Visiting Scientists Evaluate A.J. Lewis Center
by Sam Shreiber

In recent weeks, one of Oberlin’s most prominent innovations, the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies and its sustainable Living Machine waste treatment system has been under examination from visiting scientists.
This month the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) came to campus to inspect the sustainable building and evaluate the progress and efficiency of various components.
In meetings with the environmental studies faculty, the NREL addressed the problem of “wasteful programming” in the main computer. According to Environmental Studies Professor John Petersen, the programming is inefficient in how it governs the energy of the building. One of the biggest inefficiencies is the air exchange function, which is both costly and largely unnecessary due to the very sanitary and environmentally safe components of the building.
Some of the other problems that have occurred in the facility involve the installation of experimental equipment that has been difficult to remove and replace. One example is the recently installed boiler. Most agree that the boiler was a mistake. It is currently scheduled to go offline, but the question is how to go about replacing it with a more efficient device or process. Several solutions have been suggested, including replacing the boiler with one of the facility’s several working heat pumps, or simply bypassing the boiler completely.
Despite these problems, Petersen remains optimistic. When asked about whether the benefits of the research would outweigh the costs that were involved in the facility’s developments Petersen responded with an Albert Einstein quote:
“‘If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it.”’
Another issue raised involves the building’s restrooms, which are the crucial ingredient to the Living Machine, the system that treats waste water and makes the facility a zero-discharge, or zero-waste building. Aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, as well as the flora that is easily visible from outside the building provides the building’s sustainable energy.
Students, however, seem to largely disregard that not enough waste is deposited in the building to accommodate the system. One suggested remedy that has been the construction of a pipeline between south campus dorms and the Center. The cost of such an undertaking has yet to be estimated and there are no immediate plans to begin construction.

Many individual projects have been conducted in the Center. Currently, there are three major undertakings that are near completion: landscaping around the facility, the development of a centralized monitoring system, and the preliminary planning for a second building .-a laboratory center that would be approximately one fourth the size of the current building
“The criticism has been unfair, frankly. Like any prototype, we have to work out the bugs,” David Orr, chair of the Environmental Studies department said. He has been instrumental in the building’s creation.
Audra Abt, who graduated from Oberlin last year and is a current employee of the Environmental Studies Department spoke of the importance of the facility.
“This is a host of innovative technologies that usually are not together in the same building. It’s not just to display, but to interact and learn from the collection of new technologies. Up to this point we have had major problems, but now we’re running more in line with our goals,” she said, estimating that clean energy will make up for the fossil fuel energy used [in construction] in 20 years.
On Wednesday night, a small group of students toured the Living Machine. The goal of this tour was not only to demonstrate the capabilities of the machine, but also to inform students of issues pertaining to the building in its entirety. The lack of use of the Center’s facilities was one problem brought to attention for all students to consider, regardless of academic discipline.
Conceived in 1984, three years after the birth of the Environmental Studies department, the sustainable building has taken over a decade to be realized. In 1995 the facility was christened as a prototype platform with which to experiment and develop new environmentally sound and economically feasible technologies.
The Environmental Studies Facility was originally designed to be a continually developing system that would break new ground for other similar facilities around the country and perhaps even the world.
“Our goal was that the building would be upgraded as technology improved,” David Orr said. “We assumed in the beginning that for the building to have a chance to either break even or give back surplus it would take ten years or two or three generations. We are ahead of schedule.”

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