose idea it was as long as it's the best idea.
Some would argue that your view of architecture is similar to Corbusier’s?
That's true. My value system and the themes that I care about aren't only light and space. There also is an aesthetic. There is a look that I really do care about and it is in every project and everyone who works here agrees with it. We're all on a similar path in terms of our value systems and how we want to see architecture evolve.
Favorite spot for a cocktail?
Rialto. But that's because I designed it. I love Jody Adams and I love the whole energy there and I love the scene in her bar.
Bo-In-Lee in Jamaica Plain. He's an acupuncturist in Jamaica Plain who really is making a difference.
How do you get your news?
Through my husband, Mort. I have a lot of environmental blogs that send me stuff so I know a lot that's going on in the world of environmental activism but I don't read newspapers because I don’t have time. It's one of the things I weeded out. But Mort loves NPR.
Where do you take clients for lunch?
It’s so crazy because what I love is Sofra but it's really not a power lunch place! The red dragon tea at Sofra is unbelievably good. It's an iced tea that I actually go out of my way to go get.
Advice for someone coming to Cambridge?
To live where you can walk. One of the most amazing things about Cambridge is how easy it is to have a kind of pastoral life that's also a walking urban life. It's called a pedestrian pocket in urban planning language. Cambridge is one of the only United States cities that has a really strong pedestrian pocket. It was also home to Benjamin Thompson of Design Research who changed the face of Brattle Street’s commercial corner when in 1969, he designed Marimekko’s revolutionary Cambridge store, notable for its extreme openness and use of glass.