Thursday, August 27, 2009


Just outside of Austin, Texas, the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, has a small complex of office buildings and residences exclusively using recycled materials, oriented towards energy efficiency, water conservation, and low cost. With his ingenious collaborators, Pliny Fisk, the lead architect, has developed a style resembling advanced tinker toy. The buildings are constructed so there is a seamless connection between design, sustainability, and transparency. Visitors and dwellers alike immediately understand the purpose, function, and origins of all of the materials. This is an outstanding template for construction approaches on college campuses.

Materials refers to the manipulation, rearrangement, and heating and cooling of matter to produce the stuff of our goods, appliances, dwellings, and tools—from laptop computers to Nike sneakers. Sustainable materials practice emphasizes minimizing the energy use and byproducts involved in the manufacture of these goods, valuing resilience, durability, and recyclability. Whether you choose to use recycled materials in campus construction projects, or initiate “paperless” meetings, the mindful use of materials is intrinsic to countless procurement decisions.

From an infrastructure perspective, life cycle analysis and ecological cost accounting have a major role to play in coordinating sustainable materials practices. Every campus purchase has both an ecological and economic impact—from using green cleaning materials to installing recycled carpets. Materials originate someplace on the planet, derived from the biosphere and delivered to your doorstep. What do we use and where does it come from? Which materials are most likely to minimize ecological impact?

A campus is an ecological location with a geographical, cultural, and landscape context for its materials use. What works best in Arizona may not be well suited for Maine. However, we can share our experiences and experiments by developing common expectations about sustainable materials practice. Why shouldn’t this awareness become a priority for a whole campus pedagogy—a way to build interdisciplinary focus and meaning among engineers, architects, artists, ecologists, and educators? What better way is there to learn about how we use (and abuse) our place and planet?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


In the late 1970’s, the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) hosted an annual Toward Tomorrow Fair, a showcase for what was then called “appropriate technology.” I vividly remember the poster advertising the fair. It depicted a small city in a campus-like setting, with windmills, solar panels, passive solar architecture, bicycles, monorails, and all manner of farms, gardens, and orchards. Imagine a college campus with a similar landscape—buildings displaying a full range of renewable energy resources, creating a uniquely educational energy architecture. Each building serves as a model for conservation efficiency, ecological design, and interactive learning, powered by an innovative renewable energy source.

Energy refers to the transformation of matter to produce heat and electricity. The point of sustainable energy practices is to maximize the efficiency of those processes so as to minimize unwanted byproducts. We require a new energy algorithm that enables us to heat and cool our buildings, move people and their goods from one place to another, and power our machines, without simultaneously altering the biosphere.

For colleges and universities a primary challenge is how to approach zero-carbon energy use. This can be accomplished through a combination of ingenious technical innovations, renewable energy sources, and rigorous conservation/retrofitting. It’s essential that these efforts are fully transparent so that all energy users understand the flow from source to destination to byproduct, or what is typically described as life cycle analysis.

Energy cost accounting, the foundation of a truthful ecological economics, should be built into all budgetary approaches, incorporating not only the short and long term campus dollars and cents (sense) but also the ecological and climatic ramifications of such decisions. On a more tangible level we can link the magnitude of energy choices to the scale of daily behaviors. How does turning on a switch or turning up the thermostat impact both the traditional budgetary spreadsheet, but also the planetary carbon budget? I can think of no better educational project than outfitting all campus buildings with the capacity to monitor such choices by calibrating all of the necessary equivalencies and ratios. Campuses can become monitoring cooperatives, defined by the ubiquity and transparency of their energy networking systems.

Energy structures serve as instructional landmarks on the campus landscape. Windmills, solar panels, and geothermal installations all require interpretive displays that help campus users better understand the complexity of energy choices, while allowing our students to develop new habits of thinking about their energy use.