Brian Dunbar: A Green Teacher

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Brian Dumbar, a U.S. Green Building Council LEED Accredited Professional, is director of the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University and a professor in the Construction Management Program, which offers a graduate emphasis and coursework in sustainable building.

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Teachers will tell you the best rewards come when they watch a student suddenly catch onto the joys of learning. I am a fortunate teacher. During the past ten years, I’ve witnessed a growing number of young individuals embrace learning about green design and construction.

My teaching and research focuses on healthy, energy effective, sustainable building as an integral part of design and construction. This focus attracts highly motivated students from a variety of backgrounds, united by a genuine desire to bring earth-minded problem solving to building projects. A twenty-year-old construction management student recently said that in green building he has “found a way to be truly ‘constructive’ rather than destructive.” He and many other students hope to learn how to repair and restore nature while they build. Not long ago, this would have been viewed as too idealistic. However, today’s students derive inspiration from successful examples and case studies accessible on the Internet, from organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Institute and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and from publications such as Natural Home.

Grabbing onto green building

Whether I’m lecturing to freshmen, graduate students, or professional groups, there are invariably individuals who make a point to tell me they’ve pledged their careers to working on sustainable built environments. These aren’t idle promises. Once a student internalizes the significance of our increasingly unhealthy planet, climate change, species extinction, and other well-established side effects of industry and individual waste, they grab onto the notion of green building and refuse to let go.

One highlight of my work is the opportunity to teach Sustainable Building each May at Maho Bay Camps, an eco-resort on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The experience becomes both a benchmark and a springboard for the students. “It has really impacted the way I think about everything, and that’s no exaggeration,” says Heather Storer, a 2003 participant. “I wish everyone could experience the same sort of epiphany that Maho inspires.”

During the course, the interdisciplinary group of students and professionals in architecture, engineering, landscape architecture, interior design, and construction-management learn–from each other, their instructors, and their surroundings–the importance of sustaining the natural environment. The importance of interdisciplinary collaboration to arrive at broader, more successful solutions is an underlying theme.

For two weeks in the tropics, participants live simply in tent cottages, use solar-heated water, and depend on their feet for transportation. “Learning to live without traditional amenities and being immersed in a beautiful environment made for an unforgettable experience,” says Jay Jeffries, an environmental engineer. “Being exposed to a variety of educational and professional backgrounds revitalized my desire to help rehabilitate a world desperate for change.” While it’s relatively easy to forego some day-to-day necessities while living in paradise, the participants say one thought lingers–that we can and must strive to treat the rest of the world as if it too were paradise.

The need for green building curricula

Sustainable building topics must be integrated into design, engineering, and construction courses, yet most formal education offers little exposure to green building. Metropolis magazine conducted a survey in 2003 to determine to what degree colleges are working sustainability into their design curricula. Of the 371 department heads and faculty of North American universities who responded, more than 90 percent agreed that sustainability is relevant to their curriculum. However, only 25 percent of the programs have a designated faculty adviser on sustainable design, and merely 14 percent of the schools are developing programs to educate their teachers about it. “When it comes to the integration of sustainability into education, the accounts are less than encouraging,” states Susan Szenasy, Metropolis editor-in-chief.

“The education process has failed to join intellect with affection, which is to say a failure to bond mind and nature,” writes David Orr, Oberlin College environmental science professor, in his book Earth in Mind (Island Press, 1994). “If one listens carefully, it may be possible to hear the creation groan each year in May, when another batch of smart, degree-holding, ecologically illiterate Homo sapiens are launched into the biosphere.”

Orr believes that those who do not understand our plight intellectually are not moved to do much about it. Tony Cortese, president of Second Nature, a group dedicated to integrating sustainability into higher education, agrees. “Our education systems need to connect head, heart, and hand,” he says.

Emerging hope

Many smaller programs do offer accessible, hands-on information and skill building. I encourage students to participate in workshops and to work directly with green building professionals. Further, many professional associations share green building information and knowledge. I’ve found two to be particularly helpful: Emerging Green Builders, a program of the USGBC, and the Young Constructors and Environmental Forums, sponsored by the Association of General Contractors (AGC). Both groups provide support, information, and educational tools to those new to the field.

If we care to sustain the earth for future generations, we must teach our children the importance of global environmental issues. From the beginning, nature should be perceived as teacher, guide, and a source of solutions. David Suzuki, coauthor of The Sacred Balance (Greystone Publishing, 2003), offers excellent advice: “Go out into nature–doing so will rekindle that sense of natural wonder and excitement we had as children discovering the world. The most important thing now is to spread the word as we all work toward reducing our effect on the planet and to develop ‘models’ illustrating how we can live sustainably.”

I find tremendous inspiration in the ever-growing number of eager, capable students who aspire to immerse themselves in the green building industry. As long as students of all ages continue to emerge with a passion for environmental stewardship and green building, we should all hold onto the hope that our built environments truly can contribute to a more sustainable world.

Brian Dumbar, a U.S. Green Building Council LEED Accredited Professional, is director of the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University and a professor in the Construction Management Program, which offers a graduate emphasis and coursework in sustainable building.

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