Thursday, August 11, 2016

Environmental Studies Center at Oberlin College

Sustainability Showcased in the Environmental Studies Center at Oberlin College in Ohio

by Nancy Corson Carter

In 2010 Oberlin College celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center (AJLC) for Environmental Studies.  Architect Magazine recognized it then as the most important green building constructed in the last 30 years.

This July, I joined the thousands of visitors who have toured and learned firsthand about this special building. I’d hoped to see it since the time I met David Orr, the plenary science speaker at PRC/PEC’s 2002 national conference at Linfield College, in Oregon. Orr oversaw the process of creating the AJLC as then-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin; it manifests his belief that “Our job as people of faith is to build a world that reconnects,” a world with “architecture as a form of theology.” 

Besides such sustainable choices as solar and geothermal energy provisions and recycled and biodegradable materials, the building features a “Living Machine.” This is an ecologically engineered system that combines elements of conventional wastewater technology with the purification processes of wetland ecosystems—plants with roots supporting living bio-filters like snails and bacteria—to treat and recycle the building’s wastewater. A weather station monitors real-time conditions and trends for a variety of environmental variables.

 The landcape is an integral part of the AJLC; it includes an orchard and permaculture garden, paths, and benches.

Colin Koffel, an Oberlin graduate, portrays the building’s wide educational reach: “The Lewis Center isn’t just home to environmental studies. I also took classes in economics and cinema studies there, and it helped bring discussions of sustainability into those fields.”  The building, true to its inclusion of community input since the beginning, has become a center for many local events. Clearly the design team led by William McDonough + Partners created a building that will adapt and change as more sustainable, hopeful solutions unfold.

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