Editorial: Learning for Life

June 23, 2009

I was somewhat surprised and disappointed to discover the results of a personal environmental footprint survey I recently took online after reading this issue’s EnvironDesign Notebook article (see How Many Planets do You Require?). In it, Keri Luly, stewardship coordinator for Allsteel, discusses ecological footprints—an eye-opening, attention-grabbing measuring stick of our lifestyle impacts on the planet—that can give us a clearer picture of how many planets we need to survive based on what and how much of our natural resources we personally consume.

I am environmentally conscious, and, much like Luly, I recycle as much as I can, buy locally-produced food (or cultivate a garden), use energy-efficient appliances, etc. However, also like her, my job requires frequent air travel that significantly increases my carbon footprint, and we both require nearly five planets to sustain life based on our current scores. (To calculate your own carbon footprint, go to www.footprintnetwork.org.) It is definitely somewhat disheartening to realize given our awareness of environmental issues, but there are steps we can take to reduce those scores, and the learning process was actually as interesting as it was enlightening.

On a more encouraging note, it seems every day we receive more projects here at Interiors & Sources that are employing sustainable design principles—and not just for new construction, but in renovation projects of historic buildings, such as the Bancroft Library at UC Berkely, the subject of this month’s cover story (see Good Vibrations). While the design teams at Ratcliff and Noll & Tam renovated the facility to the equivalent of LEED® certification by taking steps such as specifying low-VOC paints and sealants, high recycled content for furnishings, and highly renewable products like cork flooring and FSC wood products, among many others, “the greenest element of the project was reusing an old historic building and repurposing it for the 21st century,” explains Bill Blessing, associate principal at Ratcliff and the firm’s lead architect on the project.

Indeed, scores of current and future students will be able to benefit from having access to Bancroft’s scholarly treasures, which include three major research collections—the Mark Twain Papers, the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) and the Center for Tebtunis Papryi—in addition to more than 600,000 volumes, 60 million manuscripts, millions of photographs, and numerous maps, paintings and diaries. And thanks to a design with an eye toward sustainability, students will be able to learn in an environment that respects their physical and mental well-being, and a historic building will be allowed to grow old gracefully.

Speaking of learning environments, I was also amused by something I read in this issue’s NCIDQ Forum article (see Designing Learning Environments for (Gasp!) Designers), in which Patty Blaser ponders how some of us ever learned much of anything in the classrooms of the past several decades. “Those of us schooled in the ’60s and ’70s, or even the ’80s and ’90s, may wonder how we survived the asbestos-ridden, poorly ventilated and cramped classrooms of our youth,” writes Blaser. (And I can certainly relate!) “Would we be smarter today if we were taught in the transformative learning environments now found throughout the country? What is the correlation between school design (not just school environment) and intelligence quotient?”

Blaser goes on to suggest that the design of classrooms, not just for K-12 or university students, but also for interior design programs, should encourage collaboration among disciplines—especially between interior design and architecture. “Now that I have practiced interior design for 11 years, I realize how beneficial a collaborative learning environment—with architecture students and interior design students spending time side-by-side in a studio—could have been.”

Perhaps her questions about how much more intelligent we might be based on the design of our classrooms are difficult to answer, but one thing is certain: Evidence-based design in the education field is gaining popularity, and for good reason. As authors D. Kirk Hamilton, FAIA, and David Watkins, FAIA, point out in their book, Evidence-Based Design for Multiple Building Types, “an evidence-based education project is better suited to achieve the outcomes set forth in the conceptual phases of design; and ultimately, with client satisfaction comes repeat commissions.” In this economic climate, who needs a more compelling incentive than that?

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