On Our Minds

Stewarding the Environment

Sustainability with a Capital S

Stewarding the Environment

I love a good mystery. So when a colleague returned from a trip to Central America and regaled me with the story of a lost Mayan civilization, the ruins of which had been recently rediscovered, I was transfixed. Mysteriously, this ancient farming civilization had thrived despite being located in an area without water sources. That’s right, no lakes, rivers, streams or creeks.

Sustainability was conceived not simply as a nice-to-have building feature subject to the vagaries of funding or an of-the-moment solution dependent on ever-shifting technology; it was essential to the survival of the civilization and inextricably linked the civilization to its place.

So what sustained the civilization? Its survival hinged on its ability to collect, control, and manage rainwater, which fell heavily for a portion of the year. The city’s patios, rooftops, and plazas were designed with a sophisticated system of slopes and channels to capture and direct rainwater to a series of underground cisterns, dug out of the limestone and waterproofed with a thick coat of plaster.

I loved it, not just for its sheer ingenuity, but because of the scope of the solution and its total integration into the built environment. Sustainability was conceived not simply as a nice-to-have building feature subject to the vagaries of funding or an of-the-moment solution dependent on ever-shifting technology; it was essential to the survival of the civilization and inextricably linked the civilization to its place.

I said to myself, “Now, that’s thinking like a planner!” That’s because at its heart, campus planning is about reflecting the direction of an institution into its physical setting, an effort which may or may not result in a facilities solution. And because place-sized ideas (big ideas integral to the place) are part and parcel of the planner’s mindset. This makes the big-picture thinking skills of the planner especially valuable, particularly when so many of today’s sustainability efforts focus on buildings, and more specifically on building systems, the very things that are in constant danger of being “value-engineered” out or rendered obsolete before even being constructed.

And lest you think Sustainability-with-a-capital-S only happens out of sheer necessity in pre-modern civilizations, I can assure you that’s not the case. In fact, we’ve worked with a number of contemporary institutions that view sustainability in just this way, as a strategic pursuit best writ large.

Take the College founded in 1379, one of the oldest, most storied institutions in Western history. A great many of its early buildings feature large stone halls spanned by huge oak beams, some as large as two feet square and forty-five feet long.  Since the College well knew that oak beams can, over time, become weakened by beetles (it has rebuilt its roofs at least twice over the centuries), it has maintained lands under the management of a college forester for over 500 years. This greatly increased the odds that it will have oak of sufficient size available, not just for building repair, but to sustain the institution’s health and character. To some, engaging in a long term forestry initiative might seem “off-brand” for an institution of higher learning, but to a campus planner it represents a sustainability effort worthy of explicit codification.

Or take the northeastern boarding school, founded in 1879, whose campus includes the more usual village-like academic precinct punctuated with LEED certified buildings along with an extensive protected forest, river access, and working farm. The latter areas support the School’s commitment to ecological integrity and sustainability by providing the foundation for its place-based education initiatives. Together, forest, river, and farm function as a work project, laboratory for a variety of environmental sciences, food source for the dining hall, as well as the setting for practical entrepreneurship, athletic and recreational activities both historic and contemporary, and community outreach. Intentional campus planning helps connect these natural and historical features unambiguously with the School’s contemporary programs and milieu.  

Or perhaps consider the southern day school, founded in 1947, which for many years enjoyed a rural location amidst rolling meadows and wetlands. In recent years significant residential and commercial development, including a regional shopping mall across the street, has redefined the area, sometimes bringing in uninvited visitors. Campus planning’s framework for future development includes strengthening the campus edges to provide a buffer and security for this formerly rural campus by regenerating the otherwise un-developable wetlands that run the length of the site’s frontage. The plan goes farther, using that land to manage campus-wide storm water run off, provide a series of living laboratories for the science program, and support a network of fitness trails integral to the school’s wellness initiatives.

These solutions reinforce the notion that great campuses are more than collections of buildings and landforms, but also tell a story about identity and values—sustainability efforts included. Successful planning’s big-picture, long term view will always develop a framework for change that can sustain the health and character of an institution in all its facets over time. Mystery solved.

About the Author(s)

Blanchard Group is a nationally recognized architectural firm. The singular focus of our practice is campus planning for independent educational institutions — helping our clients create rich, vital, and enduring places.

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