14 Architecture and Education

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The worst thing we can do to our children is to convince them

that ugliness is normal.

—Rene Dubos

As commonly practiced, education has little to do with its specific

setting or locality. The typical campus is regarded mostly as a place

where learning occurs, but is, itself, believed to be the source of

no useful learning. A campus is intended, rather, to be convenient,

efficient, or aesthetically pleasing, but not instructional. It neither

requires nor facilitates competence or mindfulness. By that standard,

the same education could happen as well in California or in

Kazakhstan, or on Mars, for that matter. The same could be said of

the buildings and landscape that make up a college campus (Orr

1993). The design of buildings and landscape is thought to have

little or nothing to do with the process of learning or the quality of

scholarship that occurs in a particular place. But in fact, buildings

and landscape reflect a hidden curriculum that powerfully influences

the learning process.

The curriculum embedded in any building instructs as fully and

as powerfully as any course taught in it. Most of my classes, for example,

were once taught in a building that I think Descartes would have

liked. It is a building with lots of squareness and straight lines. There

is nothing whatsoever that reflects its locality in northeast Ohio in

what had once been a vast forested wetland (Sherman 1996). How it

is cooled, heated, and lighted and at what true 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. It tells no story.With only minor modifications

it could be converted to use as a factory or prison, and some

students are inclined to believe that it so functions. When classes are

over, students seldom linger for long. The building resonates with no

part of our biology, evolutionary experience, or aesthetic sensibilities.

It reflects no understanding of ecology or ecological processes. It is intended

to be functional, efficient, minimally offensive, and little

more. But what else does it do?

First, it tells its users that locality, knowing where you are, is

unimportant. To be sure, this is not said in so many words anywhere

in this or any other building. Rather, it is said tacitly throughout the

entire structure. 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 in the building

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. And the lesson learned is mindlessness,

which is to say, it teaches that disconnectedness is normal. And

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 often a miscalibration between what is taught in classes

and the way buildings actually work. Buildings are provisioned with

energy, materials, and water, and dispose of their waste in ways that

say to students that the world is linear and that we are no part of the

larger web of life. Finally, there is no apparent connection in this or

any other building on campus to the larger set of issues having to do

with climatic change, biotic impoverishment, and the unraveling of

the fabric of life on earth. Students begin to suspect, I think, that

those issues are unreal or that they are unsolvable in any practical

way, or that they occur somewhere else.

Is it possible to design buildings and entire campuses in ways

that promote ecological competence and mindfulness (Lyle 1994)?

Through better design, is it possible to teach our students that our

problems are solvable and that we are connected to the larger community

of life? As an experiment, I organized a class of students in

1992–1993 to develop what architects call a preprogram for an environmental

studies center at Oberlin College. Twenty-five students

and a dozen architects met over two semesters to develop the core

ideas for the project. The first order of business was to question why

we ought to do anything at all. Once the need for facilities was established,

the participants questioned whether we ought to build new facilities

or renovate an existing building. Students and faculty examined

possibilities to renovate an existing building, but decided on new

construction. The basic program that emerged from the year-long

class called for a 14,000-square-foot building that

• discharged no wastewater (i.e. drinking water in, drinking

water out)

• eventually generated more electricity than it used

• used no materials known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, or

endocrine disrupting

• used energy and materials efficiently

• promoted competence with environmental technologies

• used products and materials grown or manufactured sustainably

• was landscaped to promote biological diversity

• promoted analytical skill in assessing full costs over the

lifetime of the building

• promoted ecological competence and mindfulness of place

• became in its design and operations, genuinely pedagogical

• met rigorous requirements for full-cost accounting.

We intended, in other words, a building that did not impair human or

ecological health somewhere else or at some later time.

