One of the world’s leading sustainability ﬁgures was on Drexel’s campus last month in the ﬁrst event hosted by Drexel Smart House in nearly a year. The presenter, David Orr, is a world-traveling, future-thinking, down-to-earth gentleman who in the 1980s saw the need for American universities to become centers for sustainable practices. His visit with Drexel Smart House allowed him to explore and engage with some of Drexel’s most progressive programs and students. The students he met are developing products to help make sustainability a tangible reality. Students who are informed about sustainable ideas will be more competitive in a future that requires sustainable solutions. Here’s why:
On the volcanic mountaintop of Mauna Loa, a Hawaiian Island, atmospheric carbon dioxide has been measured accurately for over 50 years. The graph of this data is called the Keeling Curve, and it is one of the starkest, most intimidating images in all of science. The graph is not awash in political discourse. It is not confusing or intended to be confusing. Rather, it is a clear and simple depiction that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing rapidly. This means many things to many people, but one thing is for certain: It means that humans are going to face tremendous change in the coming decades.
Orr said that change can be difficult. In the 1980s many institutions were not concerned about sustainable building practices. This was before LEED, before Passive House, and before the popularity and proﬁtability of sustainable products. Orr told us that while he’s now recognized as a leader of sustainability, his role wasn’t always so glamorous. Like the Drexel Smart House, his story began humbly. When he and his students sought to build one of the ﬁrst signiﬁcantly green buildings in the country on their school’s campus, they were met with very little support. In turn, Orr and his students independently funded and built what is now regarded by the Department of Energy as one of the 30 milestone buildings of the 20th century.
What does one do with a milestone building? For starters, one makes money from it. The building produces 40 percent more energy than it needs. The extra energy is either sold to the grid or used for other buildings on campus. The concepts nurtured and funded by Orr and his students were demonstrably successful. He proved that innovative, sustainable design has a place on college campuses. This story bodes well for the Drexel Smart House. Its living-learning laboratory in the Victorian home on the corner of 35th and Race streets will continue Orr’s mission of sustainable design. The Drexel Smart House will foster students’ innovative ideas and thereby contribute to new sustainable initiatives.
With the completion of his “substantially green” building, the college began to notice some of its own changes. For starters, high school students interested in the environment began visiting the school more often. Application rates are increasing because young students, the immensely perceptive among us, realize how important sustainability is to the future of our planet and our species. Over the course of years, the college has been able to charge more for tuition. The surrounding community feels the beneﬁt as more students bring more spending money. These secondary beneﬁts, Orr said, are the real game changers for making sustainability ubiquitous. If you ignore the secondary beneﬁts, the extra cost for sustainable construction is often overwhelming. Yet when these derivative beneﬁts are factored in, the decisions are so much easier to make.
One of the really neat things about a sustainable future is that it’s a future built around systems. When one component of the system improves, everything surrounding it improves — it’s contagious. The real question we must ask ourselves is, “Do I proactively change for the future, or do I spend the future changing as a response to it?” Drexel Smart House is taking the proactive approach. Orr was impressed with the student-developed ideas of solar-powered ventilation; living roofs; plumbing systems that ﬁlter, reuse and monitor water consumption; and carbon capture products.
Drexel Smart House is a collaborative student group devoted to designing a better future.
Joe Massott is a freshman materials science and engineering major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].