KBB Collective | The Designers' Corner

Sep 21 2011

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The University as the True Hub of Green Innovation?

Stanford University has long held a tradition of innovation. The legendary tech startups, such as Yahoo and Google, that were founded by Stanford students in its hallowed halls is now the stuff of legend in SIlicon Valley. (In fact, Sun Microsystems got its original name as an acronym for Stanford University Network.) Billions of dollars have literally walked off campus, yet this atmosphere of innovation continues today. Other universities share in this tradition. At MIT, for example, alumni have founded 25,800 companies, which generate revenues of about $1.9 trillion a year.

While you could argue that if Stanford had an agreement that gave them even one-tenth of one percent of anything created by its students—it would have an endless endowment worth billions. But perhaps this would scare off the future tech billionaires from ever matriculating in the first place. Instead, what if a university could utilize its students as an in-house R&D (research and development) laboratory? Students would still be free to profit from their inventions, but the institution could benefit from the ideas in some way.

At a symposium for The Earth Institute at Columbia University, I met Sam Harrington, marketing director for Ecovative Design. It turns out that a similar innovation is currently happening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York. Instead of tech companies, it’s developing a new wave of innovative materials. Ecovative was started by RPI students who developed an innovative foam material derived from mycelium (a.k.a. mushroom fungi) called EcoCradle. In its current state, EcoCradle is a surprisingly affordable and effective alternative to oil-based Styrofoam. This “mushroom foam” could have thousands of potential uses.

Sam and I discussed the possibilities of eventually utilizing the foam as a natural, non-toxic and biodegradable alternative for building insulation. It could replace traditional, formaldehyde-based fiberglass. Imagine improving the indoor air and eliminating a known carcinogen from our buildings. Such bio-based materials will (eventually) radically improve the health and impact of our buildings. The challenge for Sam and small companies like his is finding real-world projects in which to test their creations.

Another type of innovation is happening at the Engineering department of Arizona State University (ASU) through a program called EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service). Begun in 1995, the EPICS program takes engineering students into real communities to design and build solutions.

Led by Richard Filley, EPICS has mentored hundreds of students over the past 16 years to develop sustainable projects in over a dozen countries. EPICS reminds me of a student version of Architecture for Humanity, one of my favorite nonprofits, which provides design services to people in need around the world. In its 12-year history, AfH has constructed hundreds of projects in 25 countries, from Haiti to New Orleans. Such models of community design are helping to redefine the modern architectural practice.

Now imagine a hybrid of all of these ideas: students applying an innovative approach to developing new materials to tackle our biggest sustainability challenges and applying them to real projects.

Engineering students develop new insulation or finish materials that Architecture students design into a real on-campus project. Business students crunch the pro forma financials to test out new types of financing for sustainable buildings. Policy students could explore new avenues in Public/Private partnerships for the projects. Construction Management students could assist with the construction, after which marketing students could conduct post-occupancy analysis of the finished project. Not only would the students earn a beautiful image for their portfolios and get to work in a truly interdisciplinary environment, but invaluable practical experience as well.

All of this was swimming around my head when I met with Doug Garofolo recently. Doug is part of the Facilities and Real Estate Services group at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn currently has several projects under development, from a new nanotechnology center designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architects to a new Law Building by KVA Architects. At any time, a couple of dozen other, small improvement projects are also underway, many done without the need of a permit. To me, all of these projects could serve as a testing and proving ground for the students. Who else but the University could absorb minor added risk and write it off as college credit? Students could take a class in this type of independent study, helping to offset any delays to the project spent on stopping to teach the students.

Virtually every large university has a department like Doug’s at Penn. They act as the liaison between the University and their architect (or as the architect themselves for smaller projects.) This idea would be a formalized internship. As it turns out, a University may be the only place left for students to get such experience.

Traditionally, a University is a great neighbor. It creates jobs, spurs development and attracts talent and a young workforce. It is invaluable to a city and should be part of any long-term redevelopment plans a city hopes to achieve. A building developed by (and for) a University is much better than anything even the greenest developer could create. Think about it: Universities are long-term tenants, have a great interest in the energy performance of their buildings, understand the value of design to attract students and maintain their facilities to last for generations. In addition, the modern-day University is the last group that is still as concerned with the exterior spaces around their buildings as they are in the buildings themselves.

Universities are the only clients in the development industry that still create anything resembling a “piazza” (public plaza) or address true walkability and livability around their projects. Traditional developers do the bare minimum to meet code and minimize costs. A University understands the long-term benefits of a well-designed campus.

So perhaps the University of the 21st Century can continue the tradition of innovation through bold. New projects that connect their greatest asset, their students, to the realities they address each day.

Eric Corey Freed

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 at 6:00 AM and is filed under Green. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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