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New Environmental Center Creates Waves:  Oberlin’s Lewis Center Gains International Attention

Friday, September 15, 2000 at 2:59 PM

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A remarkable new classroom for sustainable living will be dedicated today at Oberlin College. The Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies is much more than an energy-efficient building. Designers say its mission is to change the way we think about our place in the natural world. Already a ripple effect has begun. Just months into its operation, the new building is attracting national and international attention from businesses, architects, and educators - and even the federal government. 90.3's Karen Schaefer reports.

Karen Schaefer- The Lewis Center in Oberlin doesn’t look like a radical departure from typical college classroom architecture. The curved roof, overhanging eaves, and glass-walled atrium and greenhouse appear to be designed for style, not for function. But this is a building whose high-tech environmental design is turning heads around the globe. Dr. David Orr is director of the College’s Environmental Studies Program.

David Orr- This past week we’ve had a delegation from Japan in here, we’ve had people from India, the United Nations has had a delegation of people out here, so in the first eight months - and we’re still technically a construction site, we’re still working on the building - we’ve had probably twenty to thirty-thousand people through this facility.

KS- Orr is a national figure in the new sustainability movement, an environmental approach to protecting future generations by changing the way we live now. The Lewis Center is his brainchild. Orr says his aim is to create a new design for living, one he believes is more sustainable than a system that relies on disappearing fossil fuels - and that poisons our children. The Lewis Center, he says, was created as a living model for a more sustainable future.

DO- The building, I think, is unique in two major ways - one is the number of things we brought together in the building. This is a building that purifies its own water, powers itself by sunlight, has eliminated toxic chemicals and compounds. It was designed, in short, as the kind of place in which classes would be held, but it would also function in a larger way by the way it was operated and the way it was built. So this is a prototype, a very different way to think about buildings. Sooner or later, this will be the default setting. This will be how everybody builds every building.

KS- Orr says most of the Lewis Center’s marvels - like photovoltaic roof panels that will eventually produce more energy than the building can use - are state-of-the-shelf technology already available to the average homeowner. Others - like the possibility of one day adding hydrogen fuel cells to partner the building’s solar array - are more cutting edge. But perhaps the most startling - and most beautiful - innovation is the building’s biological wastewater treatment system. Designed by ecological engineer John Todd, the system uses huge indoor tubs of floating vegetation to put the final polish on the building’s closed-loop water recycling system. David Austen is with Living Technologies in Burlington, Vermont.

David Austen- Drinking water is not produced here, it doesn’t go back to the sinks, but because it goes to the toilets, it has to be drinking water quality. All we’re doing is taking a conventional system and making it a lot better by adding plants.

KS- But it’s not just the number of sustainable solutions under one roof that make the building unique. Last summer the American Institute of Architects gave the Lewis Center its Design Award for educational innovation. Steve Bingler is a Louisiana architect and a member of the review committee.

Steve Bingler- I think what we see right now is that Oberlin is kind of a manifestation of a new consciousness about smart growth, about livable cities, about livable communities, about, in a way I think you would have to say a more humanistic approach to the way that we plan and design our environment. I applaud the ideas and the courage that it took to put those ideas in place.

KS- While many believe the Lewis Center is a remarkable achievement, the $7 million project is by no means finished. Orr and his staff are currently working with BP Solarex to improve solar efficiency and with NASA’s Glenn Research Center to design hydrogen fuel cell systems. The U.S. Department of Energy is also involved. Because it was designed to incorporate future technological developments, David Orr says the building will continue to evolve as more businesses use the Center as a testing ground.

DO- And relative to ecological design, it’s Kitty Hawk and we’re 13 feet off the ground. This is just a beginning, not an end - this building is a means toward a much larger goal, a change in how we think about the human presence in the world. And about how we make a world that is sustainable, a world that we’re going to want to live in.

KS- This afternoon dignitaries from across the U.S. will gather for the Lewis Center dedication. And on Saturday, the Center will host a day-long symposium on sustainable design. Invited speakers and guests include some of the leaders of the sustainability movement, among them the deputy director of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Center architect William McDonough, and William Ford, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company. In Oberlin, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

Additional Information

* Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies
* American Institute of Architects
* Architect William McDonough

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