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Design on the Edge: The Making of a High-Performance Building

by David Orr. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006. Hardcover, 296 pages, $27.95.

David Orr, Ph.D., chair of the environmental studies department at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, tells his readers that “the aesthetic standard for ecological design is to work so artfully as to cause no ugliness, human or ecological, somewhere else or at some later time.” With that well-stated goal, Orr and his assembled design team set out in 1996 to build the Adam Joseph Lewis Center, the first substantially green building on a college campus (see


Vol. 11, No. 7 and case study in BuildingGreen Suite).

Design on the Edge tells not only the story of the building and its challenges but also a larger story about the intersection of ecology, architecture, and education.

For Orr, ecological principles are central to every endeavor, including both architecture and education. The architectural connection he lays out is straightforward: we ought to use our knowledge of ecological systems to design buildings that do not harm the environment. Orr’s larger argument about education, however, is more complex and powerful. Education, he argues, must prepare young people to succeed not only in a human economy but also in the larger natural economy of ecological checks and balances. Buildings must serve this sort of education not only by fostering interdisciplinary interaction and good learning habits but also by operating as educational tools, offering feedback on building performance to occupants.

The Lewis Center was one attempt to create such a building. Orr’s tale of the building’s design and construction, well told and rich with human experience, serves as a vehicle for his larger point about the need for, and responsibility of, ecological design. That argument suffers a bit from the book’s length and desire to reach multiple audiences, but Orr’s passion for his subject and his dry wit make for a very enjoyable read.

Published March 6, 2007

Wendt, A. (2007, March 6). Design on the Edge: The Making of a High-Performance Building. Retrieved from

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