A building is an idea incarnate. It expresses its designer’s values, reflecting what they believe about their relationships to each other, to the environment, and even to God. An academic building also embodies assumptions about what is worth learning and how it is to be learned. It is, in a sense, a tenured “professor” in the program. Below are some of the ideas that are shaping the design of Merry Lea’s collegiate facility.
The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future to meet its own needs.” In a sustainable system, materials and energy move in a cycle rather than in a one-way flow from source to consumption to toxic waste product. A sustainable building has the following characteristics:
- It uses a minimum amount of fossil fuels and manufactured chemicals
- It mimics natural processes
- It uses renewable resources
- It reuses or recycles nonrenewable resources
- It produces only as much waste as the environment can assimilate without damage.
Advocates of sustainable building are not opposed to all development. They recognize that change in the landscape for human purposes is inevitable. The question is: What kind of development? Is it based primarily on short sighted economic considerations or does it recognize the power we have to destroy our own life support system and our children’s future? Sustainable development attempts to integrate the latest findings in the field of environmental science into building and development practices and to maintain an open mind as knowledge of the natural world expands.
Nature as a Mentor
In 1971, ecologist H.T. Odum published a landmark work, Environment, Power and Society. In this book, Odum suggests that human designers must take their cues from nature if they want to create a sustainable future. A second book, Design with Nature, by Ian McHarg, appeared at about the same time. Both authors argued that prairies, forests, rivers, and other ecosystems that have endured for eons are our models of resource efficiency and long-term survival. The practice of basing human design on ecology is gaining followers and is now called industrial ecology or ecological engineering. Bio-mimicry is another word frequently used to describe this borrowing from natural processes.
The designers of Merry Lea’s collegiate facility have taken numerous lessons from nature. One example is the ecological engine they have designed to cleanse wastewater. From wetland plants, we are learning how to filter and purify water without harsh chemicals.
In the traditional building design process, team members often work in isolation and consultants may get involved only after critical decisions have been made. One unique characteristic of many sustainable buildings is that the process that created them was a collaborative one.
Sustainable projects typically employ an architectural strategy known as a building design charrette. This is an intensive workshop in which people from all stages of the design and building process of a future project meet to set goals and guidelines. Merry Lea held two design charrettes in order to plan for the collegiate facility; one in August 2001 and a second smaller one in April 2002.
The kind of interdisciplinary ping-pong that takes place during a charrette produces informed and creative solutions to problems. For example, during Merry Lea’s first charrette, participants wrestled with the size and number of windows in the collegiate facility. An architect proposed large windows to put building occupants in touch with the outdoor setting; a mechanical engineer challenged the idea by pointing out how this would increase the building’s air conditioning load. Meanwhile, the lighting specialist asked, “Are you sure the sunlight coming in those windows at that angle is conducive to the activities you will perform in that room?” Ultimately, this kind of dialogue results in more efficient buildings.
In the past two decades, educators in a variety of disciplines have revised their pedagogy. They are moving away from a dependence on textbooks and classrooms and toward a more inquiry-based approach to learning. The science community is no exception. Researchers with Project Kaleidoscope, the National Science Foundation, and the National Research Council have all come to the same conclusion: the lecture/lab format traditionally used in science classes tends to produce passive learners with limited problem-solving skills. This is not the kind of science training necessary for facing and solving the challenges of the future.
Merry Lea is a setting that lends itself to inquiry-based learning. Here, the outdoors is the primary classroom and Merry Lea’s extensive and accessible natural resources are the teachers. Students band birds, help with controlled burns, wade into wetlands with dip nets, and much more. The collegiate facility expands these lessons in applied ecology and make them available to a greater number of people. Students will live and study in structures that model environmental sensitivity. The facility’s wastewater treatment plant and energy systems are visible and invite interaction from residents. These day-to-day encounters with sustainable living are designed not only to educate but also to inspire students to adopt earth-friendly lifestyles in the future.
The learning community concept is a centerpiece of the collegiate facility and its programs. A learning community integrates three components: academic subject matter, social interactions, and the physical space necessary for an intellectually stimulating environment to emerge. Shared learning activities develop a sense of community among the participants as well as professional, ethical, and civic responsibility. Students explore Merry Lea’s ecosystems together, practice sustainable lifestyles together, and learn the value of being part of a community. Living and learning space are integrated.
Facility planners chose to house students on site in cottages in order to help learning communities flourish. Living in groups of eight rather than in a single dormitory with long halls encourages a sense of belonging. The cottages have a feeling of warmth and comfort and are sited to give residents the sense that they are living in a village.
We committed to this project because we have hope for the future. Despite the depressing statistics on environmental issues that flood the news daily, we believe that human beings can learn to live in harmony with the natural world without destroying it.
Our hope is rooted in faith. We believe in a God who created the natural world and cares passionately for it. We see the wisdom and resilience that has been built into each ecosystem and believe the earth has much to teach us.
Furthermore, Christian theology offers us resources to draw upon as we struggle to take care of an increasingly fragile planet. Among these are the conviction that the earth belongs to God, the calling to self-examination, a concern for the marginalized, and the experience of living in community.