Prairie View

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Calling a Few Good Innovators

I first heard about Pliny Fisk III from my late brother-in-law, Matthew Schrock, who had met Mr. Fisk on a flight to Central America.  Matthew told me that his seatmate told him some amazing things about his work in creating building systems utilizing local materials in a resource-and-energy-efficient way.  He had at that point already created a concrete-like material using mainly fly ash (a waste product from coal-fired power plants) and caliche (surface mineral deposits of salts or carbonates mixed with sand or clay--usually found in arid regions).  Mr. Fisk was on his way to one of the Central American countries to provide help for people who needed housing.

Hiromi told me this morning that China uses fly ash from Japan to create concrete.  On Japan Yahoo, Hiromi read recently that China now has concerns about radioactivity in some of the fly ash from Japan--presumably absorbed when radiation was released from a power plant severely damaged by a tsunami several years ago.  Fisk has worked extensively in China to develop the process of using fly ash for concrete, so our breakfast table conversation provided an interesting confirmation of what I've learned about Fisk from various sources.

Since the dawn of ready internet access, I've learned a lot more about Pliny Fisk III than the bit that Matthew told me.  If I could still do so, I'd ask Matthew if hearing from Fisk nudged him toward seeking degrees in architecture. That's one thing I can't learn from the internet.  Like Matthew, I couldn't forget Fisk's unusual name, and to this day I wonder how on earth anyone had the chutzpah to name a child Pliny--not once, but three times.  Pliny the Elder of Roman Empire fame is the only other Pliny I've ever heard of, although I know now that it's also the name of a Russian beer.

Pliny Fisk III was born (in 1944) into a prominent banking family in New York.  Rather than pursuing the family business, however, Pliny headed off to study architecture and landscape architecture under Ian McHarg, a Scottish professor  whose book Design With Nature suggests his area of expertise.  Russell Ackoff also exerted a substantial influence on Fisk, with his pioneering work in the systems sciences (think management).  He taught at the Wharton School of Business in the University of Pennsylvania system.  On Purposeful Systems is the book that perhaps best explains Ackoff's work in his own words.  Fisk and his wife later co-authored a book called Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems: 35 Years of Serious Commotion.  I love the "serious commotion" part of the title.

Fisk has taught in universities in at least four states:  Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas.  In Texas, he has taught at both the University of Texas and at Texas A & M.

Fisk and his wife co-founded a non-profit in 1975 near Austin, Texas called the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (CMPBS).  Originally, this place served as a lab for the University of Texas--Austin, but became established later as an entity apart from it.  Sustainability is the one-word label for the main emphasis at CMPBS.  Many interns have worked at CMPBS.

To me, one of the most impressive aspects of the work at CMPBS is the readiness with which they collaborate with others.  For example, they often offer their expertise to expand existing systems rather than to invent entirely new systems.  They rely on input from people with a great variety of backgrounds and influences for help to design systems. Identifying local resources is a big emphasis at CMPBS, completely at variance with what happens too often:  someone with a "perfected system" imposes it long after that system no longer makes sense, or applies it in settings in which it doesn't make sense.  No wasted energy in turf wars here.  That's refreshing.

Why all the focus on Pliny Fisk III and CMPBS?  Because I see in their approach a model that I believe offers some hope for addressing what I think is a serious problem in many places, including Conservative Anabaptist communities like our own:  adequate housing at affordable prices.  While some innovation occurs, I haven't seen anything in common practice for building construction that avoids the use of either petroleum products (styrofoam and other insulation), cement (a component of concrete), or wood (none of which comes from Kansas, to my knowledge). We do, on the other hand, have some of the local materials that CMPBS has experimented with--straw, for example.

Some of the more common building materials are made in Kansas.  Bricks are made not far away, and Kansas has two major deposits of gypsum, the raw material in the center of the sheetrock/drywall sandwich sheets.  Medicine Lodge has a drywall factory.  Hutchinson had a straw board factory within my memory.  I don't know what became of it.

Surely, someone among us is savvy enough and entrepreneurial enough to seize the opportunity to learn about affordable and sustainable building approaches, and learn to implement them for the benefit of families they know.  And surely, others who stand by could be inspired to provide help.  For a people known to be frugal and ingenious, with a strong sense of stewardship, this is exactly the kind of challenge we are suited for.  Ultimately, it could be a service we offer not only to our families, but also to our community and our world.

Pliny Fisk III was born to a wealthy family.  Most of us weren't, but I doubt that wealth is the biggest thing that separates us from people like him.  I suspect it has a lot more to do  with resistance to change than it ought.  I have no doubt that with sufficient humility, generosity, and vision (and a bit of help from places like CMPBS), we could do very well what Fisk has accomplished in US communities and in far-flung places across the globe.  What are we waiting for?