U.Va. Group Fostering Communities that Embody Sustainability

Sept. 12, 2007 -- At U.Va., you have only to walk as far as the Lawn to see an example of a sustainable community — Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village. As in all sustainable design, the relationship of structures to the environment was an important consideration for Jefferson. He placed his suite of buildings at the end of a long ridge with an uninterrupted view from the Rotunda to the Ragged Mountains in the south. The classrooms and living quarters are in close proximity — and the Rotunda serves as a natural gathering place. This built environment encourages the exchange of ideas between faculty members and students — a process that is essential to its long-term viability. The Lawn also incorporates the cultural ideas of the time as well as enduring values of balance and proportion.  Almost 200 years after its creation, it still excites our imagination.

As School of Architecture dean Karen Van Lengen points out, “Sustainability, broadly defined, is not only based in the ecology of an area, but supports equity and embodies important cultural ideas.” As part of U.Va.’s Sustainable Communities Group, Van Lengen and her colleagues seek to create and support communities that extend the characteristics of the Academical Village for our time.

An example of this approach can be found in the field guide that professors Julie Bargmann and Bill Morrish produced for landscape design and ecological restoration along Watts Branch in the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C. Bargmann and Morrish saw an opportunity to re-center the neighborhood around the stream and to celebrate it in ways that address a variety of issues, from improving the management of storm runoff to revitalizing the neighborhood’s existing resources — its parks, its churches and its libraries.

Design as a way of promoting sustainable communities is also central to the concept of the new south addition to the School of Architecture’s Campbell Hall, which is currently under construction. Created by associate professor William Sherman, it features a series of interrelated indoor and outdoor rooms that promote energy efficiency and community. “Our goal is to celebrate the School of Architecture within the context of the Grounds while fostering institutional, communal and personal relationships,” he says.

The Sustainable Communities Group is seeking to proactively shape communities by focusing on three specific areas. It is developing cutting-edge building technologies and strategies to minimize the environmental impact of buildings and to cut their energy use in half by 2030. It is assisting communities in responding to climate change. And its is building viable prototypes based on public-private partnerships. 

Projects already underway at the University have set the stage for progress in each of these areas. For instance, ecoMOD, the research and design/build project founded by assistant professor John Quale, has produced three prototypes of an ecological, modular and affordable housing system that incorporates sustainable design strategies while providing comfort and marketability. The second of these, preHAB, was erected in post-Katrina Mississippi. ecoMOD is the first project ever to receive all three major architectural education awards, from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, the American Institute of Architects and the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

The success of this project and others — like the Learning Barge, a floating field station that incorporates research and sustainable design principles to promote environmental education on the Elizabeth River; and reCover, a fourth-year studio focusing on affordable, easily constructed and transported housing systems for use in disaster areas — highlights the strengths the University brings to bear in fostering sustainable communities. All three projects involve collaborations across the different programs in the School of Architecture and with faculty and students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

In addition, the projects bridge the gap between the natural environment and the urban setting. As professor Timothy Beatley says, “No agenda for sustainability will be successful without sustainable cities.” As he sees it, the unprecedented population movement to cities, though a great challenge, is also a source of opportunity. A dense fabric of development preserves the landscape, is inherently more efficient than sprawling suburbs, and promotes more rewarding social relationships. Beatley is a leader in probing what he calls the “metabolism of our cities,” considering issues like food supply as well as transportation, greenhouse gases and carbon emissions. 

Equally important, the University possesses expertise in the processes required to create sustainable design. Associate professor Maurice Cox, former city councilor and mayor of Charlottesville, asserts that design and political thought are indivisible. From his perspective, sustainable design can only be accomplished when it is accompanied by public education, an idea that meshes perfectly with the concept of Jefferson’s University.

Written by Charlie Feigenoff, a freelance writer in Charlottesville.