“Reflections” is a new column featuring thoughts and commentary by former HEALTHCARE DESIGN Editor-in-Chief Richard L. Peck.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Design on the Edge: The Making of a High-Performance Building by David W. Orr (The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts). Published three years ago, it details the mid-1990s planning and construction of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center, housing the Environmental Studies program at Ohio's Oberlin College. But it goes much deeper than that, and justifies a revisit to a decade-old project. Orr, who is Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin, delves into the philosophical, political, and technical challenges of completing a sustainable building-and even though that building is an academic center, not a healthcare facility, this does nothing to lessen the value of Orr's message.

Just for starters, the Lewis Center almost didn't get off the ground. Orr had considerable difficulty getting belief and buy-in from the College administration and faculty. At one point the green-agnostic administration nearly knocked the project off its financial underpinnings, moving to table it before Orr was able to raise the necessary funding from independent sources. Many faculty were also skeptical that the building would work as advertised or be worth the money. Orr recounts the well-known sustainability guru William A. McDonough, AIA, following up a presentation on the building to faculty by noting the noncommittal response of his audience and quipping “do they always get that excited?” One faculty member, recalls Orr, spent two years attacking the project for being, in so many words, “fraudulent.”

Does any of this ring true for any of you sustainable healthcare project design sponsors out there?

Once the building's design was underway, Orr encountered a conflict between traditional environmentalists who wished to avoid reliance on high-tech elements such as photovoltaics, new materials, or even computers, versus those who saw creative engineering as part of the solution. The latter prevailed, but potentially energy-saving modifications of the air-handing and energy systems were value engineered out late in the process-only to be restored at considerable cost months later when it was determined that the closely monitored building was falling short of its conservation potential.

Other obstacles Orr's team encountered included inability to draw multidisciplinary faculty representation into the design process and lack of communication among designers and mechanical engineers.

All in all, Orr's is an instructive tale, well told. In the end, Oberlin ended up with a building now seen as one of the hallmarks of the sustainable building movement. Orr himself has since gone on to frying bigger fish, just recently publishing his latest book, Down to the Wire, addressing climate change. But the Adam Joseph Lewis Center saga leaves much for prospective green designers to chew on. I recommend it. HD

Healthcare Design 2009 December;9(12):56