Scientists Evaluate A.J. Lewis Center
recent weeks, one of Oberlins most prominent innovations,
the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies and its sustainable
Living Machine waste treatment system has been under examination
from visiting scientists.
This month the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) came
to campus to inspect the sustainable building and evaluate the progress
and efficiency of various components.
In meetings with the environmental studies faculty, the NREL addressed
the problem of wasteful programming in the main computer.
According to Environmental Studies Professor John Petersen, the
programming is inefficient in how it governs the energy of the building.
One of the biggest inefficiencies is the air exchange function,
which is both costly and largely unnecessary due to the very sanitary
and environmentally safe components of the building.
Some of the other problems that have occurred in the facility involve
the installation of experimental equipment that has been difficult
to remove and replace. One example is the recently installed boiler.
Most agree that the boiler was a mistake. It is currently scheduled
to go offline, but the question is how to go about replacing it
with a more efficient device or process. Several solutions have
been suggested, including replacing the boiler with one of the facilitys
several working heat pumps, or simply bypassing the boiler completely.
Despite these problems, Petersen remains optimistic. When asked
about whether the benefits of the research would outweigh the costs
that were involved in the facilitys developments Petersen
responded with an Albert Einstein quote:
If we knew what we were doing, it wouldnt be called
research, would it.
Another issue raised involves the buildings restrooms, which
are the crucial ingredient to the Living Machine, the system that
treats waste water and makes the facility a zero-discharge, or zero-waste
building. Aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, as well as the flora that
is easily visible from outside the building provides the buildings
Students, however, seem to largely disregard that not enough waste
is deposited in the building to accommodate the system. One suggested
remedy that has been the construction of a pipeline between south
campus dorms and the Center. The cost of such an undertaking has
yet to be estimated and there are no immediate plans to begin construction.
Many individual projects have been conducted in the Center. Currently,
there are three major undertakings that are near completion: landscaping
around the facility, the development of a centralized monitoring
system, and the preliminary planning for a second building .-a laboratory
center that would be approximately one fourth the size of the current
The criticism has been unfair, frankly. Like any prototype,
we have to work out the bugs, David Orr, chair of the Environmental
Studies department said. He has been instrumental in the buildings
Audra Abt, who graduated from Oberlin last year and is a current
employee of the Environmental Studies Department spoke of the importance
of the facility.
This is a host of innovative technologies that usually are
not together in the same building. Its not just to display,
but to interact and learn from the collection of new technologies.
Up to this point we have had major problems, but now were
running more in line with our goals, she said, estimating
that clean energy will make up for the fossil fuel energy used [in
construction] in 20 years.
On Wednesday night, a small group of students toured the Living
Machine. The goal of this tour was not only to demonstrate the capabilities
of the machine, but also to inform students of issues pertaining
to the building in its entirety. The lack of use of the Centers
facilities was one problem brought to attention for all students
to consider, regardless of academic discipline.
Conceived in 1984, three years after the birth of the Environmental
Studies department, the sustainable building has taken over a decade
to be realized. In 1995 the facility was christened as a prototype
platform with which to experiment and develop new environmentally
sound and economically feasible technologies.
The Environmental Studies Facility was originally designed to be
a continually developing system that would break new ground for
other similar facilities around the country and perhaps even the
Our goal was that the building would be upgraded as technology
improved, David Orr said. We assumed in the beginning
that for the building to have a chance to either break even or give
back surplus it would take ten years or two or three generations.
We are ahead of schedule.