Decades after the first Earth Day thrust the environment into our nation's collective consciousness, the green building movement has just begun to gel. Although sustainable design is still a hard sell—and represents just a sliver of the housing market—it has come a long way since its origins in the back-to-nature movement of the 1960s. Today, a combination of smart design and emerging building technology, rather than a romantic notion of living off the land, is giving ecological design its legs. And with soaring fuel costs taking us into uncharted territory, this may be the moment in history when sustainable architecture truly takes off. If so, Sausalito, Calif., architect Sim Van der Ryn gets much of the credit for laying the groundwork. A tireless experimenter, educator, and politician, he has been leading the architecture profession in a new direction for the past 40 years, starting well before the term green design was invented.

The 70-year-old architect is part of a generation of visionaries who are more interested in their work than in making a name for themselves. Never one to concern himself with conventional marketing, Van der Ryn nevertheless has been the subject of countless magazine and newspaper articles and has collected a long list of honors and awards. Among them are a Richard Neutra Award for Professional Excellence from Cal Poly Pomona and a Sustainability Trailblazer Award from the Marin County Community Development Agency. The AIA California Council gave him a Nathaniel Owings Award for environmental leadership, and his Marin Solar Village earned him a merit award from Progressive Architecture magazine. His accomplishments bear witness to the ingenuity of a man who has never stopped inventing and evolving. Now, after decades of working out his deeply held environmental and spiritual values, his message seems as fresh as ever.

designing with nature

Van der Ryn started experimenting with sustainable design in the 1960s, back when just about every aspect of dominant culture was being questioned. At the time, many architects were embracing Modernism as a way to express new forms, materials, and values, but Van der Ryn began to see it as just another architectural style that failed to address the larger problem of how to build intelligently. “I think early Modernism did have a good, optimistic side, but it certainly wasn't derived from nature,” he says. Van der Ryn was interested in designing buildings and communities that imitated how ecosystems work by recycling waste water, using renewable materials, and taking full advantage of their solar setting. He describes his design aesthetic as ecomorphic: The architectural forms come from following the logic of the land and the climate, and from figuring out what kind of dwelling makes his clients feel at ease in the world. “I try to move them away from the object to the living aspect of it,” he says. “You do have to have some sensitivity for how your house is you and how you are your home.”

Sim Van der Ryn
Danny Turner Sim Van der Ryn

Despite their heavily environmental agenda—or perhaps because of it—his buildings have a vibrant, poetic quality. They display a good dose of utopian or just-plain-good-sense values, yet there's nothing preachy, pretentious, or strained about his artistry.

One of his largest houses, for a musician, is called the Guitar House because its 40 rammed-earth columns look like the neck and frets of a guitar. They mark a long east-west colonnade that links a series of discrete rooms clad in sprayed earth and topped with curved zinc roofs. Like every large-scale project, this one served as a laboratory for testing technologies and construction techniques that could be used on public projects. David Warner, owner of Red Horse Constructors, San Rafael, Calif., built full-scale models of the columns and walls so that they could be thoroughly tested for seismic and thermal performance. “It's always a grafting with Sim, putting together materials not put together before,” says Warner, who has built many of Van der Ryn's designs. “A project is a seed bed for other projects.”

Ever since he was a boy, Van der Ryn has been fascinated by the natural world. He was five years old when his Jewish family fled Holland in 1939, settling in Manhattan, of all places. There, he managed to find nature in the nooks and crannies of vacant lots and pocket parks. “What I found in that haggard slice of nature was myself,” he writes in his newest book, Design for Life (Gibbs Smith, 2005). “When you escape one holocaust, you don't want to be part of creating another. Looking back at this time, I see the seeds of my life's work beginning to germinate, grounded immutably in nature and in an innate respect for all living things.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1958, Van der Ryn rejected a job offer from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York and headed for the West Coast. He had been bored with architecture school, except, that is, for an encounter with a visiting lecturer, Buckminster Fuller. Fuller's ideas about creating more flexible, sustainable structures by combining technology with models of good design found in nature, like geodesics, were a gestalt to his inquisitive mind. “Fuller had the foresight to recognize 50 or 60 years ago that the mindless expansion of industrial culture was stupid,” Van der Ryn says. “He wasn't wagging his finger so much as saying it wasn't supportable, and that you can do so much more with so much less.”

That awakening also tugged him farther from traditional practice, and at age 26, he landed a teaching job at the University of California, Berkeley—the perfect forum for exploring the green edges of architecture. While holding down a professorship there from 1961 to 1994, Van der Ryn founded the Farallones Institute, a nonprofit organization that supported research and education in ecologically appropriate technology, and served as its president for 20 years. His trailblazing work even caught the eye of politicians. In 1975, then-Governor Jerry Brown appointed him California State Architect. In that role, he developed the nation's first standards for energy-efficient state office buildings, among other accomplishments.

valuing life and light

Van der Ryn has changed lives, not just ways of thinking. Stuart Cowan was working on a doctorate in applied mathematics, specializing in complex systems, when he took a class with Van der Ryn in the early 1990s. “I was studying chaos theory, fractal geometry, and all these theories about how nature works,” recalls Cowan, of Sustainable Systems Design, Portland, Ore. (He co-founded the firm with his wife, Katie Langstaff, another former student of Van der Ryn's.) “Sim was fascinated with how these theories influence how we build, and we decided we wanted to explore this intersection,” he says. The result of their collaboration was the book Ecological Design (Island Press, 1995), which uses science to support new ways of building. “There's a new generation of architects and landscape architects who are building their practice around these technical ideas,” Cowan says. “The huge lesson that I took from Sim is the interdisciplinary nature of ecological design. He was generous enough to be a wonderful mentor. He passed on what he learned from years of engaging with these very difficult topics of how we integrate design with nature.”

“That's part of his brilliance—creating the conditions where these deeper levels of exploration can take place,” agrees David Arkin, AIA, Arkin Tilt Architects, Berkeley, another Van der Ryn protégé who was a project manager on his landmark Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland, Calif. “There's a long list of people who have been inspired by Sim as a student or as a collaborator and have gone on to do impressive work.”