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?

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