Great food, Green Building, and a New Beginning (Feast your eyes on the new Pharos)

Larry Kilroy | March 01, 2012

When I was asked to write the opening blog post for Version 2 of the Pharos Project, I realized there were several avenues I could take.  While I could talk about the large amounts of new data, new product categories, increased usability, rapid development environment, and improved workflow of our new features all day, ultimately I felt it would be a better use of this space to reintroduce you to the spirit of the Pharos Project. And really, how many times can we all read "cloud hosted,” "workflow management,” "unprecedented depth,” and "scalable" before those buzzwords become a snooze.

I love food and that’s why when I explain my role in Pharos, I often say I am the chef. It just describes what I do better than information architect, engineer, or coder.

The environment that architects and designers find themselves working in is not that different from the world of chefs.  These professionals find their success in the creative use of structure, texture, and resources – and in playing to the senses of the audience.  Today, another parallel between the innovative class of the two occupations is evident: the desire to create with only healthiest, most sustainable ingredients.  And that’s where Pharos comes in.

Two chefs stand out as particularly relevant to me for explaining what the Pharos Project is about.

Ferran Adria is considered by many to be the best chef in the world.  Last year half a million people tried to get one of 8,000 reservations at his restaurant el Bulli. But it wasn’t always that way. For much of his 25-year career, and to some degree even today, Ferran has been attacked for his style, referred to as molecular gastronomy, and accused of being a scientist using “unnatural” techniques -- not a chef.  But Adria never waivered, believing that his methods were his best option to make food better.

After all, he argued, no one eats a cow in its natural form. Facts are facts. To prepare a steak, a traditional chef applied the same principles the staff of el Bulli did: extract the raw material from its natural form (butchering), and enhancement (say, grilling) of the extracted raw material into a concept presented to the customer.  Think about it, you can’t read the word steak without picturing what you consider to be a steak. And that is the important take away here – “steak” is a concept.

We created the Pharos Project because we believed that the concept of what is a green building material could be - indeed needs to be - better.  We believe that by focusing on the singular importance of one attribute of a material, blind to the effect of the production of that material on the community where it is manufactured, the employees of the manufacturer, the installers of the material on the construction site, or the residual effects on the buildings users, we are actually doing a disservice to our mission.

Ferran Adria crashed into an establishment uncomfortable with his methods.  He had started out as a lowly dishwasher in the same kitchen he eventually commanded at el Bulli.  He never studied under the best chefs.  Worse, he was controversial.

Many in the building community have approached Pharos in the same way: cautious of our backgrounds as activists; asking what credentials gave us the right to talk about chemical hazards versus risks or whether we had ever actually designed a building.  Adria never shied away from his past as a dishwasher, believing that a restaurant’s success requires a team, of which dishwashers play a role different from chefs, but equally as important. He believed the innovators in the food world who were already pushing boundaries would sit at his table and thrive in being challenged by his food and as a result, would strive to be better themselves in their culinary pursuits.

We have experienced the same with Pharos, by not backing away from our "controversial" stances, and presenting them transparently on the "plate.”  Innovative design professionals, building owners and manufacturers recognized our community had a space for an ideal that would challenge their assumptions and practices, helping them push themselves to make building materials and the built environment healthier and more sustainable.   From the beginning we have built Pharos to be that table to gather at and push our comfort zones just a little further to see the amazing change we can create together.

So, on a winter day in early 2011, we realized it was time to push ourselves again and create a new version of Pharos to carry on what the first version has started but could not continue without evolving.  After countless hours with manufacturers and customers, false starts, heated but respectful debates, invaluable community input, and almost exactly one year later, we have launched Version 2 of Pharos.

Yes, getting version 2 to the table was a challenge --  which brings me to the second chef story and Julia Child.  Julia was beloved not for her abundant technical ability, but for her transparency and humility.  She never edited out the mistakes on her show.  In perhaps her most famous "mistake,” she stated while about to flip a potato pancake: "When you flip anything, you just have to have the courage of your convictions.”  The pancake then flipped up out of the pan and onto the stovetop.  Calmly, she scooped it up and put it back together. "When I flipped it,” she said, “I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should have. You can always pick it up."  The lesson: “The only way you learn to flip things is just to flip them!”

By launching Version 2 before it was ready at Greenbuild last year, we lacked the courage to flip it the way we should have.  But from mishaps comes liberation. So we have picked it up from the stovetop, put it back together, and like it even more than we thought we would.  So on behalf of our joint's crew, Bill Walsh and Tom Lent working the front of the house, Jim Vallette and Melissa Coffin wrangling the most important ingredient - data, Susan Sabella and Sarah Pickell keeping the kitchen open and bills paid, and sous chef Sarah Gilberg…

Bon Appétit