Endorsed by a new president of the college, the project moved

forward in the fall of 1995. Two graduates from the class of 1993

helped coordinate the design of the project and engaged students,

faculty, and the wider community in the design process. Architect

John Lyle facilitated the design charettes that began in the fall of

1995. Some 250 students, faculty, and community members eventually

participated in the 13 charettes in which the goals for the center

were developed and refined. From 26 architectural firms that applied

for the job, we selected William McDonough & Partners in Charlottesville,


No architect alone, however talented, could design the building

that we proposed. It was necessary, therefore, to assemble a design

team that would meet throughout the process. To fulfill the longterm

goal that the building would eventually generate more electricity

than it used, we engaged Amory Lovins and Bill Browning from

the Rocky Mountain Institute as well as scientists from NASA, Lewis

Space Center. To meet the standard of zero discharge, we hired John

Todd and Michael Shaw, the leading figures in the field of ecological

engineering. The landscape plan was developed by John Lyle and Andropogen,

Inc., from Philadelphia. To this team we added structural

and mechanical engineers and a contractor. During the programming

and schematic design phase this team and representatives from the

college met by conference call weekly and in regular working sessions.

The team approach to architectural design was a new process for

Oberlin College. Typically, architects do the basic design, ask engineers

to heat and cool it, and bring in landscapers to make it look

pretty. By engaging the full design team from the beginning, we intended

to improve the integration of building systems and technologies

and the relationship between the building and its landscape.

Early on, we decided that the standard for technology in the building

was to be state-of-the-shelf, but within state-of-the-art design. In

other words, we did not want the risk of untried technologies, but we

did want the overall product to be at the frontier of what it is now

possible to do with ecologically smart design.

The building program called for major changes, not only in the

design process but also in the selection of materials, relationship to

manufacturers, and in the way we counted the costs of the project.

We intended to use materials that did not compromise human health

or dignity somewhere else.We also wanted to use materials that had

as little embodied fossil energy as possible, hence giving preference to

those locally manufactured or grown. In the process we discovered

how little is generally known about the ecological and human effects

of the materials system and how little the present tax and pricing system

supports standards upholding ecological or human integrity. Unsurprisingly,

we also discovered that the present system of building

codes does little to encourage innovation leading to greater resource

efficiency and environmental quality.

Typically, buildings are a kind of snapshot of the state of technology

at a given time. In this case, however, we intended for the building

to remain technologically dynamic over a long period of time. In effect,

we proposed that the building adapt or learn as the state of technology

changed and as our understanding of design became more sophisticated.

This meant that we did not necessarily want to own

particular components of the building such as the photovoltaic electric

system which would be rendered obsolete as the technology advanced.

We explored other arrangements, including leasing materials

and technologies that will change markedly over the lifetime of the


The same strategy applied to materials. McDonough & Partners

regarded the building as a union of two different metabolisms: industrial

and ecological. Materials that might eventually decompose into

soil were considered parts of an ecological metabolism. Otherwise

they were regarded as part of an industrial metabolism and might be

leased from the manufacturer and eventually returned as a feedstock

to be remanufactured into new product.

The manner in which we appraised the total cost of the project

represented another departure from standard practice of design and

construction. Costs are normally considered synonymous with the

those of design and construction. As a consequence, institutions tend

to ignore the costs that buildings incur over expected lifetimes as well

as all of those other costs to environment and human health not included

in the prices of energy, materials, and waste disposal. The costs

of this project, accordingly, were higher than normal because we


• students, faculty, and community members in the design


• research into materials and technologies to meet program


• higher performance standards

• more sophisticated technologies

• greater efforts to integrate technologies and systems

• an endowment fund for building maintenance.

In addition, we expect to do a materials audit of the building, including

an estimate of the amount of carbon dioxide released by the construction,

along with a menu of possibilities to offset these costs.

The groundbreaking occurred in the fall of 1998. We occupied

the building in January of 2000.We now know that the goals for the

project were reasonable if ambitious. The building now generates a

substantial portion of the electricity that it uses. It purifies wastewater

on site. It is designed to remain technologically dynamic well into the

future. It is being instrumented to report its performance data in real

time on a college Web site. The landscape includes a small restored

wetland and forest as well as gardens and orchards. In short, it is designed

to instruct students and faculty in the arts of ecological competence

and the possibilities of ecological design applied to buildings,

energy systems, wastewater, landscapes, and technology, all of which

are now parts of our curriculum.

As important as the building and its landscape, one of the more

important effects of the project has been its impact on those who participated.

