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USGBC New York Sponsors Discussion on Sustainable Design in Universities

On January 27, a sizable crowd packed a conference room at The New School for “The University as Green Crucible,” a panel discussion on sustainable design in higher education sponsored by USGBC New York. Speakers included moderator Vivian Loftness, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture; Joel Towers, Dean of Design at Parsons; Michelle Addington, a professor at Yale School of Architecture; Debera Johnson, Pratt Institute’s Academic Director of Sustainability; Anna Dyson, Director of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Architecture, Science & Ecology; and Kate Grossman, a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Business.

Highlights of the discussion included:

More research needed. Loftness discussed the need for increased research into sustainable design, lamenting the fact that because only 0.2 percent of federal research dollars go into studies concerning the built environment, universities currently have little incentive to focus on the sector.

Training for reuse. The panel suggested that design schools should shift their focus to retrofit and reuse rather than new construction, citing a statistic that architects currently influence less than ten percent of the built environment. Since most of the buildings society needs have already been constructed, the field should channel its energies into improving these buildings.

Systems, not objects. Towers identified two sides of sustainable design education: best practice and paradigm change. The former, which he called the “low-hanging fruit,” involves teaching designers greener ways to do the things they’ve always done, while the latter requires assessing the issues facing the design field as a whole and finding ways to allocate resources more intelligently. And, although both higher education and the private sector are starting to embrace best practice, universities, he claimed, are much better placed to deal with the paradigmatic side of things. “Building is very energy-intensive. Most clients don’t want to hear about it, so in some ways best practice doesn’t allow us to deal with those bigger-picture issues.” Towers also spoke about how the lackluster economy of the early 1990s led to a period of extraordinary architectural creativity, as designers who couldn’t find paying work were able to focus on formal and theoretical innovation. He suggested that the current downturn could provide a similar opportunity to advance design thinking, but called on designers to concentrate on systems rather than artifacts this time around.

But your kids are going to love it. Since Grossman founded the Green Business Club at Columbia last year, over 200 students have joined. The administration, however, has been slower to catch on to the trend, and the majority of sustainability-related initiatives at the business school remain student-driven. Grossman also reported that students’ efforts to convince trustees to adopt sustainable building practices for the university’s new business school have met with resistance.

Making the case for green. With LEED, the A/E/C industry has made a crucial first step in communicating differentiations of quality in building design to consumers: clients who want LEED are now willing to pay extra for things they didn’t know existed five years ago. However, the panel emphasized that highly stratified markets such as cars and computers, in which Volvo and PowerBook fans happily shell out significantly more for what they perceive as better quality, demonstrate that the industry could do far more to educate the public about the benefits of sustainable design.

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