Oberlin were going at it alone,
this movement would fizzle. Fortunately, thoughts of green have
been reaching upper levels of corporate America, who are seeking
a happier union of environmentalism and 21st-century efficiency.
Aiding Big Business are six of the nation's leading environmental
thinkers who gathered in Oberlin in September for a symposium marking
the dedication of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. Can buildings mimic
nature? Can they help promote a worldwide environmental movement?
Using the Lewis Center as an example, panelists debated questions
like these as they examined the ecology of the second industrial
a tree, Oberlin's Lewis Center will grow and change over
CAN BUILDINGS BE LIKE TREES?
Perhaps they can. The Lewis Center is designed to run on sunlight.
It doesn't pollute. And its components aren't sent to landfills
when the building dies; they can biodegrade or be recycled. "Every
era has an image," says David Orr, chair of Oberlin's environmental
studies program. "The image of the industrial age is a machine.
That was the metaphor that preceded this building. The idea behind
the Lewis Center is to change the metaphor. This building, like
a tree, will grow and change over time."
The architectural revolution used by Lewis Center architects William
McDonough + Partners is patterned after trees. Trees run on solar
power, don't produce contaminants, and return to the earth as plant
food when they die and decay. On the drafting board, these ideas
translate into solar-powered buildings made of non-toxic materials.
But McDonough takes the concept a step further: He wants environmentally
oriented factories to produce non-toxic products. "If your car is
producing greenhouse gases, how can you say that it's a quality
product?" he asks.
The bad news is the price tag--nobody wants to venture a guess
as to how much it would cost to recreate our world along the environmental
model. The good news is that we don't have to give up our cars,
televisions, and other toxin-laden products. If industrial chemists
and technicians redesign our creature comforts to be eco-effective,
we can have our cars and drive them, too.
The idea behind this philosophy is simple: you don't have to clean
up a mess if you don't make it in the first place. The Lewis Center
offers a small-scale "how-to" model. The heating and cooling system
was designed to be largely a closed "loop" that taps geothermal
wells. A passive solar system absorbs the sun's heat during the
winter and keeps it out in the summer. "This building is strategic,"
says McDonough. "It says these are the technologies that are coming."
McDonough rejects many of the conventional environmental wisdoms
of the late 20th century, such as standard reduction programs
that merely downcycle our leftovers. High-quality plastic, for
example, is transformed into low-grade plastic products that eventually
wind up at the dump. A targeted 10 percent cut of greenhouse gases
and toxic waste, while encouraging, still leaves 90 percent cooking
"Being less bad is being less bad," he says. "If you are going
100 miles an hour to Canada, but you're supposed to go to Florida,
it's not going to do any good to slow down to 20."
The recycle/downcycle distinction is beginning to take root
in corporate America. Take Interface, a billion-dollar-a-year
manufacturer of carpeting for corporate buildings. The company
instituted a top-to-bottom campaign to root environmental damage
from its operations. "Downcycling just delays the day the stuff
ends up at the dump," says company chair Ray Anderson, who describes
the conversion in his book Mid-Course Correction. "But when
you close the loop, you keep those molecules going indefinitely."
One hallmark of that campaign is the Evergreen Lease, a program
in which Interface leases and then maintains the carpeting for
its clients, the Lewis Center included. When the carpet wears
out, Interface takes it back, not for downcycling into low-end
products; but for recycling: the carpet's high-end nylon fibers
are recycled into new high-end carpet fibers. Thus, the costly
nylon molecules are never lost. This translates into energy
savings for the company and, ultimately, money in the bank.
Since Interface began its ecological turnabout, it has saved
about $143 million.
"Without a doubt it's good business," says Anderson, "and that
is the hook that will attract mainstream business to environmentalism.
You can attract a certain percentage of businesses on the ethics
of the matter, but mainstream business is focused on the bottom
line to the exclusion of everything else."
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