Environment and Oberlin: An Update
McConaghie is an honors research student in environmental studies
at Oberlin. He suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity
disorderJames gets sick if exposed to certain synthetic compounds
found typically in new carpets, paints, and adhesives. For health
reasons, his classes in several buildings must be videotaped; he
watches them elsewhere to avoid breaking out in hives.
of the design decisions made in building the Adam Joseph Lewis Center
for Environmental Studies was to use low-VOC (volatile organic compounds)
paints and adhesives. James was able to walk into the building the
day it opened without compromising his health; in fact, he has been
working with me on various research projects since his freshman
year. His experience is just one examplethe human sideof
the successful ecological design realized by the Lewis Center, an
innovative and functional model of sustainable architecture.
and urban landscapes add significantly to the myriad environmental
problems faced by our society. Air pollution, water pollution, loss
of biodiversity, and local- and global-scale climate changes are
all exacerbated by our architectural choices. Professor of Environmental
Studies David Orr has often said that the buildings in which we
teach give students a mixed message; that the lessons embodied in
architecture and landscaping are that the environmental costs of
construction and maintenance are not important, and that regional
climate and ecology are irrelevant to design. In essence, most buildings
indicate to students that lessons we teach within our classrooms
about the importance of sound environmental policy and practice
are impractical and have no local application.
realities are precisely why Oberlins Environmental Studies
Program chose in the early 1990s to adopt ecological design
as a primary pedagogical theme. From the start, the Lewis Center
was conceived as a building that teachesa home
for the Environmental Studies Program in which the lessons embodied
in design choices would reinforce, rather than contradict, lessons
taught in the classroom.
principle of ecological design is the belief that natural systems
should serve as templates for human design. Forests, grasslands,
lakes, and streams rely on solar energy, use local materials, recycle
waste, host diverse communities adapted to local conditions, and
tend to use energy and materials more efficiently as they mature.
Applying these criteria to the design of buildings and landscapes,
certainly a tall order, was the focus of a yearlong seminar led
by Orr in 1992. This was followed by a series of brainstorming sessions
involving students, faculty, and top thinkers in green architecture
and design from around the country. Through this process, Oberlin
developed a proposal for a building that would serve as a test bed
and demonstration project for ecological design.
the beginning, the Lewis Center was designed to lessen the negative
impacts on the environment while maximizing the environmental benefits,
both on- and off-site. This meant favoring building materials that
were biodegradable, recycled, renewably extracted, and non-hazardous.
It meant incorporating an ecologically engineered Living Machine
to treat and then internally recycle wastewater within the building.
It meant designing a landscape that restores native ecosystems and
demonstrates sustainable agriculture and responsible water management.
of ecological design were also applied to the buildings energy
needsplans incorporated passive solar heating and ventilation,
energy-efficient heat pumps, and natural and efficient electric
lighting. Photovoltaic cells were included so that the building
could meet a significant fraction of its power needs using solar
energy. As important as the technologies incorporated up front,
the Lewis Center was explicitly conceived as an integrated building-landscape
system whose performance would continue to improve over time as
new technologies were incorporated.
product of these efforts is a 13,600-square-foot building that sits
amidst 58,000 square feet of ecologically managed landscape. The
building reflects a constellation of decisions intended to create
a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts and which minimizes
environmental ugliness somewhere else or at some later time. These
decisions include the following:
Solar cells cover the main portion of the roof and produce approximately
45 kilowatts of electricity during peak production (equal to the
energy required to simultaneously power 450 100-watt light bulbs).
The building is elongated on an east-west axis and features
large south-facing windows to maximize sunlight for heating and
natural lighting. Overhangs and a soon-to-be-installed trellis are
designed to block the intense summer sun.
Triple-pane windows in the atrium and a well-insulated roof
and walls reduce conductive heat exchange. Concrete floors and brick
and masonry interior walls serve as thermal mass that tempers heat
Vents on the north and south sides create a natural convective
current that cools the atrium in the summer. An earth berm on the
north side insulates the building from heat loss in the winter and
provides space for a fruit orchard.
Geothermal wells provide a thermal reservoir for the heat
pumps. Heating, ventilation, and electrical lighting in classrooms
are triggered by motion and by carbon dioxide sensors to minimize
Steel beams and aluminum window frames were made from recycled
materials, while the exterior walls were constructed from locally
produced brick. Sustainably harvested lumber was used to create
the laminated ceiling beams and interior trim, and office furnishings
were made from recycled plastic and wood. The carpeting throughout
the facility is a product of servicethe manufacturer
leases it to Oberlin and will eventually remanufacture the worn
carpeting into new.
typical urban landscapes, which tend to minimize dollar costs without
regard to environmental costs, the grounds of the Lewis Center serve
three ecological functionsnatural habitat, food production,
and ecological water-management practices. The Lewis Centers
landscape includes a restored wetland, a lawn planted with a special
low-mow mix, a small fruit orchard, and a raised-bed organic vegetable
garden. Whereas a typical academic landscape might include 10 to
20 varieties of plants, some of which are invasive and can displace
native species, the wetland at the Lewis Center is a microcosm of
ecosystems that once occupied much of northeast Ohio, containing
more than 70 native plant species and attracting insects, fish,
amphibians, and occasionally waterfowl. The wetland actually serves
double dutycombined with a cistern, it retains heavy rains
on-site, preventing pollution associated with rapid runoff to storm
sewers. Water stored in the cistern is then used for landscaping.
summer the Lewis Center saw the first harvest from its demonstration-scale,
raised-bed organic vegetable garden. Once the trees in the dwarf
fruit orchard mature, we anticipate at least 25 bushels annually
of organically grown apples and pears and several gallons of berry
crops, thus proving that a significant fraction of food can be grown
in backyards and public spaces. This is important because the food
we purchase in grocery stores travels an average of 1,300 miles
and burns approximately 10 units of fossil fuel energy for each
unit of food energy delivered to our tables.
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