Cheerleading architecture students at OU.

Earlier this year I received an intriguing e-mail from Hans Butzer, an assistant professor of architecture and urban studies at the University of Oklahoma, inviting me to deliver the kick-off lecture for this fall’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of Bruce Goff’s birth. Known for his material and formal innovations in the building arts, a true heir to Frank Lloyd Wright with whom he studied, Goff designed buildings that dot the rolling landscape around Norman, home of the university where he was once dean of architecture. The invitation also asked me to lead a workshop with a selected number of students “focused on issues or themes of your choice.”

My talk centered on ethics, sustainability, and research. I worried—could I honor the ambitious theme of the series, “(re)Defining the Edge: Goff’s 100”?—until I found the answer on the school’s Web site. OU prides itself on its research faculty. This meant there would be a wealth of expertise in areas useful to architects, including a new course of study called Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Environment (IPE); the Institute for Energy & the Environment, which researches, among other things, ground pollutants and bioremediation. Other relevant areas of study include business, engineering, law, public health, and journalism.

I kept these resources in mind, and knew the students would discover others, when I asked them to “take a public building on campus off the utility grid.” I chose the visitor center which, as we found out later, was designed for natural ventilation but was sealed when central air came to the campus. I encouraged the class to research local and state laws (any green legislation on the books), natural systems above ground (wind, flora) and below ground (geothermal energy, water), building systems (fuel cells, photovoltaics, green roofs, living machines), and to use the LEED rating system as their baseline. The assignment was to propose a short-term and a long-term solution to make the building self-sufficient. When I made the assignment, I didn’t realize how timely it would be until the next day, when TV news reported blackouts in several areas nearby.

The students divided up the tasks and dispersed to do their research, which included visiting the site and talking to the workers there, as well as identifying and calling potentially helpful experts around campus. Next day we refined the research, and were joined by a planning student who pointed to some potential pitfalls that could derail our efforts. Would, for instance, the sewage department feel our proposal sets a negative precedent? He also called our attention to the Oklahoma Sustainability Network and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Each student proceeded to add a key piece of useful information to the group’s knowledge. There’s an abundance of wind in the region. In fact a local windmill manufacturer might be persuaded to lend his expertise and even help finance the project. Geothermal energy became a viable resource. A green roof or a living machine might be problematic because of the traditional architecture. And whenever the students found a point of resistance, Linda Klein, the professor in charge of the workshop, suggested the experts on campus who could help.

At the end of the day the students promised to draw up their proposals, find a journalism student to write a press release, and send their findings to the local media. I came away energized and confirmed in my belief that the design studio is a powerful tool to help us redefine the edge. Even if all this workshop did was to pull together a useful list of contacts for the students’ future work, we accomplished something. But I think we did much more than that—we touched on what ethical design can be.

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