"A paradigm of sustainable design," declared Landscape Architecture. "One of the most revolutionary structures of this century," gushed the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The subject of this praise is the Adam J. Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. The internationally famous "green" architectural firm William McDonough & Partners designed the building, which was completed in January 2000.
The Lewis Center was intended to be a model of sustainable architecture for the future. Aside from using ecologically friendly construction materials such as bricks, recyclable carpets, and edible upholstery, the Lewis Center has a grid of geothermal wells to regulate heating and cooling, and an array of solar cells on its roof to generate electricity. Wastewater is cleansed by a "Living Machine," a micro wetland ecology located in the building's atrium. "The building is designed to produce more energy than it consumes," the August 2001 Metropolis magazine admiringly noted.
One problem: The building isn't quite delivering on its promises. Even the architects admit it is using twice as much energy as projected. But that figure doesn't tell the whole story, says Oberlin physics professor John Scofield.
The building, which uses only electric power, takes juice from the local coal-burning power utility to supplement its solar cells. Just a third of the energy produced by burning coal is turned into electricity. Taking that into account, it turns out that the source energy use of the building is about 125,000 BTUs per square foot, while conventional Oberlin classrooms use 130,000 BTUs per square foot. "From the perspective of the energy it uses and the pollution it's responsible for, the Lewis Center is essentially the same as buildings on campus which are 100 years old," says Scofield.
The Living Machine is indeed successfully filtering the building's water, but it too has problems. As the campus weekly The Oberlin Review delicately put it, "Students...seem to largely disregard [sic] that not enough waste is deposited in the building to accommodate the system." In other words, Oberlin students are not using the toilets enough to keep the Living Machine's plants alive. And no wonder, says Scofield: "The Living Machine was designed to process 2,000 gallons of sewage daily, corresponding to one toilet flush every minute, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year."
Architect McDonough claims these flaws occurred when contractors ignored his firm's designs and installed an inefficient heating and cooling system. Scofield, who has carefully examined the architectural and mechanical designs, replies that "McDonough was contractually in charge of the project from start to finish."
Oberlin is now spending several hundred thousand dollars more trying to fix these problems. Already the Lewis Center has cost more than $500 per square foot to build, twice the cost of a conventional academic building of similar size.