Sustainability in the Curriculum at CCNY

I have joined the curriculum committee at CCNY, and have volunteered to do work on the “sustainability” curriculum. Part of my task is to review what other schools do. In reviewing the curricula for about 10 schools, it is apparent that not much difference exists between SSA and most other schools in terms of the overt curriculum. Most schools have some variation of 9-10 studios in the undergrad curriculum, 3-4 history theory courses, and usually a technology sequence of 2 structures classes, 2 materials and assemblies classes, and 2 environmental controls classes.

What becomes important lies below the surface. I contacted Alison Kwok, who is one of the most recognized green building educators, and her response was:

“Really depends on the mission of the program.
–are studios taught by ALL faculty or are studios taught by designers and are the technology people separated/included/integrated at all?
–how many tenure related faculty have technology backgrounds? (of 32 Oregon tenure related faculty , approx 1/3 are teaching ECS, structures, construction . . .)
-how many green electives are offered? (again that depends on how green is defined)
-what kind and how many galvanizing activities/programs on campus and in the department?

I guess those would be my criteria.  Critical mass is essential. Without that, change doesn’t happen, from the faculty and the student side.”

Kwok’s comments pretty much sum it up. Without the buy-in on the part of all faculty members who teach in the design studios, at least in the levels that the school determines that such teaching be the focus, this is a failed project.

So, how to achieve buy-in? The answer isn’t to bend all faculty to the will of the technological, but how to erect a scaffold for the curriculum that promotes the goals of teaching green building while at the same time allowing room for the individual design instructor to pursue her/his own agenda. A level of academic freedom is essential in a school of a creative discipline. Architecture is a hopelessly complicated discipline. Issues of form, structure, occupation, and urbanity are important pursuits. I doubt that any individual faculty member is a climate denier, or thinks that green building is a worthless pursuit. But people develop expertise in various areas, and it is counterproductive to ask that they potentially bag decades of research and teaching. These pursuits are still valid questions. So let us look at how we use our resources (i.e. faculty).

My own feelings are this. We need to rephrase the questions we ask. To quote Le Corbusier: “The airplane shows us that a problem well stated finds its solution. To wish to fly like a bird is to state the problem badly… to search for a means of suspension in the air and a means of propulsion, was to put the problem properly.” If we look at the current Sustainability Matrix, we see that the first semester first year is devoted to “Introduction to principles of form; basic craft.” The sustainability agenda is “introduction to sustainable design thinking, global warming, development projections; and history, theory, concepts, and philosophy of sustainability.” To be honest, I’m not even sure what this means. What if we changed the overall focus? Could we instead say “introduction to air, earth, light, and water?” The principles of form and basic craft could still be taught, but in service to a larger agenda. Consider light: perhaps a light pavilion, or perhaps scale-less. How to create interior and exterior space defined by ideas of light? Ask students to consider time in relation to sunlight. There are many approaches – texture, reflection, translucence, change. Other problems become dependent upon this. The goal isn’t necessarily a high performance building, but awareness, creative exploration.

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