Sustainable Designs

Pratt Institute pursues a two-pronged approach to greening its campus and curriculum, hoping to produce graduates who design with the environment in mind.
December 16, 2008

In designing two green dorm rooms, interior and industrial design students will be asking, in one case, “what we can do right now” -- selecting less toxic paints, for instance. In the second, says Debera Johnson, the academic director of sustainability at Pratt Institute, we’re “going to really ask them to innovate.”

“Living sustainably in an urban environment, that’s an area that we really want to expand on. Pratt is an art, design and architecture school and what we do is create people’s lifestyle. The building you live in, the TV that you watch, the cell phone you carry, your entertainment in terms of computer games, that kind of thing -- fashion, what you wear. So what we want to do, what the Center for Sustainable Design Studies is about, is envisioning a sustainable future, a sustainable lifestyle,” says Johnson, of the new Pratt center, a "hub" for the various sustainable activities at Pratt.

As a design school in New York City, Pratt occupies an unusual niche and has taken an unusual approach to greening its campus and curriculum, appointing dual directors for sustainability, one on the academic and one on the administrative/facilities side. Pratt participates in several pledges to cut carbon emissions, including the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s 2030 Challenge. It is constructing an academic building with the goal of achieving Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification.

Pratt's parallel emphasis on coordinating curricular initiatives stands out. A recent National Wildlife Federation report found that fewer campuses are incorporating sustainability into their curriculums now than in 2001, and that academics generally "lag behind" the operations side on sustainability matters.

Thomas F. Schutte, Pratt's president, explains the institute's approach: "From the standpoint of hearing what many colleges that are involved with this are doing at a [Presidents Climate Commitment] conference that I attended in Washington, it felt to me like they were doing good things, particularly in the area of plant operations, saving energy costs by turning lights off and getting green products for gardening and landscaping, cutting fuel bills and so forth. And those all seemed to be important. But something to me was lacking and that was the academic side. And except for schools of engineering, maybe, and departments and schools of science, particularly in large universities, I didn’t sense much was going on educationally," Schutte says.

"We are really lacing and threading sustainability through our entire curriculum, through all of our faculty, through all of our interactions and communication with students."

Pratt's "living laboratory" approach means of course that facilities and curricular matters sometimes overlap -- the green dorm room project being just one example. In her role as academic director of sustainability, which she assumed in September 2007, Johnson focuses primarily on two Cs: curriculum and collaboration. ("I love collaboration; that's my thing," she says.)

A Pratt alumna and former chair of the industrial design department, Johnson has focused her efforts largely on faculty development. Appropriately, sustainability at Pratt has its (grass)roots in faculty interest, and a small group of professors who called themselves Sustainable Pratt got together for monthly lunches, “mostly because we wanted company,” Johnson recalls. The Sustainable Pratt group has since grown, and a process of institutionalization has begun.

Pratt has depended in large part so far on outside funding. Shortly after Johnson took the job, Pratt received a $474,974 Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education grant. Faculty stipends derived from the grant, largely in the $2,000 to $4,000 range, have been used to support a number of curricular and course-specific initiatives. These include a class on a “Net-Zero Carbon District,” which considers sustainability on a systemic level in Central Brooklyn. “The paradigm shift is that most of our world and most of our cities are built already. The challenge is no longer to re-imagine things on a blank slate, but to actually think about transforming places, to actually look at the city as a set of shared resources, look at streets as opportunities for becoming something else,” explains Meta Brunzema, an adjunct assistant professor and coordinator of the graduate Urban Design program.

Brunzema co-teaches the two-semester Net-Zero class, in which, for example, one student project entails re-imagining an urban supermarket, seeing the low, flat roofs as sites for hydroponic agriculture. “You could have a real booming business on top of the supermarket roof,” Brunzema says.

Mike Womack, a visiting instructor and fine arts tech at Pratt, received a stipend to develop a practical primer on sustainable painting techniques. “When we’re dealing with something like the tradition of oil painting, it’s really hard to start substituting in other materials because to do so is really to do something else altogether. If you’re teaching oil painting and you use alternative materials, you’re not teaching oil painting,” Womack explains. “Let’s teach students how to properly clean their brush so they’re wasting a lot less solvent, they’re wasting a lot less paint, not creating as many soiled rags. These are things that teachers will touch on in a class, but they’re not a priority.”

Among the other funded projects, the architecture department plans to conduct an audit of sustainability in its undergraduate curriculum. “There’s a really good energy at the institute, recognizing the importance of [sustainability] and supporting all the schools and the departments. It’s working internally in the departments; it’s also working from the top down," says Evan Douglis, the chair of the undergraduate department in the School of Architecture.

"I’d be the first one to admit there’s still a lot to be done; I have no doubt. I think the most important thing is there are tangible examples of these issues being confronted and worked with, on the part of faculty and students. And there’s also a mechanism whereby the awareness of this is being raised," Douglis continues.

"I would say the number of people who are interested, the number of activities, whether they’re at the curriculum end or the facilities end, has multiplied,” adds Eva Hanhardt, an adjunct assistant professor and coordinator of the Environmental Systems Management master's program.

At the same time, she says, “Some of these things are not things that happen overnight.”


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