Pliny Fisk III: The Appropriate Technologist

by Bruce E. Boyers

It was 1975 and Pliny Fisk III, armed only with a considerable knowledge of renewable resources, was on his way to a place called Crystal City, Texas, to help save a group of farmworkers. These farmworkers were some of the first to organize in protest of their living conditions—and not so coincidentally, the local gas supplier had decided to shut off gas to their homes, leaving them without the ability to cook food or heat their living spaces. Fisk had just stepped out of a university teaching position to found his nonprofit Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, and it was the beginning of a remarkably innovative career that, nearly 40 years later, is still going strong.

Mesquite Stoves That Saved a Town

“The farmworkers in South Texas had a core political arm called La Raza Unida Party,” Fisk explained to Calmful Living. “That town was the first Mexican-American town to politically organize itself and to say, ‘Our gas rate is too much.’ Two hundred other towns had allowed rate increases, but Crystal City basically said no. The gas supplying company threatened to cut them off because they weren’t paying their bills on time, and they went and said, ‘Shut us off.’

“It created a great deal of national commotion. It hit the New York Times, and it was aired by NPR. It was noticed by many others including the federal government, because the entire town of over 8,000 people was shut off. We got right smack in the middle of it, since we were one of the few groups in Texas that actually could conceive of redirecting a whole town at regional scale to develop a fast-acting renewable-energy program.

“With the ecological land planning and mapping background that I had, I’d begun to do mapping of area resources. We realized that down there renewable sources of plants such as mesquite were rampant, and in fact mesquite was taking over a lot of ranch land. If you cut it down and use it as a fuel, the fuel is far better than our coal in Texas from the standpoint of BTUs per pound—and the most important part was that it was renewable. It was a major turnaround of getting energy sources being applied at a whole-town scale. It was a fairly simple solution: putting in about 2,000 mesquite stoves over roughly a six-week period. Collecting thousands of cords of wood was the challenge, and we accomplished that by combing the river bottoms for already dead wood and avoiding the large private landholders.”

These stoves, of course, meant that the farmworkers no longer had to rely on the gas company for heating, cooking, bathing and other needs.

Additionally, Fisk and his team engineered a small factory that produced solar water heaters. The production model was duplicated in six other border towns, and overall, 200 water heaters were installed. And so the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems was off and running.

A Cutting-Edge Demonstration Farm

“Working with the farmworkers and getting that connection going really triggered a whole series of other things,” Fisk continued. “One of them was a state demonstration farm that we were requested to build by Jim Hightower, who was Ag Commissioner for the state of Texas at the time. We are not farmers—we’re basically appropriate technologists, which includes a wide range of things that embrace farming—but we had the wherewithal to really make a model farm using a combination of integrated farming techniques.

“The farm, which we built in Laredo, Texas, was based on the concept of establishing a vastly flexible way of producing farm products, which means don’t get a single crop going—get multiple integrated crops going. It was based in methods through which you integrate your systems so that you’re getting a maximum-plus return coming out, including treating the polluted Rio Grande water and using wind for the river water pumping requirements. With this farm we showed a wide range of ways that farmers could survive droughts and many other threats while producing crops, and doing it all with renewable energy.

“As part of this, we incorporated a major shading project so you could extend the growing season in the very hot climates of South Texas. We looked at shade research going on all over the world and began to realize a lot of interesting things. The height of shade became important. We observed that the amount of light coming through holes would create a flickering effect almost mimicking forests, and how leaves and wind work to enable young plants at the ground level to come to life quicker.”

Fisk’s implementation of research into shade came back to him in an unexpected manner some years later. “We had an open house a couple of years ago,” Fisk related. “This guy comes in and says, ‘You’re the folks that did that!’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ and he replied, ‘You’re the guys that did all that shade stuff down in Laredo! It created my business!’ So I asked, ‘What’s your business?’ and he said, ‘I create all those shade structures on airports throughout the southwestern United States.’”

