Lewis Center Re-Visited

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Read Karen Schaefer's report on the opening of the Lewis Center here.

Karen Schaefer: The Lewis Environmental Studies Center at Oberlin College is not your average college building. The curved roof holds a massive array of solar panels that soak up the sun's energy and convert it to electricity for heat and light. Instead of sending wastewater to the local sewage plant, the building has its own on-site treatment facility that uses biological components - called a "living machine" - for final cleansing. Outside, a small wetland recreates the natural ecosystem on which Oberlin was built. Even the building's materials were made from sustainable resources designed to have little or no impact on the environment or human health. None of it is cutting-edge technology. Nonetheless, the Lewis Center does integrate multiple ecological-design concepts, making it one of just a handful of so-called high-performance buildings now beginning to dot the American landscape. In addition, it's a building that was designed to evolve as new technologies came along. It's no wonder Professor David Orr, the building's originator, claimed bragging rights even before the Center opened.

David Orr: This is a building that purifies its own wastewater, powers itself by sunlight, has eliminated toxic chemicals and compounds...

KS: But one man takes issue with the high-performance claims the building's creators have made. John Scofield is also an Oberlin professor. He teaches in the physics department and focuses his research on solar energy. Scofield says even before the Center was built, it was clear the building's basic design was flawed.

John Scofield: The architect has said on several occasions that the building is designed to generate more energy than it uses and I don't believe that's correct.

KS: Scofield's primary critique is of the building's energy systems, particularly those devoted to heating and cooling. He says there's a real disconnect between what the designers claim the building can accomplish and the way it's actually performing.

JS: Well, I think first of all, that the building springs out of some wonderful ideas and I very much support the design intent for the building. No, my concern has been, I think, false hopes. The promises for the building and the way that it was sold were I think not really in line with the reality of the building for a long time.

John Petersen: I think one thing you have to consider is the difference between a long-term goal and short-term performance. I mean, I think where we are right now is in a good spot right now. I think we can take a lot of pride in how the building is performing right now. This last year, for instance, we exported a fair amount of energy onto the grid. We also imported a lot of energy onto the grid, but on balance, we produced 53% of the energy that was consumed in the building.

KS: John Petersen is a professor in the environmental studies program. He oversees the Center's day-to-day functions. Petersen admits there were some design flaws in the Lewis Center's heating system when it was first put on line. The college has just replaced a high-energy consumption electric boiler with a more energy-efficient heat pump, which is the building's primary source of heat. Last year, slightly more than half the building's energy consumption went to heating during what proved to be a relatively mild winter. Even though the net energy use was 37% better than other Oberlin campus buildings, the college has called on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for help in improving the system. Paul Torsellini is a senior engineer with the Lab's High-Performance Building Group in Golden, Colorado. He says, considering it's a building designed to push the outside of the envelope, the Lewis Center is performing well.

Paul Torsellini: There are certainly issues with that building, as well as any other building that we build today. You know, one of the things with building engineering, which is, you know, a little different than, say, building a car. You build a car and you build lots of them. As opposed to buildings where, every time you build a building, it's basically a custom application.

KS: The High-Performance Group team is expert in innovative building design. Torsellini says over the next few months, he'll be evaluating exactly how well the energy components of the Lewis Center perform, monitoring both the energy that's being created and the energy that's being used by the building's different systems. Along with Torsellini, critic John Scofield believes the building can eventually make good on its promise to produce more energy than it uses.

JS: There's a great case now for net energy exporters called the space station. So if cost is no object, it's not a problem making a net energy exporter.

KS: But John Petersen of the Environmental Studies program wishes Scofield's critique would take into account the total ecological-design intent of the Lewis Center. He says other systems are functioning above and beyond original expectations.

JP: It's one of the problem with focusing exclusively on energy is that you lose the whole context for this building. I mean, this building was designed with many objectives.

KS: That design includes involving students in running the Living Machine, the building's complex, but innovative wastewater treatment system. Students are also pulled into projects like a demonstration organic farming plot outside the building. Torsellini says it all comes down to how you measure success.

PT: You know, somewhere on the order of 40%, 50% of the energy comes off the roof of that building. What other building in Oberlin or in the state of Ohio even comes close to thinking about that?

JP: I think the Lewis Center will be successful if the messages that we're trying to teach here reach a much broader community than just Oberlin students.

KS: All three men agree that more hard data is needed to calculate the Lewis Center's overall performance. Oberlin College already monitors the building's various energy systems and posts the data on its website. The National Renewable Energy Lab will soon be reporting its results as well. Everyone is looking forward to a scientific peer review process that should help clarify the building's performance achievements. But even if it's not exactly perfect, both supporters and critics of the Lewis Environmental Studies Center hope the building will prove to be a good investment in scientific and educational research. In Oberlin, Karen Schaefer, 90.3, WCPN News.

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