David Orr is counsellor to the president of Oberlin College and Steven A. Minter fellow at the Cleveland Foundation. He headed the effort to design, fund and build the Adam Joseph Lewis Center, which was named by an American Institute of Architects (AIA) panel in 2010 as “the most important Green building of the past 30 years”, and as “one of 30 milestone buildings of the 20th century” by the US Department of Energy. Currently he is a trustee of the Bioneers, Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, and the WorldWatch Institute. He has been awarded eight honourary degrees and a dozen other awards including a Lyndhurst Prize, a National Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation, leadership awards from the US Green Building Council (2014) and from Second Nature (2012). He is founder and chair of the board of the Oberlin project and a founding editor of the journal Solutions. US correspondent Jalel Sager caught up with him in the US this past July.
JS: Maybe if we can start by just talking a little bit about the Oberlin Project, if you wouldn’t mind running it down and giving some of its main points.
DO: Well, let me go back one step further. The Lewis Center, which we did almost 20 years ago now—you take a building, 14,200 square feet, and make it Platinum before the US Green Building Council had a rating system; make it entirely solar-powered, with zero discharge, and eliminate toxic materials; make it clean, Green and beautiful. I think that we succeeded in that beyond anything we had expected. Fifteen years after it opened, it is, I think, still the only entire solar-powered building on a US college campus—the Living Machine zero-discharge component has worked beautifully and so forth. What that building did more than anything else was: firstly, it gave us a model of ecological design done to more or less state-of-the-art in the mid-1990s; and secondly, it was proof of concept that even in a state where sunshine is still kind of a theory, that you could power a building substantially by sunshine. The building generates a dependable energy surplus, 35 to 45 percent per year. We’re about to begin an upgrade of the building and I think we can probably bump that to 50 to 60 percent.
JS: It seems like you’re pushing against a lot of large forces here, especially when you talk about rebooting the cultural matrix—things that can replace some of the materialism that drives our economy and society.
DO: Maybe half a million students go to 25 different colleges and universities throughout the region. That’s a huge asset. They go to institutions that have a moral responsibility for their future. Imagine a kid on graduation day getting his diploma in one hand and being told, “We ran this institution in ways that compromised your future. Be sure to send us your first alumni check in a month.” So use that anchor institution. We can do that, to build a constituency, because I think the message is getting out that we’re in deep trouble, so we’ve got to rebuild the economy.
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