Around Tappan Square

The Makings of an Environmental Classroom
The Ecological Design Innovation Center maps out a land laboratory
by Yvonne Gay

“It looks like we’ve had a little water damage here,” says Brad Masi, rubbing his hand over the rough surface of the clay and straw bale walls of the five-month-old greenhouse. He discovers that the fibers in the tarp that had been protecting the walls have started to break down, letting in moisture.

The greenhouse is Masi’s second straw bale construction. The 1993 Oberlin graduate directs the Ecological Design Innovation Center (EDIC), a non-profit organization working with the College to promote sustainable land-use in Northeast Ohio. In 1999 he supervised construction of a straw bale tool shed at Oberlin’s Eastwood Elementary School.

Located a mile east of Oberlin, the experimental greenhouse sits on 70 acres of property acquired by the College in the mid-1980s. EDIC has leased the land since 1999, working to develop new approaches to food, shelter, energy, and habitat. A sign of things to come, the 20 x 96-foot hoop greenhouse combines natural building design and organic crop production.

The greenhouse held up well during Ohio’s hottest days last summer and withstood bouts of heavy, unpredictable rain showers in October. Supporting the structure are two straw bale walls assembled atop cinder blocks at both ends of the greenhouse. Sheets of clear plastic drape the entire building and can be rolled up at the base for ventilation.

The greenhouse was erected in part by participants in a natural home construction workshop. “The air quality in a naturally constructed home is much better than one with man-made materials, because the chemicals used in furniture, paint, carpet, and compressed woods emit gases that can make people sick,” says Sadhu Johnston ’98, founder of the Cleveland Green Building Coalition (GBC) and co-organizer of the workshop. (GBC is applying strategies from the College’s Environmental Studies Center to renovate a historic office building in downtown Cleveland.)

In drafting plans at EDIC’s site that are compatible with its ecology, faculty and student interns studied soil quality, elevation, hydrology, and biodiversity. EDIC’s board of directors, which includes Danforth Professor of Biology David Benzing and environmental studies director David Orr, mapped out uses for the property, which could include a restored century barn, wind energy generators, blueberry crops, small livestock, a hydrogen fuel cell, and an expansion of existing beekeeper hives.

The site’s proximity to the College makes it an ideal land laboratory for environmental studies and biology students. Already students in assistant professor John Petersen’s systems ecology courses are performing preliminary wetland studies.

“College students tend to get a lot of information without learning the processes,” explains Petersen ’88. “By getting them involved at the land-use site, we’re training better scientists. Not all experiments work. I want to use [the land] as an educational facility for my classroom.”

Yet another manifestation of EDIC’s vision was the decision to lease part of its land to the Oberlin Sustainable Agriculture Project (OSAP), a community-supported organic farming organization. OSAP will run an organic farm at the property, where the greenhouse is expected to add two months to its growing season.

“The idea is to show local farmers that they don’t have to sell their property to construction companies,” Benzing said. “We’re also trying to show growers how they can use their land without chemicals.”

“Ideally we would like to add a processing center for canning and preserving food,” Masi says. “Our current OSAP organic farm has a three-week period in late summer to chase markets for 10,000 pounds of tomatoes. Many of these tomatoes go to waste. If they could be turned into sauce or salsa, it would open up a new market and extend the seasonal availability of organic produce.”

The College has helped OSAP’s efforts; by June it will have purchased $5,000 of organic produce—a move made in large part from students’ demands to buy local.

First, however, EDIC must restore depleted topsoil at the site’s farmland. “Without fertile ground, none of our larger plans can take hold,” Masi says. “This project will demonstrate how we can restore the ecological potential of our landscape.”


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