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ISSUE 119 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/24/2006

Campus ecology flourishes, no one notices

By Aidan Currie
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 24, 2006

St. Olaf is nothing short of Hogwarts. The campus swims in secret tunnels, wandering ghosts and Gothic towers. Clearly, we are an enchanted folk. Clearly, we live amidst mystery.

But we are distinctly different from Hogwarts in that the answers to our mysteries are not locked away under some terrible curse. While most people have caught wind of the big turbine blades on the way or heard about the new composter, a much smaller number have successfully solved the mystery of the buildings we blow through each day.

As you probably know, we are uniquely among a number of other colleges and universities that have undertaken the task of understanding and improving our relationships to the local and global environment. In case you missed it, our theme for this academic year is sustainability.

With sustainability in mind, St. Olaf has accepted the challenge of architecture as pedagogy. In other words, building must be designed to express a message – an environmental message.

Unbeknownst to most students, St. Olaf has made an investment in slate floors that will last long and do not require chemical treatments for cleaning, slate roofing that has a 100-year life expectancy (opposed to 15 to 30-year life expectancies associated with wood or asphalt shingles) and carpet tiles that can easily be removed and recycled.

Intriguingly, these constitute only a small portion of the ecologically conscientious components of our central space. Planners selected other materials throughout the buildings in an effort to minimize the negative effects that arise from the transportation and over-harvesting of natural resources.

Furthermore, close attention has gone into the arrangement of space, maximizing the use of natural light and catering to the diurnal flow of people. Those big skylights in Crossroads radiate light to three floors of Buntrock Commons, saving electricity and heating costs. The trees in front of the Fireside windows conveniently loose their leaves to let in the sun during the winter and come back in the spring to keep us cool and shaded for the summer. For those who curiously endeavor to know our space rather than simply move through it, this list goes on and on.

These design choices clearly reflect an ecological understanding of our schools as mindful stewards of the environment. But these features are generally inconspicuous. Most students remain unaware of the lessons resonating in the buildings around them.

If they do happen to take notice, most do so in a sense of critiquing aesthetics or finding frustration in a space's shortcomings, like having to wait down the stairs to get into Stav Hall. Accepting that Oles keep their minds busy with class, community and the weekend, St. Olaf's goal of teaching through architectural design must overcome our propensity to both overlook and never look at all.

Essentially, this is an issue of accessibility. While information about the sustainability effort is readily available at St. Olaf's “Black, Gold and Green” website, that does not guarantee students will go looking for it there. When campus ecology students annotate the campus later this spring, curiosity will likely rise, but little signs that tell you what each part of a building is about can easily be ignored.

One solution is found in Oberlin's Adam Joseph Lewis Center. The building addresses issues of human waste management in a visual way. People literally see their excrement being treated in a simulated wetland ecosystem, and curiosity predictably ensues. Maybe St. Olaf needs simply to put its dumps out front.

The new Science Complex promises to show we are honing our skills for architectural pedagogy. Rumors of things like a green roof and improved measurements of energy flows will likely provide future generations of Oles easier access to the intentional design of our campus and allow them to further improve upon it.

For the rest of us, who won't be around long enough to enjoy the facility, we will just have to try delving into a bit of mystery and ask what the buildings around us have to say about how we live now, and how we ought to live in the future.

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