Recently, I presented at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Conference in Spokane, Washington on the opportunity of regenerative design and the circular economy as it relates higher education projects and campuses. At the largest networking and educational event of its kind in North America, my session, titled “Defining the Finish Line: What the Circular Economy for Universities Should Look Like,” helped attendees understand how design principles extracted from the natural world can act as a guiding platform for colleges and universities to develop a circular economy on their campuses.
Sustainability as a concept is laudably a part of everyday discourse now. This prevalence, however, highlights the importance of non-complacency and continuing to think beyond. Sustainability is not an end unto itself, it is a mid-point on the spectrum of performance between degenerative and regenerative. We can do better, and it’s important to look to how our buildings can create a net-positive impact on the environment.
We needn’t look far. Processes occurring in the natural world provide an excellent toolbox. It is the job of architects and designers to translate these thoroughly time-tested concepts into the built environment. Principles outlined in Permaculture, a design practice developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia in the late 1970’s, do an excellent job of getting this conversation started. These concepts appear in many of our projects.
Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall, Washington College: Catch and Store Energy
Waste is not a pervasive issue in the natural environment – everything gets used as a resource somehow – nature excels at catching and storing energy to develop itself. With such abundant resources at hand, there is little reason that we can’t apply the same level of resourcefulness to the built environment. To create a circular economy, developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant is absolutely necessary.
Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall is designed to be a net-positive building, meaning it creates more energy than it consumes. Having this be a goal from the outset played a large role in the design. This brought together form, function, and performance beautifully. Rather than attempting to retroactively apply sustainable features late in the design process, extensive analysis at the beginning of the process to figure out the energy needs of the building helped to minimize its impact. By first analyzing energy requirements, then creating opportunities for energy conservation, efficient use of that energy, and optimizing the time of use management allowed for the design to minimize its energy use intensity. Not only did this help the net-positive goal, it also limited the disruption of the environment in the building footprint (originally, solar panels were needed on the landscape; the final design only required them on the roof).
Alfond Commons, Colby College: Use Edges and Value the Marginal
In nature, it is the point at which things meet where the most interesting and diverse interactions take place. These interactions often create the most productive elements in a system, as is observable in estuaries where salt water meets fresh water and mangrove trees thrive in conditions that break expectations for what trees need.
This holds true when exploring the ways in which institutions and their host communities interact. We’ve talked about the successes of Alfond Commons a number of times here, and we remain impressed by the positive results created by embracing the edges of campus with housing. Many institutions and communities struggle with how to interact with one another, but Alfond Commons demonstrates the eagerness of students and residents to interact and solve problems.
Hayden Library, Arizona State University: Creatively Use and Respond to Change
Change is inevitable. Nature excels at adaptation. When it comes to translating this process to the built environment, it is important not just to repurpose a space, but to focus on its historic, current, and future uses.
For this project, it was important to acknowledge the historic legacy of this building as an icon on campus for 50 years, recognize the changing function of a library on a modern university campus, as well as anticipate a similar degree of change for the future. Libraries as a limited function place, with a primary focus on books is no longer true to the way students learn and gather information. Digital resources have largely overtaken that function. With the Hayden Library, the building remains a crucial learning resource, but with open, flexible spaces encouraging collaboration and interaction.
Kyle Ritchie, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP, is a Sustainable Design Coordinator working across all discipline groups at Ayers Saint Gross.