MUM’s Sustainable Living Center | Off the Grid and in the Green

A rendering of the proposed Sustainable Living Center at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, shows the central monitor running east to west on the roof, diverting sunlight into all rooms in the building.

Picture this. You’re teaching eager students of sustainability about the likes of energy-efficient day lighting, eco-friendly building materials, rooftop rainwater collection. Meanwhile, they sit in classrooms with no windows and work in labs with asbestos-lined fume hoods. Then they walk outside after a storm to see valuable rainwater gushing down gutters into storm sewers. It’s a prime example of what eco-designer David Orr says about college campuses: students hear one message but see a completely different one in the buildings they use.

And it isn’t long at all before these students start thinking, Wait a minute—something just doesn’t add up here.

They’re right, of course. And not just about the situation here, but everywhere. That’s why we have environmental problems like global warming, the depletion of once-vast fisheries, and hundreds of rural wells in Iowa with water too polluted to drink.

Environmentalism Doesn’t Cut it Anymore 

For about 30 years those problems were addressed by standard environmentalism. Yet, in some ways, this approach was itself a problem. Environmentalists were often seen as elitist, more worried about saving wilderness areas for yuppie hikers than helping low-income people living around toxic waste sites. They also tended to be confrontational, driving steel spikes into lumber-bound trees and challenging whaling ships with small boats. And their gloom-and-doom approach just seemed to be more problem oriented than solution oriented. All that led to the provocative 2004 essay by Nordhaus and Shellenberger on “The Death of Environmentalism.”

Well, maybe environmentalism isn’t dead, and to be fair, it did accomplish a lot. But it certainly seems to have lost its punch by clinging to somewhat misplaced priorities. It also lacks a compelling way to induce real change. Many people say they’re pro-environment but can’t be bothered even to switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Sustainability to the Rescue

Enter sustainability, the idea that we have to get smarter about managing our resources, so they’ll last indefinitely in a way that’s kind to the planet. Although sustainability’s overall goals are the same as those of environmentalism, it takes a much more egalitarian, cooperative, optimistic, and solution-oriented approach. And it has a street-smarts appeal so hot you can now Google “sustainable” followed by almost any noun and get a mother-earth lode of quality hits. Sustainable art. Sustainable weddings. Sustainable kitchens. Even sustainable funerals, for heaven’s sake!

Which explains why the Sustainable Living Program at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield has itself been such a hit. It’s grown from 6 students when it began in 2003 to around 50 now, and is the first of its kind to offer a four-year degree in sustainability. Its goal is to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to help design, build, and maintain sustainable communities. Unlike other environmental programs, it emphasizes the seamless integration of all areas of sustainability in the context of consciousness. As Einstein once noted, problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness at which they arose. In other words, green technologies and education alone are not enough. In order to take progress to the next level, you have to raise individual and collective consciousness, which is the specialty of Maharishi University of Management.

Now, About Those Windowless Classrooms . . .

Long overdue for improvement, the original buildings were designed to house science classes back when this campus was Parsons College. Thanks to an eco-gang of Sustainable Living majors (Sustainable Livers, we call them) led by faculty member Lonnie Gamble, students Robbie Gongwer and Troy Van Beek, and Sustainability Coordinator Mark Stimson, we’ve installed Sola-Tubes and skylights, converted a chemistry lab into a eco-projects workshop, and are well on our way to making this wing of the library-science building LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified.

That’s great, and we’ll continue to use this facility. But it isn’t enough. What we really need is a building that demonstrates what we’re teaching, one that will bring together more innovative and unique green building principles than can be found anywhere else.

A Building That Teaches

The Sustainable Living Center will have classrooms, a research laboratory, greenhouse, kitchen, workshop, covered east and west verandas (where classes can be held in good weather), a north porch,  offices, and restrooms. It will be off the grid with respect to electricity, heating, cooling, water, and waste treatment. That degree of self-sufficiency alone has rarely, if ever, been accomplished for a college campus building. And that’s just the start.

The building will also be constructed according to the principles of Maharishi Sthapatya Veda, which take into account orientation, proportion, and placement of rooms and entrances. The purpose of these ancient architectural principles is to bring the building into accord with subtle yet powerful laws of nature that enhance the health, prosperity, and well-being of its occupants.

But wait, there’s more. The Center will also be Building Biology compliant. This architectural concept comes from Germany (where it’s called Bau-biologie) and is concerned mainly with the effects of buildings on human health. It thus specifies non-toxic building materials, elimination of water buildup in the walls that encourages molds and spores, and handling of electrical lines and appliances to eliminate potentially harmful electromagnetic radiation.

And still more. The purpose of the “monitor” you see running east and west in the illustration is to direct sunlight into all rooms of the building, even the restrooms in the center. Many studies have shown that natural daylighting results in improved learning for students as well as better work efficiency.

And yet more. The building will qualify for platinum LEED certification, which means it will meet a stringent list of eco-friendly design criteria set by the U.S. Green Building Council. Impressive as it sounds, that’s almost an afterthought for the Center, not only because of all its other features but also because it will be a “living” building. That designation, also set by the USGBC (in conjunction with the Cascadia Region Green Building Council), means it will meet performance measures regarding site, materials, energy, indoor quality, water, and beauty and inspiration. Together, these criteria ensure that a building gives back to the environment more than it takes from it.

A Regional Resource

As exemplary as the Sustainable Living Center will be, its value will not be confined to the students who take courses there. It will also be a regional resource for home owners and building professionals to see how well these features work together, and not just by visual inspection.  Sensors installed throughout the building will record and archive environmental performance parameters that anyone can follow on a continuing real-time website. In addition, research on green building materials and methods will be conducted in the research laboratory.

We fully expect this extraordinary building to help put Fairfield on the map as a center of environmental building design that will attract many visitors. Mike Nicklas, of Innovative Design in Raleigh, North Carolina, says that the Solar Center, a far less novel environmental building he designed in Raleigh, has attracted 300,000 visitors over the last 25 years. For that reason, building suppliers—who rightly recognized its advertising potential—donated two-thirds of the  materials and systems used in its construction.

So far, we’ve completed a feasibility study, a schematic design, a costing study, and an independent MAI appraisal. The building is appraised at $2 million, but with the help of donated cash, building supplies, labor, and an investment strategy that makes use of a 501c3 appreciated asset donation to a non-profit, we expect to build it for about half that.  Donors of all kinds will be acknowledged prominently in the building itself, including explanations of products and systems and how they are green, sustainable, or energy efficient.

Altogether, this extraordinary building will be a community model for more environmental, energy-efficient, and healthy building principles than have ever been assembled in a single campus building. It simply has no equal at any college or university anywhere

You Can Help!

Please join us in making the Sustainable Living Center a reality by contributing building materials, labor, or funding. Tax deductible donations may be made to Maharishi University of Management Sustainable Living Center Project. Contact David Fisher at