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Adam Joseph Lewis Center named 'most important green building'

Aug. 09, 2010


Oberlin’s Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies is the most important green building constructed in the last 30 years according to Architect Magazine Contributing Editor Lance Hosey.

Hosey solicited feedback from 150 green building experts and advocates — including architects, engineers, educators, and critics from the United States and around the world — to name the “five most-important green buildings since 1980.” He reported on results from the first 52 respondents, attempting to mirror the results of a survey in Vanity Fair’s August issue that identifies “the greatest buildings of the last 30 years.” While the winners in the Vanity Fair story represent the architectural elite (Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Renzo Piano’s Menil Collection were the top vote-getters), Hosey took issue with the lack of green buildings in the survey and decided to conduct its own poll.

The Lewis Center, designed by William McDonough + Partners, where Hosey served as an associate and director from 1999-2008, was completed in 2001 and was conceived as a teaching ground and a catalyst for the emerging field of ecological design. It functions as a core component of the environmental studies program, although it has attracted courses from a variety of disciplines in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as lecture series, winter term and summer research projects, and interest from universities and professionals from abroad.

In September, the campus will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center, which is named for a Cleveland, Ohio-based philanthropist who gave the initial support for the project.

As an integrated building-landscape center, the 13,600-square-foot structure houses classroom and office space, an auditorium, an environmental studies library and resource center, a wastewater-purification system in a greenhouse, and an open atrium. The building sits on 48,000 square feet of ecologically managed landscape, which includes a restored wetland, a lawn planted with a special low-mow mix, a small fruit orchard, and a raised-bed organic vegetable garden.

In the last 10 years, the field of green architecture has become mainstream, as evidenced by the explosive growth and recognition of the U.S. Green Building Council and its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, says John Petersen, Oberlin associate professor of environmental studies. The green building boom has been particularly evident on college campuses.

“Like Oberlin, many of our best peer institutions also have environmental policies that require all new buildings to achieve a LEED rating. With so many green construction projects completed in the last 10 years, it’s particularly impressive that Oberlin's Lewis Center stands out as the number-one pick of environmental professionals,” Petersen says. “This reflects the seminal role that the Lewis Center has played in the development of the green building movement.”

Construction and design of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center was spearheaded by David Orr, the Paul Sears Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin.

Orr says the hope remains that the building will not only serve as a space in which to hold classes, but also to help to redefine the relationship between humankind and the environment.

Key features of the building include solar panels on the roof; energy-efficient lighting, heating, and appliances; geothermal heating and cooling; a “Living Machine,” which is an ecologically engineered system that combines elements of conventional wastewater technology with the purification processes of wetland ecosystems to treat and recycle the building's wastewater; a weather station that monitors real-time conditions and trends for a variety of environmental variables; and specially picked, sustainable materials such as biodegradable upholstery, recycled beams and recycled plastic chairs, and low-VOC paints and adhesives.

Petersen notes that what started as a focus on developing a single building as a showcase of ecological design principles at Oberlin has grown to encompass the entire campus and town as plans for a downtown green arts district take shape.

“Consistent with Oberlin's history of courageous and morally sensitive leadership on issues of race, gender, and labor, Oberlin College has embraced an ethic of environmental stewardship as a fundamental tenant,” Petersen says. “The seeds of this consciousness are embodied in the Lewis Center.”

Colin Koffel, a recent Oberlin graduate who holds a fellowship in the college’s sustainability office, says the Lewis Center isn’t just about using recycled materials and insulated glass windows.

“How people use the space is essential to a building’s sustainability. Learning in a sun-soaked classroom and studying in the plant-filled atrium can help increase productivity,” Koffel says. “The Lewis Center is a living laboratory. It helped me understand how buildings work by exposing the building systems. 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 has earned numerous awards and distinctions throughout the years from the American Institute of Architects and the U.S. Department of Energy, and the National Convention of the Associated Contractors of America, among others.

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