Chris Benedict

Architect

Chris Benedict, R.A.

Shortly after Chris Benedict arrived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to study art at the Cooper Union in 1978, she lost her inspiration. "Art got very empty for me," she says. No longer satisfied with the purely aesthetic, she began to focus on "making things work on the ground." So, she became an architect. Architecture is an applied art, Benedict says. She enjoys the "number-crunching geekiness" of building science because it enables her to fuse art with the real world. She combines aesthetics and practicality by making buildings not only beautiful, but comfortable, durable and safe. Benedict has a far-ranging vision of the future and the main focus of her architectural work is energy. She predicts that as global oil production peaks in the next decade, density of population will become the norm. The closer living quarters and public transportation options of city life simply demand less energy than suburbia's more spread out, single-family home, SUV lifestyle. "Apartment living is very, very green," Benedict says. Not surprisingly, her architectural projects consist mainly of multi-family housing and city buildings. Benedict designs building shells that optimize energy performance, reducing the carbon footprint, or the amount of fossil fuel her buildings use. Rather than turning to nuclear power, which she sees looming in our future, she advocates using less energy from the start. This can be done by rethinking something as simple as a wall that slows down the flow of heat going out of the building. Benedict's projects have been touted as green, but she is quick to point out that the label can be misleading. "The generic green building palette consists of a lot of glass, solar panels and a green roof," she says. "But there is a more subtle and interesting aspect of green building than is being discussed out there. I'm looking to see how little energy the building can use while meeting the aesthetic needs of the people inside it. I'm kind of running against the stream of green building right now." Benedict doesn't talk about solar panels or massive windows that connect the inside of a building with the outside environment. She considers less glamorous topics such as insulation, boilers, heating distribution systems, piping and cavity walls. She also tries to keep her green building projects affordable, a concept that initially took some convincing. When seeking financing for her first green project, bank officials asked Benedict to submit two sets of financial documents — one in "plain vanilla" (a traditional architectural rendering) and the other in "pistachio" (the green version). "They were belittling me," Benedict says. "The banks were really frightened of trying something new. But I was able to show them that my pistachio stuff cost less. " Benedict's firm, Architecture and Energy Limited, currently has more than 80 "pistachio" building projects either completed or on the boards. Most of those projects are in Brooklyn, but she also has four new constructions and 13 multi-family building renovations in Manhattan. Her new constructions use 85 percent less energy for heat and hot water and 50 percent less electricity than a typical building. In 1999, she was named Energy Professional of the Year by the International Association of Energy Professionals. Benedict regrets that architects today are not being taught about energy. Instead, she says, they focus on aesthetics, designing highly conceptual projects that express an idea, rather than solve a problem. She has been teaching around the country to "get energy in as part of that palette." This fall, she and her business partner Henry Gifford will jointly teach a graduate course in building science at the Parson's School of Design in Manhattan. While Benedict wants to change the direction of her profession, her devotion to the applied science of architecture is still grounded in her early love for the aesthetic. "My concept is to really get buildings to come alive in those classes," says Benedict, "to see things that lift the spirit.