Green Shoots: Learning in Action at the University Center

As the pieces for the University Center are put into place, students in a special ULEC course are already thinking about how the building can teach sustainable practices. Photo by The Durst Organization, 2012.

How can a building tell its own story?

That’s the question students in this semester’s University Lecture (ULEC) course Displaying Sustainable Buildings are attempting to answer. As the University Center rises on 14th Street, students in the course are already hard at work developing proposals for exhibitions and displays within the completed building to illustrate its pace-setting sustainability features in real time.

This is going to be one of New York’s greenest buildings,, says Gwen Kilvert, assistant director for Sustainability and Energy Management, who developed and leads the class with Parsons’ Cameron Tonkinwise. As it goes up, we’re looking to the students in our class to help illustrate how this building was built, how it operates, with the ultimate goal of influencing how resources will be used by the occupants.,

The building’s green features include a clean energy co-generation plant, water reclamation technology, and sustainably sourced materials. Central to these sustainability technologies are data-reporting systems that track the facility’s environmental impact.

The University Center will be one of the most data-available buildings in New York City,, says Tonkinwise. It will be able to measure all the different types of energy and water it uses, as well as air quality inside and out. With the ULEC course, we’re tapping into that stream of information and asking how it can be delivered back to the building’s users and make them more mindful of their use of resources.,

Students in the course have formed working groups to focus on topics including energy, water, and waste. Although they are still in the research phase, discussion has already begun about schematic designs for permanent exhibitions. And students and faculty agree that when it comes to influencing user behavior, data streams presented on flat screens won’t be enough.

The aesthetic component is really important,, says Lou Wright, a senior at Eugene Lang College studying Environmental Studies with a concentration in Sustainable Design. Wright says he draws inspiration from ambient, reactive design like lighting fixtures that highlight the fact that they’re LEDs and faucets that draw attention to the water that’s being used.,

Adds Tonkinwise, Without this being a numbers game, we’re looking to make our designs something that elicits an intuitive response, something that implicitly prompts people to conserve.,

To facilitate students’ work, Kilvert and Tonkinwise have enlisted an interdisciplinary team of visiting experts from architecture firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill, real estate developers the Durst Organization, Mayor Bloomberg’s Green Building NYC initiatives, and others. As the semester progresses, students will develop their final designs and present them for a professional critique.

But the critique is just the beginning. This is the first of two classes,, says Tonkinwise. This semester is conceptual, and the next, fall 2013, we’ll actually be building toward our designs.,

For updates on the progress of the class, check out its blog at tnsuniversitycenter.com/2012spring. And as always, for University Center news, visit the building’s website at newschool.edu/universitycenter.