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The New Green U

Design educators are choosing different paths for guiding tomorrow’s architects toward a carbon-free future.

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By B.J. Novitski

Some architecture schools in North America and around the world have been teaching sustainable practices for decades, while others have neglected the field altogether. By now, most green practitioners are familiar with the “2030 Challenge,” developed and promoted by architect/activist Edward Mazria. This challenge, adopted by the American Institute of Architects, the U.S. Green Building Council, and many other groups, is to reach carbon neutrality—using no fossil-fuel greenhouse gas-emitting energy to operate buildings—by the year 2030. Possibly less familiar is the companion “2010 Imperative,” to achieve “complete ecological literacy in design education” by next year. Authors of the imperative believe such a crash course is needed to produce the next generation of architects capable of rising to the challenge. While most educators are struggling to incorporate sustainable design into the curriculum, some schools are way ahead of the game.

Photo © Darren Braun

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In the 1960s, interest in passive solar heating, cooling by natural ventilation, and daylighting took root thanks to pioneers such as John Reynolds at the University of Oregon and the late Jeffrey Cook at Arizona State University. They inspired several generations of students, dozens of whom now teach sustainability-in-design programs.

The issues broadened in the 1980s. Indoor-air quality, water management, and construction waste reduction were added to the curriculum. Added, that is, at a few schools. Then, as now, such curriculum changes depended on local champions, and this gradual evolution has depended on individuals’ willingness to compete for space in a crowded course catalogue. Individuals also fought for scarce funding and developed research institutes, such as the respected Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics (CBPD) in the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. There, Volker Hart-kopf, Vivian Loftness, FAIA, and others conduct research in the evaluation and improvement of high-performance buildings and healthy workplaces.

During this time, another important transformation took place as sustainability issues found their way into design studios, the core of architectural education. The once-prevailing attitude that energy had no place in design has gradually faded as more professors understand the importance of sustainability and integrated design in shaping buildings.

State of the Schools

Now, about half the accredited members of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) have “environment/sustainability” as a specialization, though with a great deal of variation. Some schools, for instance, include sustainability only in introductory environmental controls lecture courses; others offer advanced seminars in daylighting, passive heating and cooling, sustainable materials, and integrated design. There is little effort to achieve nationwide uniformity. The organization responsible for maintaining academic standards, the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), keeps its requirements deliberately broad. The 2004 version of its accreditation requirement states that graduating students must demonstrate an “understanding of the principles of sustainability in making architecture and urban design decisions that conserve natural and built resources, including culturally important buildings and sites, and in the creation of healthful buildings and communities.” According to Lee Waldrep, NAAB’s associate executive director, a school could satisfy this minimum requirement of “understanding” with a course, through a lecture series, or in some other way. He says: “Accreditation tells the schools what to teach, but not how to teach it.”

The USGBC is actively encouraging universities to share their curriculum success stories. The council publishes green-education best practices and organizes conferences for educators. The USGBC also offers recognition awards and incentive grants for “replicable pedagogical efforts.”

In 2006, the AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE) sponsored a report on the state of green education. Written by Kira Gould, associate AIA, and Lance Hosey, AIA, “Ecology and Design: Ecological Literacy in Architecture Education” presented a survey of North American schools. The report also proposed greater cooperation between academia and the profession. Although awareness of climate change has mushroomed since the report came out, the work still represents the variety of activities in architecture schools. These include not only courses and design studios but student-run conferences, collaboration with regional research centers, work toward greening campuses, community outreach, and educator networks. Author Gould notes: “Some schools have been better than others about embedding social issues in green design. Some feel that just taking on the environmental part is hard enough. But for those really redesigning their curriculum, we recommend trying to see this as holistically as possible.”

Ironically, some of the most explicitly sustainability-related programs in the country are not accredited. These include the Ecosa Institute and the San Francisco Institute of Architecture. The Boston Architecture College (BAC), which is accredited, offers a Sustainable Design Certificate that is separate from the college’s more traditional degree programs. This relatively new program, conducted online only, is available for architects interested in continuing their education who don’t need or want another professional degree, for anyone in the construction industry interested in learning more about sustainability, and for newcomers hoping to break into the industry. The BAC’s program, developed in conjunction with Building Green LLC, offers over a dozen courses, soon to double in number. A list of topics reveals a growing awareness of the issues emphasized by the USGBC’s LEED program and the 2030 Challenge: “Building Envelope,” “Materials, Resources, and Indoor Environmental Quality,” “Site Design, Landscaping, and Site-Water Issues,” “The Zero-Energy Home,” and “Sustainable Design as a Way of Thinking.”

The BAC is also collaborating with the engineering school at nearby Tufts University to send “Team Boston” to the fourth Solar Decathlon in the fall of 2009. The BAC’s Director of Sustainable Design, Lance Fletcher, AIA, explains: “Architects and engineers tend to be trained separately, but a key ingredient of anything that purports to be sustainable design is integrated design. It’s great that these students have been working together from the outset.”

Sustainable Design/Build

The Solar Decathlon is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy to promote the benefits of energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other green building technologies. Participating schools send student teams to Washington, D.C. to reassemble houses they have designed and built over the previous year. The houses are graded on performance in 10 areas, and the hands-on learning is reportedly a “peak experience” in a student’s education. Nevertheless, the event has its critics. Construction and transportation are expensive; there is more emphasis on photovoltaics than passive design; and the mild October days in Washington do not test the extremes of whichever climate the team hails from.

Former decathlon faculty sponsor John Quale, of the University of Virginia, recalls: “We spent $350,000-400,000 on a 750-square-foot house. It was an amazing experience, but it felt wrong to be putting so much effort into something...

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This article appeared in the September 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine

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