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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Living Learning Space

Air Date: Week of

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

Host Steve Curwood visits with Oberlin College professor David Orr in the new environmental studies building. As Professor Orr explains, the building was created with careful consideration of its environmental impact, and it serves as an educational tool, too.



CURWOOD: Tell me about these doors. It sure was tough getting in here. I really had to push.

ORR: Well, they are heavy. These are– this is an airlock entry, and so you open the outer door first and you walk through a space, and then you have to open a second door. We built an entryway that’s efficient to keep heat and cool or coolness in the building, depending on the season.


CURWOOD: David Orr is showing off his brainchild. He’s leading me through the entrance of the new Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Studies Building at Oberlin College in Ohio. This is one of the greenest buildings in the nation and it’s easy to see why. Above our heads an array of solar panels covers the vaulted roof. Trees in the atrium catch some of the sunlight that pours in. Across the way, there’s a wall of glass so you can look out into a small constructed wetland. And interior windows allow visitors to see inside the classrooms that line most of the building.

Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies

ORR: So we tried to make a space in the building that functions a lot like a town square.

CURWOOD: David Orr heads the Environmental Studies Department at Oberlin College. When it came time to construct a new home for his department, he wanted a building that would generate its own energy, clean its own water, and serve as a tool of instruction. Every system in the building is designed to be efficient and sustainable.


ORR: Steve, that water from the toilet goes out to an anaerobic digester and then comes back in through what looks like a tropical greenhouse, but has actually got a name called “a living machine.” The process is wastewater, so the wastewater here goes through a biological process. It looks like a greenhouse, it functions like a wetland. Then that water goes out to a storage tank behind us in the berm comes back in the building to flush toilets.


CURWOOD: What are we looking at here?

ORR: Behind these two doors are four tanks that are seven-feet deep, three-and-a-half feet below the level of the gravel bed. When you flush a toilet in this building, the wastewater goes out to an anaerobic digester on the east side and it comes back into the tank directly in front of us. It has plants that are six or seven feet high, and then it flows through each of these four tanks, it comes back into the gravel bed, moving toward us now into a sump and then back out to another tank, so it comes back into the building after flushing toilets. Basically it’s using plants to take out phosphorous and nitrogen from wastewater, so it’s converted human waste into plant tissues.

CURWOOD: What’s it smell like in here?

ORR: Well, I’ll show you, let’s go in.


ORR: You tell me.


CURWOOD: Hey, this isn’t bad. It’s not roses, but it’s not bad. It’s, in fact, quite pleasant.

ORR: Smells like a greenhouse, and that’s really what it is. What’s occurring here is what would occur in any wetland, it’s natural processes but now in a form of a human-made device with tanks and pumps and pipes, but lots of plants. And it looks like a tropical greenhouse.


CURWOOD: Can you describe for me where we are?

ORR: What you’re looking at is a computer monitor that shows the amount of energy generated or used in the building. This will eventually be interactive, but this data collected in the building on energy systems goes out to the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado and then it comes back here. But we’re showing how the building actually works. If you watch that screen long enough, it will change and eventfully there will be a water analysis come up. But this space is designed for people in the building to see how this space is actually working.

CURWOOD: Now, let’s see the center gauge there. It says when the blue line is below zero, the center is exporting renewable solar energy to the Ohio power grid. You must like that.

ORR: We do. Ohio is what’s called “a net leader” in states, so you can buy and sell at roughly the same rate. So we’re a power plant but at nighttime we draw from the grid. On a sunny day, yesterday we were sending power back out on the grid. And on average last year we generated about 57 percent of the energy for this building from sunlight.

CURWOOD: So, let’s see, I look down and this is a [STOMPS FOOT ON FLOOR] nice tile floor but it’s not just for looking good, I guess.

ORR: This is actually a heat sink. Right behind you is a glass curtained wall that is two stories high and that emits – it’s facing south, and that emits sunlight. Sunlight strikes the floor in the wintertime as the summer – pardon me, as the winter sun drops in the sky, that shadow line moves back deeper into the building. So this is a passive way to heat the structure. Below the floor, which is concrete covered with slate, is an insulation layer, so you don’t lose a lot of heat down into the ground. But this is a way to heat buildings without cost.

CURWOOD: How did you get the idea for this building?

ORR: The idea behind the building, the making of the building and the operations of the building are that we would make a space that would become educational, not just a place where you have classes. So this building begins to function as a laboratory for solar technologies, for data gathering and analysis, for water purification, for landscape management.

CURWOOD: How does this building project fit in with your concerns? You’ve written about teaching people to rethink the political basis of our society.

ORR: Thoreau says that Walden, he went to Walden to drive some of the problems of living into a place where he could study them. We’ve done some of the same here with this building. It’s designed to bring some of the problems with sustainability that students will have to wrestle with in the 21st century here into this particular place.

CURWOOD: Why aren’t there more buildings like this at colleges? In fact, where building, new buildings are proposed and people even quote your work, there seems to be a fair amount of resistance to doing buildings like this.

ORR: I think the resistance is falling away pretty rapidly. I think there is a movement now to build buildings like this. We can identify about 70 or 80 buildings on college campuses that have been influenced by this project or are trying to copy what we’ve done here, in part or entirely.

Most of the resistance is going to be around issues of cost, and you can build high-performance buildings, you can make them educational, within the cost structure of conventional building costs, or you can come in lower.

Now this building provides, eventually it will provide upwards of 80 or 90 percent perhaps of its own electric needs. It’s an all-electric building. So we don’t have a large electric bill or power bill for this building. So there are economic reasons to begin to move in this direction as well.

CURWOOD: How important do you think it is for all buildings to be instructive vis-à-vis having academic or school buildings be instructive?

ORR: All buildings are instructive, whether we call them instructive or not. One of the problems is we compete with the power of shopping malls, freeways, urban sprawl and all of that is instructive in ways we don’t necessarily want to admit. But it tells the young people that energy is cheap, sprawl is okay, you can pave over land. That’s very instructive. And so the issue here is how to begin to make the built environment smarter and instructive in the right kinds of ways, to begin to connect us to each other, to landscapes, to future generations, to people elsewhere.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time. David Orr is Professor of Environmental Studies and Chairman of the Environmental Studies Department at Oberlin College.

ORR: Thank you, Steve. Nice to be here.



Info on David Orr

Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies


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