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Adam Joseph Lewis Center

Conventional architecture can make pollution unavoidable. The building materials we use can rely upon environmentally harmful practices. The carpeting we install will wear out and end up in landfills. The paints we use contain toxins that can contribute to “sick building syndrome”. Is there a way to design our buildings so that they are not only good for our health but good for the health of our planet? There is, through intensive use of “green design” principles.

The Adam Joseph Lewis Center of Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH) provides an example of such design. The Center, which opened in 2000, was designed to have minimal impact on the environment, provide maximum comfort for its users, and offer a space within which research on green building principles might be conducted. As a result, the Lewis Center is itself a subject for research.

How does the building incorporate aspects of green design? The building contains recycled steel frames and its acoustical panels are constructed of agricultural straw wastes. The paints in the building are non-toxic and the maple and Douglas fir used for doors and moldings come from managed forests. The Lewis Center also includes materials that can be swapped for new ones as they become old and worn; for example, the photovoltaic cells on the Center’s roof will be returned to the manufacturer (for recycling) in exchange for new cells.

The Lewis Center was intended to have minimal impact on the environment. The building recycles its wastewater in a self-contained, natural wetland system known as the “Living Machine”; within this system microorganisms and plants purify water that can be pumped back through the building’s toilets. The building also generates some of its own power using photovoltaic cells on the roof; ultimately the Center aims to produce more energy than it needs and become a net exporter of electricity. The Center has many windows and a large glass atrium; these maximize natural light and fresh air and allow for passive solar heating.

How does the building act as a subject for research? The building and surrounding landscape act as a “living laboratory” and are equipped with 144 environmental sensors. These collect, process, and store data on variables such as soil moisture, energy production and consumption, and chemical processes within the Living Machine. Students and faculty measure the building’s performance and determine ways to improve it. In addition, the Center welcomes architects, planners, students, grade-schoolers, and other visitors who are interested in green design.

As expected, the Lewis Center’s performance over the first few years was mixed. The building consumed more energy than expected due to an electric boiler (intended as a backup heat source) becoming the Center’s primary heat source. This boiler has been replaced with a more efficient heat pump connected to geothermal wells outside the building. Better management of the building and innovations such as adding heat timers to rooms that are not continually in use have helped increase the Center’s efficiency.


Contact Group: Adam Joseph Lewis Center

Address: 122 Elm Street
Oberlin College
Oberlin, OH 44074

Phone: 440-775-8747

Fax: 440-775-8946

Web site: http://www.oberlin.edu/envs/ajlc/Default.html