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Sustainable design course brings disciplines together

Dartmouth students have sustainability on the brain these days, a fact made clear to Thayer School of Engineering Professors Benoit Cushman-Roisin and Peter Robbie. So they decided to offer a team-taught class on sustainable affordable housing design, with Karolina Kawiaka, architect and a senior lecturer in studio art, during the winter term.

"In listening over the last few years to environmental engineering students, I noticed that a significant number of them were keenly interested in sustainable architecture, or green buildings," says Cushman-Roisin. "Coincidentally I had a hallway conversation with Peter Robbie who told me that he and Karolina Kawiaka were entertaining similar ideas. We were coming to the same idea from opposite ends: I was thinking of extending my teaching on pollution prevention and industrial ecology to architecture, and they were thinking of extending courses on architecture into sustainability. We decided to join forces."

Juliana Lisi '05 Th'06 and Adam Slutsky '06
Juliana Lisi '05 Th'06 and Adam Slutsky '06 prepare for the final presentation of their design for an environmentally sustainable house. (Photo by Genevieve Haas)

The course, offered through Thayer, immediately attracted an overflow crowd of engineering and studio art students. Working in teams of three, they were asked to "design a private residence for a low-income family of four that must be affordable, attractive, connected to the landscape and benign to the environment," says Cushman-Roisin. Kawiaka says she believes the course struck a nerve with students because it provided "a way to bring together the new technology in terms of sustainable materials, efficient heating and cooling systems, and their interest in affordable housing, which is increasingly on the radar." She adds, "Students really have a desire to make the world a better place."

Sally Smith '05 Th'06, a student in the course, agrees. "We need to spend our efforts inventing technologies that imitate and nurture natural systems rather than destroy them," she says. "Sustainable design is really about looking at everything with a wider lens-product lifecycles from design to death, materials from source to consumption, and energy from fuel to atmosphere, water, soil, and beyond. It's our generation's turn to design technology that will reverse the harmful effects of the past while providing for the next generation and generations to come."

The faculty team loaded the syllabus with guest speakers who addressed various aspects of sustainable design and the need for affordable housing. Among the guest speakers were Malcolm Lewis Th'71, a national leader in energy efficient construction, and William McDonough '73, a world-renowned architect and leading proponent of sustainable design. Students were able to choose any site they wanted for their design. Some teams designed housing for sites in the Upper Valley, others looked farther afield in places like the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast or water-poor Colorado. Whatever site they chose, they were required to crunch the numbers relating to energy, water, and land use and incorporate the best technological solutions into the home's architecture, all while keeping in mind the short-term and long-term costs of building the house.

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the course so far is that several of the students' ideas may come to life. One student team worked with Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity to modify an existing house model, drastically improving the house's energy efficiency. Another worked with the Dartmouth Real Estate Office to design an affordable, sustainable house for a specific site on Grasse Road in Hanover. Currently, the College is looking at ways to use the resulting design.

As the concept of sustainability attracts more and more attention, classes like this joint offering by architecture and engineering faculty are only expected to grow in popularity. Kawiaka says she looks forward to team teaching the course again, and to exploring the deepening connection between form, sustainability, and public service.


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Last Updated: 12/17/08