Some of the students who devoted time and energy to the

project began to describe it as their legacy to the college. Because of

their work on the project, many of them learned about ecological design

and how to solve real problems by working with some of the best

practitioners in the world. Some of the faculty who participated in

the effort and who were skeptical about the possibility of changing

the institution came to see change as sometimes possible. And perhaps

some of the college officials who initially saw this as a risky project

came to regard risks incurred for the right goals as worthwhile.

Is the Adam Joseph Lewis Center a perfect building? Absolutely

not. It is, however, a very good building and a beginning to much more.

To paraphrase Wes Jackson (1985), relative to the potential for ecological

design, this is Kitty Hawk and we’re 10 feet off the ground. But

someday some of the students who worked on this project will design

buildings and communities that are the ecological equivalent of 747s.

The real test, however, lies ahead. It will be tempting for some, no

doubt, to regard this as an interesting but isolated experiment having

no relation to other buildings now in the planning stage or for campus

landscaping or resource management. The pedagogically challenged

will see no further possibilities for rethinking the process, substance,

and goals of education. If so, the center will exist as an island on a

campus that mirrors the larger culture. On the other hand, the project

offers a model that might inform architectural standards for all

new construction and renovation; decisions about landscape management;

financial decisions about payback times and full-cost accounting;

courses and projects around the solution to real problems; and

how we engage the wider community.

By some estimates, humankind is preparing to build more in the next

half century than it has built throughout all of recorded history. If we

do this inefficiently and carelessly, we will cast a long ecological

shadow on the human future. If we fail to pay the full environmental

costs of development, the resulting ecological and human damage

will be irreparable.To the extent that we do not aim for efficiency and

the use of renewable energy sources, the energy and maintenance

costs will unnecessarily divert capital from other, far better purposes.

The dream of sustainability, however defined, would then prove to be

only a fantasy. Ideas and ideals need to be rendered into models and

examples that make them visible, comprehensible, and compelling.

Who will do this?

More than any other institution in modern society, colleges and

universities have a moral stake in the health, beauty, and integrity of

the world our students will inherit.We have an obligation to provide

our students with tangible models that calibrate our values and capabilities—

models that they can see, touch, and experience.We have an

obligation to create grounds for hope in our students who sometimes

define themselves as “Gen X.” But hope is different from wishful

thinking so we have a corollary obligation to equip our students with

the analytical skills and practical competence necessary to act on high

expectations. When the pedagogical abstractions, words, and whole

courses do not fit the way the buildings and landscape constituting

the academic campus in fact work, students learn that hope is just

wishful thinking or, worse, rank hypocrisy. In short, we have an obligation

to equip our students to do the hard work ahead of

• learning to power civilization by current sunlight

• reducing the amount of materials, water, and land use per


• growing food and fiber sustainably

• disinventing the concept of waste

• preserving biological diversity

• restoring ecologies ruined in the past century

• rethinking the political basis of modern society

• developing economies that can be sustained within the

limits of nature

• distributing wealth fairly within and between generations.

No generation ever faced a more daunting agenda. But none ever

faced more exciting possibilities either. Do we now have or could we

acquire the know-how to power civilization by sunlight or to reduce

the size of the human footprint (Wackernagel and Rees 1996) or

grow our food sustainably or prevent pollution or preserve biological

diversity or restore degraded ecologies? In each case I believe that the

answer is yes. Whether we possess the will and moral energy to do so

while rethinking political and economic systems and the distribution

of wealth within and between generations remains to be seen.

Finally, the potential for ecologically smarter design in all of its

manifestations in architecture, landscape design, community design,

the management of agricultural and forest lands, manufacturing, and

technology does not amount to a fix for all that ails us. Reducing the

amount of damage we do to the world per capita will only buy us a

few decades, perhaps a century if we are lucky. If we squander that

reprieve, we will have succeeded only in delaying the eventual collision

between unfettered human desires and the limits of the earth.

The default setting of our civilization needs to be reset to ensure that

we build a sustainable world that is also spiritually sustaining. This is

not a battle between left and right or haves and have-nots as it is often

described. At a deeper level the issue has to do with art and beauty. In

the largest sense, what we must do to ensure human tenure on the

earth is to cultivate a new standard that defines beauty as that which

causes no ugliness somewhere else or at some later time.