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Oberlin College Environmental Studies Building (Ohio, USA)

Credits: EERE/DOE


The Oberlin College community had a vision for their Center for Environmental Studies: it would be more than just a classroom building. It would generate all of its own energy, sharing its surplus with the community.

The design team, led by Prof. David Orr, sought to create a building that would teach:

•Students - to experience a continuum of learning, from collaborating on design choices to technology selection and systems monitoring

•Faculty - as early adopters of exciting new technology, faculty can participate in ongoing research and evaluation activities that enhance their knowledge and academic credentials

•Local schools - gain a heightened awareness of what's possible and inspiration for future generations to work toward a more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly world

•The larger community - the building embodies sustainable development principles and serves as a model of sustainability for universities and professionals worldwide.


Oberlin Env Studies at Night

All of the fixtures and systems from the lighting, the plumbing, the air-conditioning are energy efficient and passive whenever possible in Oberlin College's Environmental Studies building. Evelyn Lee

Outcome: The Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin is carbon neutral and produces a surplus of solar electricity that is shared with the town of Oberlin. The Center has proven to be a major asset to the Oberlin College community: •Students and faculty have become integrally engaged in the ongoing evaluation of existing building technologies, and in planning future development projects •They are active participants in a living laboratory of sustainability: gardens, wastewater systems, data monitoring, and creating new projects all contribute to an environment of dynamic, hands-on learning •Professionals and educators from all over the globe have joined Oberlin in a larger dialogue on environmental issues, enriching the college community and helping to further define its global sustainability mission.

Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies--Oberlin College (Oberlin College Lewis Center) 

•Location: Oberlin, OH
•Building type(s): Campus, Higher education, Library, Assembly
•New construction
•13,600 sq. feet (1,260 sq. meters)
•Project scope: 2-story building
•Completed January 2000 Although the building opened for classes in 2000, modifications continue as the energy performance of the building is studied and is better understood. The building is part of an academic program and consequently has experimental aspects to it that are being evaluated. In addition, improvements will be made as new technologies become available.
•Rating: Green Building Challenge Rating: Zero Energy Building

The Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies is located on the Oberlin College campus in Oberlin, Ohio. It houses classroom and office space, an auditorium, a small environmental studies library and resource center, a wastewater-purification system in a greenhouse, and an open atrium. Environmental Aspects Upon initiation of the project, Professor David Orr asked three questions that continue to serve as a guiding philosophy for the Lewis Center:
•Is it possible—even in Ohio—to power buildings by current sunlight?
•Is it possible to create buildings that purify their own wastewater?
•Is it possible to build without compromising human or environmental health somewhere else or at some later time?

The hope remains that the building not only serve as a space in which to hold classes, but also, according to Orr, "help to redefine the relationship between humankind and the environment."

Owner & Occupancy
•Owned and occupied by Oberlin College, Corporation, nonprofit
•Typically occupied by 80 people, 60 hours per person per week A variety of courses both within and outside the Environmental Studies program are taught in the Center's classrooms and auditorium. The building is also used regularly for guest lectures, presentations, banquets, student organization meetings, Quaker meetings, informal gatherings, and study space. Occupancy estimate assumes three classrooms at 25 students for 5 hours per weekday plus use of offices, resource center, auditorium and atrium. Summer use is usually restricted to 10 people for 40 hours per week.

Building Programs
Indoor Spaces: Public assembly (65%), Lobby/reception (30%), Classroom (30%), Other (10%), Office (10%), Restrooms (5%), Mechanical systems (5%), Electrical systems
Outdoor Spaces: Interpretive landscape (80%), Restored landscape (50%), Garden—productive (35%), Wildlife habitat (30%), Patio/hardscape (20%), Garden—decorative (15%), Parking (10%), Drives/roadway (5%), Pedestrian/non-motorized vehicle path (5%)


Current Sunlight
An original goal for the building was that it be a net energy exporter within 10 years, operating only on "current sunlight," as opposed to sunlight stored in the form of coal or oil. An extensive photovoltaic (PV) array, coupled with energy-efficient design and technologies, was employed to begin to address this goal.

