A Building Can Be A Teacher

Donella H. Meadows
(adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College)

In: Global Citizen (1997)


David Orr, head of the environmental studies program at Oberlin College, understands that young people learn from everything they do and everything around them. Even buildings.

So he started thinking about the structure in which he conducts his classes. "It is a building with lots of squareness and straight lines," he wrote in a recent article in the journal Conservation Biology. "How it is cooled, heated, and lighted and at what cost to the world is an utter mystery to its occupants. It offers no clue about the origins of the materials used to build it."

The building flatly contradicts the lessons Orr is trying to get across. "First, it tells its users that locality is unimportant. There is nothing whatsoever that reflects its place in northeast Ohio in what had once been a vast forested wetland."

"Second, because it uses energy wastefully, the building tells its users that energy is cheap and abundant and can be squandered with no thought for the morrow."

"Third, nowhere do students learn about the materials used in its construction or who was downwind or downstream from the wells, mines, forests, and manufacturing facilities where those materials originated or where they eventually will be discarded."

"The lesson learned is mindlessness," Orr concludes. "Try as one might to teach that we are implicated in the larger enterprise of life, standard architectural design mostly conveys other lessons. There is no apparent connection in this or any other building on campus to the larger set of issues having to do with climate change, biotic impoverishment, and the unraveling of the fabric of life on Earth. Students begin to suspect that those issues are unreal, or that they are unsolvable in any practical way, or that they occur somewhere else."

David Orr decided that he wanted to teach in a building that did not undo his curriculum. Being a great teacher, he involved his students in the quest. In 1992 he organized a class to plan a new environmental studies center at Oberlin. The students worked with a dozen architects, visited all kinds of buildings, read the literature, considered retrofitting an old building, and finally drew up design criteria for a new one.

They are tough criteria. The building has to:

No ugliness, the students said, human or ecological, somewhere else or at some future time.

You can imagine what a college administration would think of such a plan. The students clearly learned a lot, but colleges do not take their marching orders from what happens in classes.

Then Oberlin got a new president. Orr, students, and architects did some inspiring presentations, and finally they were given permission to go forward, under some almost impossible conditions. They must complete the design and permitting within two years. They must raise all the money from donors with no previous connection to Oberlin.

They did it. Orr turned the process into even more learning. Some 250 students, faculty and townspeople participated in 13 brainstorming sessions. A committee, which included students, sifted through applications from 26 architects. They put together a team of the nation's best green designers, including architect William McDonough, energy consultants Amory Lovins and Bill Browning, and wastewater experts John Todd and Michael Shaw. Ground will be broken this coming spring.

The roof will be covered by a new kind of photovoltaic panel, which does not use toxic metals and which will power the building and feed electricity into the grid.

Sewage and other wastewater will flow through a "living machine," a greenhouse-covered, slow-moving river full of bacteria, algae, snails, fish, and all sorts of plants, which will purify the water just as a living stream does.

The super-efficient windows will block heat loss as if they were well-insulated walls. Even north-facing windows will bring in a net gain of radiated heat on sunny winter days.

Around the building will be a restored wetland and forest, gardens and orchards. In the entrance hall will be data panels, displaying the building's energy use, water use, and emissions of greenhouse gases.

The generation of students who were lucky enough to be around during the design of this building will never forget it. Generations to come will never stop learning from it.

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