Fisk laughed. “I wish I were a little more of an entrepreneur and took advantage of some of these things. You come into an airport and you have all these blue shades and yellow shades and this shade and that. You see it in Phoenix, in Tucson, and it goes on in city after city over parking. It’s not exactly what I was planning—shading the cars—and I wish it were all agriculture; but our attitude is, if you can create something through which you’re connecting into a need that is so fundamental that it takes off itself, that’s a highly rewarding situation.”

Inspiration from the Beginning

Inspiration for such careers often begins in childhood—and for Pliny Fisk this was certainly true. “I grew up with an artist and an inventor,” Fisk said. “My father was the inventor, doing high-rate composting to treat organics at an urban scale, and he had 64 patent claims on such. Our house and nearby business actually had a four-story vertical high-rate composting unit. I sort of like to say that I grew up in one huge compost pile. That affects anybody’s mind!

“Then I had a very creative mom as an artist, and I was raised in a building that was constantly being finished, called home. I began to understand every facet of construction and every facet of how you rebuild Earth, all around me at all times.”

From there, Fisk had a rather fortuitous university education. “There’s luck in the world,” he said. “The undergraduate and graduate programs I went through at the University of Pennsylvania ended up also being the origins of a number of major projects I have been doing over the years. One is ecological land planning. The landscape and regional science program, which was run by Ian McHarg, was the original overlay mapping process used by practically every ecological planning endeavor nationwide.”

In addition to founding the Department of Landscape Architecture at the university, McHarg in 1969 published his book Design with Nature, which actually pioneered the concept of ecological planning. It continues to be one of the most widely referenced books on landscape architecture and land-use planning.

The Magic Stone of the Indians

Following the work he did in Crystal City, Fisk and his team found themselves helping wherever it was needed. In one instance, it was with Native Americans—and it led to a remarkable discovery.

“We were involved with the Sioux,” Fisk recalled. “I began to realize that in their sweat lodges they were using a certain stone that had sort of magical properties. It was able to absorb a lot of moisture and then release the moisture very gradually into the sweat lodge. Then they’d put more water on; it would absorb more water and gradually release it. I said, ‘That’s cool! I wonder what it is.’ They said, ‘Well, we get it from that mountain over there. It’s a very embarrassing thing; it’s a sacred mountain, but you white guys, you go and mine the mountain, and believe it or not, what you’re using it for is kitty litter.’

“In other words, what we’re buying in our stores across the country is a stone that has a high absorption capacity, and what it’s used for now is kitty litter rather than being a key part of an entire cultural tradition. So I said, ‘Instead of the kitty litter, why don’t we create a very simple solar absorption refrigerator?’ I knew of this technology due to my involvement with the American Solar Energy Society, and we’re still working on it to this day. It’s elementary solar refrigeration: it absorbs moisture, and that moisture is heated during the day, then trapped by the mineral during the night and cooled. The following day the sun heats the mineral again; the water evaporates and is collected down the opposite end of a long pipe. It is a basic passive, no-moving-parts solar refrigeration unit.

“So we’re always conscious of a wide range of very simple technologies that, mixed together, could do a variety of things under different circumstances.”

Concrete from Seawater

Another such technology leads to what may well transform desert landscapes all over the world.

“On a global level, a lot of people don’t realize that the two most used commodities by humans here on Earth are water and concrete,” Fisk said. “And concrete, of course, uses a tremendous amount of water and creates a global warming problem in its production. So we’re working with others on the fact that as you process water, especially seawater, you can actually bring out particular elements, and from them you can create a very significant cement that is extremely plentiful—there’s a great quantity of this material that is extractable. Once you have done so, you in fact have an almost carbon-balanced cement that is far superior to Portland cement, which is the common cement in use today. But here, you are employing water that is unusable, treating the water, coming out with a pure water, and ending up with this material whereby, between the two situations of potable water and concrete, you’re actually able to hit some very major issues facing humans on the planet.”

While research is ongoing into cost-effective extraction that is low in energy to obtain the needed elements from seawater, Fisk and his team are utilizing this same concrete—now obtained by mining—in prototypes at his center so that its efficacy can be readily seen.

