“I once asked a class whether there is such a thing as ‘soul’ in buildings,” writes David W. Orr in Design on the Edge, his account of creating the Adam Joseph Lewis Center at Oberlin College—one of the first substantially green buildings on a college campus, an AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Project, and the featured Flashback project in ECO-STRUCTURE’s January/February 2011 issue. The Paul Sears distinguished professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin, Orr is best known for advancing environmental literacy in higher education. In addition to his latest book, Hope is an Imperative, , he is author of Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse;The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics, and the Environment; The Nature of Design; Earth in Mind; and Ecological Literacy, and is the co-editor of The Global Predicament and The Campus and Environmental Responsibility. Orr has received numerous honors, including a Bioneers Award in 2003, the Green Cross Millennium Award in 2007, a National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation, and a Lyndhurst Prize “to recognize the educational, cultural, and charitable activities of particular individuals of exceptional talent, character, and moral vision.” A former chief fundraiser, as well as a designer, collaborator, and stakeholder on the groundbreaking Lewis Center, Orr further outlines in this expanded Q&A the origins of ecological design and the power of architecture as a form of education.
In 2010, Oberlin College celebrated the 10th anniversary of its Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies. How would you rate the building’s success?
As an educational facility, the Lewis Center has been phenomenal. It did everything we hoped it would do, and a good bit more. Essentially, it took the big problems in the environment and reduced them to manageable scale, suitable for courses, even spawning prosperous new enterprises, including a high-performance-building-monitoring company founded by three students who were part of design process in 2001 and 2002.
Your mission as a new faculty member at Oberlin in the early 1990s was to establish new space for Oberlin’s Environmental Studies Program that represented environmental values. What was the origin of that goal?
The rules for a new building involved no ugliness—human or ecological—somewhere else or at some later time. That meant you had to go upstream from the building itself to the mines, wells, forests, and farms where the material flow starts and then move downstream. And if you’ve compromised dignity and ecological stability at either end of the spectrum, you can’t say that the building, whatever it looks like, is beautiful. So the idea was to transform the aesthetics of architecture, which had been very typically on form-making and not on place-making. We were trying to combine the imperatives of an environmental studies program with emerging capabilities in the building world to make buildings powered by sunlight, producing zero discharge, etc.
What served as your model, your original inspiration, for the Lewis Center?
It goes way back, before I came to Oberlin. In 1979, my brother and I bought land in the Arkansas Ozarks as an educational venture; effectively, we drew a line around it and said if it happens in these 1,500 acres, it’s curriculum for us. We built conference facilities and 25,000 square feet of dorms, had a staff of 24, and ran a 250-acre farm that had mostly cattle and blueberries plus a saw mill, a construction company, and education programs for about 2,500 students a year. At Meadowcreek, we held the first conference on sustainability and foundations in 1986. Programs for gifted and talented kids. An annual program for environmental educators co-sponsored with Brown University. It was an exciting place, because there was always somebody coming, a cross-fertilization of ideas, people, things. Our core programs there concerned what we did: sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, rural economic development, solar systems, and applied ecology.
Meadowcreek became a 1,500-acre experiment and my first attempt to integrate a whole lot of pieces together into a single conversation about how we live well on the land. You can find the roots of Oberlin’s Lewis Center in a whole variety of people and thinking. We’ve tried sustainability as a series of one-offs: there’s agriculture, there’s green building, there’s education, and so forth. In each case, we’ve tried to consciously create a system where the parts reinforce the resilience and prosperity of the whole. The Lewis Center integrated all the components of the green-building movement and landscape architecture with pedagogy—that was the major addition. It was not just the first of its kind in higher education; it was also the first of its kind to see that architecture was in fact a form of personalized pedagogy—the most powerful, instructive device other than television we have.
At that time you articulated a set of principles, known as “eco literacy,” for creating sustainable human communities. How did those ideas influence the center’s design?
If I was to rephrase that, I would also use the term “ecological competence.” The future, the next few centuries on the human agenda, are not going to be anything like the last few. We’ve taken climate stability for granted and that will disrupt food, transportation, and energy systems, and probably economic issues in ways we can’t even begin to comprehend. So it isn’t just ecological literacy that we’re going to need, it’s going to be ecological competence: creating communities where there is a lot of resilience built into communities in terms of basics: food, shelter, energy, and clean water.
The Lewis Center has directly inspired a whole new generation of green buildings on college and university campuses across North America.
This is where the story of the Lewis Center has been pretty successful as a building, and it’s still the only entirely solar-powered, zero-discharge building on a U.S. college campus. Yet after it opened, the college went off on kind of an "Australian walkabout" for a few years and built several buildings that were not green … didn’t follow the lead of the Lewis Center. It took an administration change to get the point. Then, they opened the door and said, “Let’s do something at a larger scale.” That led to the Oberlin Project.
So now are you attempting to expand your ideas to a city or regional scale, beginning with the Oberlin Green Arts District currently under way?
As a joint enterprise of the city and college, we’re applying what we’ve learned on the Lewis Center—powered by sunlight, efficiencies, zero discharge—to Oberlin’s downtown, starting with a 13-acre block the college owns. [AIA 2011 Firm of the Year, Kansas City, Mo.–based architecture firm] BNIM is doing site planning for the first goal, that big block, of the project. We want to make the whole city work the way we did at the Lewis Center, and then add other variables like economic development, resuscitate local agriculture, create a viable 24/7 downtown, and stop the urban sprawl in its tracks because you create a magnet for local development.
We want to use this as a driver for downtown renewal as the first of five project goals. The second major element of the Oberlin Project is a brand-new energy system to get past use of coal, for the college and city that is off-the-charts green and begins to build a new economy. Our third goal is to establish a 20,000-acre green belt around the city. Our fourth goal: to do all this as an educational venture for students from public and vocational schools, a two-year college, and Oberlin College around the theme of ecological design. And our final goal is to replicate this as part of a national network, with similar projects around the entire U.S., [which we’re]set to launch in early 2011. We’re calling this “full spectrum sustainability” to include material flow, agriculture, energy, education, public policy and finance, urban renewal, green building, and more—and then weaving them together into a pattern where the parts reinforce the integrity, resilience, stability, and sustainability of the whole thing. So it’s design writ large.
David R. Macaulay is the author of Integrated Design: Mithun and the blog Green ArchiTEXT, greenarchitext.com. Read ECO-STRUCTURE 's January/February 2011 Flashback on the Adam Joseph Lewis Center online and then check out Oberlin College's campus performance and learn more about the Oberlin Project at oberlin.edu/ajlc/ajlcHome.html .