More than 4,000 ft2 of monocrystalline PV panels cover the south-facing roof of the Lewis Center and are connected to the Ohio power grid. When the PV panels produce more energy than is needed by the Lewis Center, excess power is donated to the local utility, supplanting some coal-fired power production. When the Lewis Center demands more energy than the PV panels can supply, the center purchases power from the utility.

Because PV cells produce energy in the form of electricity, the entire building was designed to operate on electricity in anticipation of the day when all energy used at the Lewis Center will be produced on site.

Although the system has a theoretical maximum output of 60 kW, realized peak has been around 45 kW. Between March 2001 and March 2002, the PV system produced 53% of the building's energy demands. The goal remained for the building to be a net energy exporter, creating more energy than it uses over the course of a year.

In June of 2006, another 100 kW PV system was installed over the parking lot adjacent to the Lewis Center. Before this additional PV system was installed, the average annual energy use over the last 6 years was 32.2 kBtu/ft2/yr. Past performance suggests that with the addition of the new parking lot array the building will, indeed, achieve the designers’ goal of becoming a net exporter of electricity; with no further changes in technology or management it appears that the Center will produce greater than 110% of its annual electricity consumption.

Energy Efficiency
Energy-efficient design measures include a long east-west orientation, a south-facing curtain wall, and optimally placed windows to maximize daylighting and solar heat gain; thermal mass through concrete floors and exposed masonry walls that help to retain and reradiate heat; and advanced glazing and insulation.

Lewis Center materials were chosen with an eye toward their insulating capacities. The atrium windows are triple-paned, argon-filled, and coated with a low-e glaze, resulting in little unwanted heat transfer (US R-value of 7). An earth berm on the north wall of the building combines with a well-insulated ceiling and walls to further prevent heat loss (building envelope US R-value of 13).

Closed-loop geothermal wells fulfill most heating and cooling demands in the Lewis Center. Supplementary radiant coils heat the atrium as needed.

Energy-efficient technologies include occupancy sensors and photoelectric daylight sensors to control lighting, carbon dioxide sensors and automated operable windows to control ventilation, window shades, and energy-efficient light fixtures resulting in a 0.9 watt per ft2 lighting load.

Real-time energy information, including a comparison of PV energy production to energy use, can be viewed on the Oberlin College Web site.

View the "Post-occupancy" section of the Process page to read about energy-related improvements that have already been made, as well as the evolution of the Lewis Center.

Data Sources & Reliability

Utility bills
End uses and PV output from the roof based on end use monitoring averaged over 6 years, from June 2001 to March 2007. PV in parking lot based on measured performance for the first 10 months of operation, and extrapolated to an annual number.
Data available on the Lewis Center's website at www.oberlin.edu/ajlc and as reported in John Petersen’s 2006 American Solar Energy Society Paper “Production and Consumption of Electricity in Oberlin College’s Lewis Center for Environmental Studies: Realizing the Goal of a Net Zero Building” Green Strategies •Wall Insulation ◦Achieve a whole-wall R-value of 15 or greater •Daylighting for Energy Efficiency ◦Use south-facing windows for daylighting ◦Orient the floor plan on an east-west axis for best use of daylighting ◦Locate frequently used areas on the south side of the building ◦Use atrium for daylighting ◦Use large exterior windows and high ceilings to increase daylighting ◦Use large interior windows to increase daylighting penetration •Non-Solar Cooling Loads ◦Use operable windows ◦Make a high internal thermal mass building •Interior Design for Light ◦Use light colors for surfaces and finishes •Photovoltaics ◦Use a photovoltaic (PV) system to generate electricity on-site ◦Arrange for sale of excess electricity into the grid •Light Sources ◦Use LED or other super-efficient exit signs •High-performance Windows and Doors ◦Use superwindows with a whole-unit U-factor less than 0.25 (greater than R-4.0) •Air Infiltration ◦Perform blower door testing •Lighting Controls ◦Use on/off photoelectric daylight sensors ◦Use occupancy sensors ◦Use dimming switches •HVAC Distribution Systems ◦Consider using an access floor system •Roof Insulation ◦Achieve a whole-roof R-value of 25 or greater

More Information in EERE Buildings Database

Oberlin's Website for This Building

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  Oberlin College Environmental Studies Building (Ohio, USA) (498 kb)

  Oberlin College Env Ctr Case Study (1,505 kb)


Oberlin College Center for Environmental Studies