The Renewable City in the Desert

A television interview with Fisk regarding concrete from seawater led to another groundbreaking vision. “I was on CNN International talking about this issue, and that triggered the country of Morocco to think about using some of our skills,” said Fisk. “So we have proposed a fairly outrageous whole city in the desert. In many of the deserts in the world, the groundwater has become totally saline. Therefore the way of operating is to manufacture fresh water by treating it, and to actually have this cement base in order to go and create a whole city. We have some really beautiful renderings of what that city is about and what it could be.

“Interestingly enough, some of the minerals and trace elements that remain as we process the water are ones that are significant as trace elements for agriculture.” Hence Fisk has connected with hydroponic agriculture companies to make them part of the vision as well.

Due to its geographic location, Morocco has another underutilized natural resource that Fisk has proposed be tapped. “This is prime territory to begin to really make very efficient solar systems,” he said. “In the country’s plan are five of these huge heliostat systems in which mirrors reflect the sun to a central point, and you have one of the most efficient solar systems known at the moment. We proposed this city be built around the fact that you could put mirrors on the roofs of buildings, and have the center of the city under a large shade tent with a mast, acting as structure, that is topped with the high-temperature solar receiver. With the whole city and neighborhoods producing energy, it could be exported. And with the process of producing energy, along with the treating of their water and their production of cement and fertilizer, you begin to get really integrated systems going on.”

Right Here at Home

But many of Fisk’s innovations have been felt in America. In fact, one of his projects led to something that now touches anyone associated with green building in any capacity.

“After we got started, we began getting a lot of press,” Fisk recounted. “We realized we’d better respond to a variety of different things that were building related, as examples of a maximum potential future. That means, what is the next step of what you’re trying to do?

“The whole idea of what’s the next step of the evolutionary process began to be very usable in many different instances. We started getting involved with small towns in Indiana and Florida. Right here at home, we looked at the city of Austin and began to create a sustainable model for our own city. It ended up receiving the only Earth Summit Award given to the United States, for what became the Green Building Program for the city of Austin.”

There are now over 10,000 homes and many commercial buildings in Austin that have passed through this rating system. But like a stone dropped in a pond, this program has had rather far-reaching effects. “That whole program triggered a lot of other towns, so that cities around the country began to pick up on it,” Fisk said. “That developed into 20 or 30 more cities, some of which we have consulted over the years, such as the city of Seattle.

“But then the state became a little bit jealous because of the notoriety that Austin was getting in winning the Earth Summit Award. And that jealousy turned into real things: Texas became the first state to redo the architectural and engineering guidelines to be more sustainable. Then that prompted about 10 other states to do the same thing. Ultimately, it set in motion a national direction that eventually evolved into what is now called the US Green Building Council. The US Green Building Council, of course, has a complete set of standards by which tens of thousands of buildings all over the country are now rated.”

Breaking the Boundaries

As one might guess, there is much more to tell. There is Fisk’s participation in the development of a model sustainable village for farmers in Guanghan city, Sichuan province, China. There is the master plan and building design he provided for the School for Field Studies in the freshwater-poor Baja California peninsula of Mexico. There is the materials specification that he and his wife, Gail Vittori, made for a landmark 200,000-square-foot example of green building, constructed at the University of Texas. Then there is the holographic community-wide interactive game, currently in its early discussion stage, designed to bring Austin to the next level of understanding itself as a green city; it uses the ecology of business connections as the “fuel” for a next generation of green.

As co-director of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, Gail Vittori—once an informal student of Fisk’s, and now his partner in both life and business—has become a national force of the green movement in her own right.

Whatever Fisk and Vittori do, wherever they go, it will be crossing boundaries that are normally quite fixed—and this is where they are most comfortable. “I think being a nonprofit enables you to work on the edge,” Fisk concluded. “That’s because it’s very multidisciplinary; a lot of what we do is right between disciplines. I’ve been equally involved with landscape, plants, ecological planning and system sciences; and as all those came together, they became the roots of what we call maximum potential building systems.

“All I really care about is that I’m helping things move along. It might have been best if I had become an architect—especially a landscape architect, or especially this or especially that. But I’m purposely not aligning myself with any profession. I’m trying to get people to begin thinking about all these professions and where they should be leading us.”

To find out more, please visit www.cmpbs.org